ALTERNATIVE chrism masses for those who cannot accept women bishops are a consequence rather than a cause of division in the Church, and do not breach the principles in the House of Bishops’ Declaration on women bishops, an independent review has concluded.
The adjudication by Sir Philip Mawer, who was appointed by the Archbishops to consider grievances from those who are concerned that the principles are not being adhered to, was published last Friday. It followed a letter to him from Hilary Cotton, who chairs Women and the Church (WATCH), in April.
She argued that there was “no sacramental need” for the masses, which are presided over by bishops of the Society under the patronage of St Wilfrid and St Hilda, since chrism masses were already held in each diocese. Alternative masses were “a cause of much pain to clergy women and their supportive male colleagues, and an expression of division within the dioceses”.
They were “a thoughtless challenge to mutual flourishing”, she wrote, and they breached the first two principles of the Bishops’ Declaration. These state that those whom the Church has ordained are “the true and lawful holders” of the office, and that anyone who ministers in the Church must acknowledge that it has “reached a clear decision on the matter”.
Chrism masses are held on Maundy Thursday. Oils are blessed, and there is a focus on priests’ reaffirming their commitment to ministry. Attendance is not mandatory.
A response to the complaint was given to Sir Philip by the Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, on behalf of all the bishops who had recently presided at the masses. Bishop Robinson argued that they were “an essential part of the sacramental ministry of the bishops concerned to the clergy and people who have been placed by the House of Bishops’ Declaration under their oversight and care”.
He wrote that such priests did not feel able to participate fully in a chrism mass presided at by a bishop who ordained women as priests, with whom their communion was “less than ‘full’”. “The situation is, in different ways, painful for all. Our Chrism Masses reflect that reality; they are not the cause of it.”
He mentioned that some of the masses had been attended by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, by other bishops, and by ordained women, who were “robed and thanked for their presence”. Of the 16 masses celebrated this year, 13 were presided over by a bishop who was the diocesan, suffragan, or assistant bishop in the diocese concerned. It would be “usual practice” for the diocesan bishops to be informed in advance.
The letter from WATCH “seems to be predicated on the belief that female bishops and priests will only flourish if the flourishing of others is limited”, he wrote.
Sir Philip concluded that the masses did not breach the principles of the House of Bishops’ Declaration, provided that they took place “under the overall authority” of the diocesan bishop, who, he said, should be informed in advance. The alternative masses were “a consequence of the underlying division and of the pastoral arrangements the Church has thought it right to make for those who hold the minority view”.
But he emphasised that the “sense of hurt” noted by WATCH “should not be underestimated”, and suggested that it was “essential that they continue to be advertised and conducted wholly within the spirit of the House of Bishops’ Declaration, not that is as narrow gatherings of one embattled section within the Church but as outward-looking celebrations of what those present have to bring to the wider Church of England as well as to the Church catholic of which the Church of England is part.”
He welcomed suggestions from both Ms Cotton and Bishop Robinson that “a better way to discuss such things” be found.
The full text of the report is at www.churchofengland.org/media-centre
Chrism masses - Leader comment