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Three reasons against the Measure

09 November 2012

The debate on women bishops has not been conducted satisfactorily, argues Peter Forster


Like this: the Rt Revd Mary Gray-Reeves and (right) Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, from the Episcopal Church in the US

Like this: the Rt Revd Mary Gray-Reeves and (right) Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, from the Episcopal Church in the US

In the current diversity and complexity of Anglicanism, it is easy to feel in a minority of one. I have joyfully ordained women as priests throughout my episcopate, but I am unconvinced by the present proposals to open the episcopate to women, for three reasons, which I have hardly heard articulated in the current exchanges.

The first is the conduct of the debate. For many advocates of women bishops, it has seemed as if there isn't really anything to debate at all. Once you have women priests, admitting women to the episcopate is inevitable. This is a central plank in the Archbishop of Canterbury's thinking, judging from his article in this newspaper (Comment, 19 October). Earlier, he had spoken of the "affront" of having a class of priests who are not eligible to become bishops.

The difficulty with this argument is that it closes down the discussion. I recall in the 1980s, the Anglo-Catholic Bishop of Jarrow, the Rt Revd Michael Ball, saying to me that he could disagree with the then Bishop of Durham, Dr David Jenkins, but have an intelligent discussion with him about any issue - except the ordination of women. Dr Jenkins could not respect any argument against it.

I was astonished that, in the recent reference to the dioceses, it was thought reasonable to ask diocesan synods to vote on the proposals without sight of even a draft of the Code of Practice. This gave the reference to the dioceses a desultory air, with a superficial, almost "box-ticking" feel.

When the General Synod agreed to the ordination of women priests, it did not think that it was creating an affront. It recognised that other issues would be raised with women bishops, issues of sufficient seriousness to merit a separate Measure.

Second, we have not faced the impact that the present proposals will have on the underlying spiritual and theological coherence of the Church.

Immediately on the passage of the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure, the Act of Synod was introduced, which had the effect of endorsing within the life of the Church a recognition of impaired communion between bishops. The PEVs were created, with their uncertain sacramental fellowship with their fellow bishops.

At the admission of women to the episcopate, this will become much worse, effectively destroying the sacramental unity of the episcopate. This was the central point that Cardinal Kasper made when he came to the C of E College of Bishops, and later to the Lambeth Conference.

It is not only that bishops from neighbouring dioceses will not be in sacramental communion, but also those within a single diocese. There appears to be an anomaly in the legislation which has not been noticed: a diocesan bishop who does not recognise the sacramental orders of women bishops will nevertheless be under a legal obligation to consider female candidates for a vacant suffragan see, as he will not be able to derogate from the Equality Act.

Since the present process began about seven years ago, I have consistently argued that we were not yet ready to open the episcopate to women. Events this summer reinforced this view, in the unreal position that we have now reached: that replacing "is consistent with" by "respects" somehow changes everything.

Perhaps we have come to believe that, provided the necessary majorities can be achieved, the result must be in accordance with God's will. Of course, a two-thirds majority is a substantial test, but, given what is at stake, shouldn't we have the wisdom to wait until 80 per cent or more of the Church is in favour, and then proceed without the qualifications that are currently enshrined in the Measure and its prospective Code?

One of the key arguments that have been deployed against same-sex marriage is that it would change the meaning of marriage for everyone. My concern is that consecrating women into a qualified understanding of the episcopate will change the theology of episcopacy for everyone.

My third anxiety surrounds the ecumenical implications. Such concerns have been striking by their absence from the synodical debates in recent years. A curious exception was provided by a leading article in The Church of England Newspaper in July, which acknowledged the lasting prospective impact on relations with the Roman Catholic Church, but suggested that this would be outweighed by improved relations with the Methodist Church. Notwithstanding the importance of our relationship with the Methodist Church, this claim lacks credibility.

The absence of attention to the ecumenical aspects of the situation reflects the drift that has occurred in recent decades, from a vision of full visible unity to an essentially debased vision of reconciled diversity. In practice, reconciled diversity appears actually to mean unreconciled diversity.

The issues here are deep and difficult, and require the sort of patient and prayerful process that the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) has undertaken for more than 30 years. ARCIC has produced excellent reports on many of the questions that have historically divided Anglicans from Roman Catholics, including Mary, and papal authority, but it has never produced a report on the ordination of women. This can only strike one as astonishing. We have the bizarre situation that ARCIC has discussed most areas of disagreement between Anglicans and RCs, but has not discussed the biggest obstacle to unity between the two Churches.

The responsible way forward would be to take our positive experience of women priests (and of women bishops in other provinces) to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches in a deep and patient dialogue. Only after such a dialogue reached a final impasse could we in good conscience admit women to the episcopate in the Church of England, and face all the negative consequences in our relationship with the world communion from which Anglicanism originally emerged.

Senior figures in the Church have argued that to reject the Measure now would be disastrous. This is a poor argument, if the underlying proposal lacks wisdom. It is on a par with Sir Tony Baldry's claim that, unless we have women bishops, we are unlikely to retain bishops in the House of Lords. First and foremost, the credibility of the Church must be in the eyes of God, not the world.

For these reasons, I do not see that I can support the Measure on 20 November, notwithstanding the full support that I have always given, and will continue to give, to the ordination of women as deacons and priests.

Dr Forster is the Bishop of Chester.

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