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A question of discernment

18 January 2013

This is something for the universal Church to decide, suggests Jonathan Baker

Male order: the Revd David Hayes, ordained priest by the then Bishop of Beverley in July 2010

Male order: the Revd David Hayes, ordained priest by the then Bishop of Beverley in July 2010

The gift of holy orders is one of God's great gifts to his Church. It is not merely a gift that enables the transmission of the gospel from one generation to the next, but is part of the gospel itself: in the words of the House of Bishops' introduction to the Common Worship ordinal, "Holy Orders help shape the Church around Christ's incarnation and work of redemption, handed on in the apostolic charge."

The House of Bishops, writing in 2007, continues in this text by setting out just how the Church of England has classically understood its ordained ministry within the context of the life of the universal Church. We read that the Church of England speaks of ordination to the office and work of a bishop, priest, or deacon "in the Church of God", and that the Church's ordained ministry is "one in continuous ministry wherever it has been established. . . [It] articulates and serves the Church's unity."

These statements (building, of course, on Anglican self-understanding in the Prayer Books of the 16th and 17th centuries, and present ever since) reinforce the teaching found in the Declaration of Assent, which still must be affirmed publicly by those about to be ordained bishop, that the Church of England is "part [my emphasis] of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church".

In keeping with the introduction to the Common Worship Ordinal, there is again that sense of Church of England's sharing in the life of something greater than itself; or, to borrow the language of Hebrews 1, bearing the very stamp of an identity deeper and richer than its own.

In ordaining women as priests, and preparing to ordain them as bishops, the Church of England has been careful to argue that it is not changing its understanding of the ordained ministry, but rather newly admitting women to that same ministry.

Nevertheless, it must be recognised that, in pursuing this development, the Church of England (alongside some, though a minority, of other provinces of the Anglican Communion) is doing something that has not, hitherto, characterised that "continuous ministry" to which the House of Bishops' 2007 statement refers.

It is this sense of a departure, not only from what has been received and held in common in every age, but from what also continues to embody the living tradition of the wider Church today, which has given our main ecumenical partners such cause for concern.

In its response to the 2004 report of the House of Bishops' Working Party on Women in the Episcopate (the Rochester report), the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales noted that "if the Church of England maintains that its bishops are also members of a worldwide college of bishops, which presumably includes Roman Catholic and Orthodox bishops, it may be difficult to justify making decisions about episcopacy in isolation from that wider college."

It further commented: "It has to be asked what it really means for Anglican bishops to belong to a wider college. . . The impression is given . . . that, despite that sense of wider membership, the only serious consideration given is to the current discernment of the Church of England in isolation."

This response from the Roman Catholic bishops tells us something about the kind of mutual discernment which might be involved in determining the rightness, or otherwise, of ordaining women to the episcopate.

The chairman of the working party, the then Bishop of Rochester, Dr Michael Nazir-Ali, has written more recently that, while he is not an "impossibilist" in the matter of women's ordination, "the question of universal consent is important. The Church of England, or even the Anglican Communion, cannot claim to share the ministry of the ancient Churches and then seek to change it unilaterally. There has to be at least permissive consent, if not uniformity of practice" (Standpoint magazine, Jan/Feb 2013).

Dr Nazir-Ali's comments sum up why many Anglicans, mindful of this lack of wider Catholic consent, cannot give their unqualified assent to the ordination of women as priests and bishops. It is not (as it is often misunderstood to be) a question of a mechanistic obedience to the jurisdiction of another Communion ("we must wait for Rome"), but rather of the discernment of the mind of Christ for his whole Church - whose DNA the Church of England bears, and whose faith and unity bishops of the Church of England are bidden at their consecration to guard and maintain.

The matter of Catholic consent does not only touch on the question of Anglican identity, but also, of course, on the forward search for the full visible unity of the one Church of Jesus Christ, to which the Church of England is wholly committed, and of which a common ministry serving a common table of the Lord is an intrinsic constituent part.

Cardinal Walter Kasper suggested to the House of Bishops of the Church of England in June 2006 that a decision to admit women to the episcopate would mean that "the older Churches of East and West would recognise therein much less of what they understand to be the character and ministry of the bishop in the sense understood by the Early Church and continuing through the ages."

Orthodox members of the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox dialogue likewise cautioned that the admission of women to the episcopate in the Church of England would be problematic, because it is "at the level of structure through the bishop" that Churches receive one another (from the agreed statement, The Church of the Triune God, 2006).

