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
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."
(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
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
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,
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
Christ as the high priest
of human salvation, head of redeemed humanity, and bridegroom of
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
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.
(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
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
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
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.
Rector of Christ Church,
Moss Side, Manchester
This is an edited extract
from an article published on 28 July 2010.