CATHEDRALS should state, on request, who is presiding at the eucharist, so that those who are unable to accept the sacramental ministry of women can make an informed decision about attendance, the Independent Reviewer, Sir William Fittall, has ruled.
To refuse to do so “risks discourtesy and a lack of generosity”, and gives “insufficient weight” to the Five Guiding Principles, he writes in his report, published this week.
The report considers the case of Dennis Belk, a regular worshipper at Wakefield Cathedral. In a letter to the Dean and the Bishop of Wakefield, sent in October, he expressed concern that, within a week of the Dean’s installation, the practice of publishing in advance the names of celebrants, on the cathedral notice-sheet, had been stopped.
He also explained that he was the third generation of his family to worship at the cathedral, which was also his parish church. He did not attend the eucharist when a woman was due to celebrate.
In his response, the Dean of Wakefield, the Very Revd Simon Cowling, argued: “Removing the names of those . . . who are to preside at a particular service helps to make the point that it is our offering of the eucharist that is central, rather than the particular individual who is presiding.”
He continued: “All the clergy at the cathedral — male and female — will continue to offer you a warm welcome and that your prayerful presence at the eucharist will be valued whether or not you feel able to receive communion.”
The Bishop of Wakefield, the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, who chairs Forward in Faith, wrote in reply to Mr Belk: “I entirely understand and share your concern about the change of practice at Wakefield Cathedral, which would affect me in the same way that it affects you. . . Unfortunately, the Dean and Chapter seem determined to carry on with the new practice.”
Mr Belk raised his concern with the Independent Reviewer on 5 November.
In his report, Sir William sets out his intent to arrive at a decision in the light of the Five Guiding Principles, which were set out in the House of Bishops Declaration that accompanied the Women Bishops Measure.
The issues lying behind Mr Belk’s expression of concern were “at root, about mutual flourishing”. It is “not an easy question to answer”, he suggests. “If someone does want to know who is to preside in order to avoid attending when the celebrant is to be a female priest, that can feel like facilitating discrimination and encouraging a theological view which the majority in the Church of England do not share.”
Yet “knowing who is to preside at a particular holy communion service does matter a good deal to those who are part of the minority within the Church of England which, on theological grounds, is unable to receive the sacramental ministry of women priests.”
In his response to Sir William, the Dean argued that not publishing the names “affords more, not fewer, opportunities for those of different convictions to flourish in space that is shared, as it mitigates any temptation not to attend a particular eucharist on the grounds that the president is a woman”.
He had received no other complaints, and all of his Chapter colleagues supported the decision. He argued that, “if someone feels unable to receive communion from a person presiding at the eucharist, that is a matter of great sadness, but I would hope that such a person would still feel able to participate prayerfully to the extent that they are able. In the end, however, if someone chooses to exclude themselves, there it little I can do.”
Sir William concluded that Dean Cowling had not given “sufficient weight” to two points. “First, as those of us who have attended mass at a Roman Catholic church, and, out of deference for their rules, not received communion, it is a painful matter for a Christian to attend a celebration of the eucharist and not receive the sacrament. . . If the House of Bishops’ encouragement of mutual flourishing means anything it must mean that there is a duty not to cause pain where it can be avoided. . .
“Secondly, openness and transparency are generally to be preferred in dealings between Christians. . . It is very hard to identify any obvious reason why cathedral duty rotas should, in the normal course of events, be confidential.”
The approach “risks discourtesy and a lack of generosity”, he said. “And towards someone who has been and wishes to remain a member of a cathedral community, does not show sufficient pastoral sensitivity. . .
“It is not, in my view, sufficient to imply that, if Mr Belk chooses to exclude himself, that is a matter for him. He has been a longstanding member of the cathedral community (notwithstanding the presence for some time of female priests in the Chapter whose pastoral ministry he has valued), and has signalled his preference to be a regular worshipper there once again. . .
“To expect someone whose theological conviction does not enable him to receive the sacramental ministry of women routinely to turn up to a celebration of holy communion when he cannot discover in advance whether he will be able to receive communion seems to me to be asking too much.”
His analysis should not apply to parish churches, he said. First, cathedrals, unlike parishes, cannot pass resolutions under the Declaration; second, there exists a disparity in resources.
The routine publication in advance must remain for the judgement of the Dean and Chapter, he concludes. It should not, however, “be regarded as confidential information. . . Reciprocity and mutuality mean that the majority and minority need to avoid putting stumbling blocks in the way of each other, or giving offence: members of Chapter need to act with generosity, forbearance, and pastoral sensitivity to any cathedral worshippers — especially regular members of the cathedral community — who are unable, on grounds of theological conviction, to receive the sacramental ministry of women priests; similarly, the latter need to show respect to all Chapter clergy and seek to maintain the highest possible degree of communion.”