It is not the case, therefore - as is sometimes suggested - that the ordination of women to the episcopate (as well as to the priesthood) raises no new issues in ecumenical relations, nor that it puts no new obstacles on the road to full visible unity.

For those of us who must remain hesitant about giving our assent to the Church of England's decision to ordain women as priests, and, in due course, bishops, these convictions about unity and Catholicity inevitably bump up against other convictions around issues of equality and gender.

It is because, in this matter, these two conversations - one about the nature of the Church, one about the dignity of women and the equality of the sexes in the sight of God - have been held in parallel that our debates about the ordained ministry of women have acquired so many of the characteristics of a dialogue of the deaf.

Some - again, not all - in the Anglo-Catholic tradition would, at minimum, want to say that there is a conversation to be had about the maleness of Jesus in the context of the incarnation, or the marriage between Christ and the Church in the context of the risen life.

While it is, of course, true that it is the union of human and divine nature in Christ that is salvific (and salvific for all humanity, female and male), neither is the maleness of Jesus simply a matter of indifference in Christian revelation. It is by baptism that women and men alike are incorporated into Christ and made members of the Church; but the ordained ministry is not simply an extension of the common priesthood of the baptised. It belongs to a distinctive arena of the Spirit's gifts

Understood sacramentally, the ministerial priest (bishop or presbyter)

Christ as the high priest of human salvation, head of redeemed human­ity, and bridegroom of the Church.

Because this representation takes place within the order of sacramental signs - an order that includes the use of water in baptism, and bread and wine in the eucharist - there is a con­gruence between the sign (the ministerial priest) and the one sig­nified (Christ), which takes account of gender precisely because Christian anthropology understands gender to be intrinsic to human identity, and not simply accidental to it.

It would be good - within our own Church and ecumenically - to have the opportunity to do further thinking around these important issues. Christians differ about how to read the significance of gender difference for our understanding of the nature of the human person, and how (if at all) this affects our sacramental theology and our understanding of ministry.

In this contested arena, there must surely be a place worthy of an equal love and an equal respect within the Church of England for those whose obedience is to the tradition as the Church of England has received it, and which is upheld in our own era by those much larger Christian com­munions with whom we share the historic episcopate.

What "traditionalist" (for want of a better term) Anglo-Catholics seek is genuine space to receive and hand on a ministry patient of Catholic consent, in partnership with all in the Church of England, and so to bear witness both to that deeper identity, and to that forward traject­ory of unity for which the Lord prayed.

The Rt Revd Jonathan Baker is the Bishop of Ebbsfleet, and Bishop-designate of Fulham.


The problem for traditional Catholics in the Church of England is that we do not believe that, in ordaining women, the C of E is continuing the orders of bishops and priests as the Church has received them. By "Church" here, we mean the undivided Church of the past, together with the present-day Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, and a number of other Anglican provinces.

The ordination of women to the priesthood therefore initiated a process of reception in the Church of England and the wider Church. Reception is not a new concept in the history of the Church: it refers to the reception of the decisions of Councils of the Church by the whole people of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Because the C of E claims that her orders are those of the whole or universal Church (Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican), the new development in the ordination of women must be subject to reception by the whole Church. Otherwise, our Church's claim about her orders would be in jeopardy. Recognition of the need for reception underpinned theologically the provision that was made in 1992-93 for members of the Church of England not to receive the priestly ministry of women.

The introduction of women bishops would introduce a new phase into the process of reception, calling, theologically and practically, for provision for members of the C of E not to receive the episcopal ministry of women. According to Anglican ordinals, priests have to be ordained by bishops. Those who are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops cannot receive the ministry of those who have been ordained by women bishops, because ordination is an essentially episcopal ministry.

The problem then, particularly for lay traditionalists, would be how they can be sure that a priest presiding at the eucharist has been ordained by a male bishop, in a line of bishops and priests which is an explicit continuation of the orders of bishops and priests as the Church has received them. Without that assurance, they do not have the assurance of the grace of God in the sacrament.

This is not to denigrate the ministry of women priests, or to say that the grace of God is not present when they preside at the eucharist. But it is to say that the same sacramental assurance is not available when women preside at the eucharist, or ordain priests - because there is doubt that, in their ordination, the Church of England is continuing the Catholic orders of the universal Church.


Simon Killwick

Rector of Christ Church, Moss Side, Manchester

This is an edited extract from an article published on 28 July 2010.



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