On 14 July, the General Synod of the Church of England voted in favor of allowing women to become bishops. The measure had previously been rejected in 2012 by the Synod, the Church of England’s deliberative and legislative body composed of “houses” of bishops, clergy and laity, when it failed to gain the requisite two-thirds majority support from the laity.
This time, however, the reformers won, and Anglican history was made.
The Catholic response
As Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith pointed out in the Catholic Herald, this was the logical conclusion of the Church’s developments over many years: “If women can be deacons, then they can be bishops, and they have been deacons for over two decades. The Church of England has at last caught up with itself.”
But, as with female ordination to the diaconate and priesthood, the innovation runs counter to the notion of apostolic succession held dear by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Echoing the official response of the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, Lucie-Smith notes “the ordination of future priests is compromised if the ordaining prelate is female,” creating a new “and, in human terms, insurmountable” block to the reunification of the Western Churches.
In short, to British Catholics the ordination of women as bishops does not mark much of a new and principled split between Christians in the Church of England and the rest of the UK. It does, however, take the Church of England further down its own self-proclaimed “progressive” road—a path that, step by step, leads it away from the wider Church.
The Vatican’s response was also muted. “It is not creating a new reality for dialogue,” said the priest responsible for Anglican liaison on the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Whilst it was “significant” that the Church of England as the head of the worldwide Anglican Communion had changed its doctrine, other provinces of the Communion already have female bishops, particularly in North America.
Ecumenism is clearly harder, now, as there is ever-more to reconcile.
Not all Anglicans are happy with the measure either. The main compromise between 2012 and 2014 was in the addition of greater “safeguards” allowing parishes and Anglican priests to choose a different bishop—Provincial Episcopal Visitors, so-called “flying bishops”—if their territorial ordinary is a women. This will lead to further fragmentation and angst amongst Anglicans, who are now faced with potential referendums on which bishop their parish turns to. Evangelicals are also displeased, as, in the eyes of many, the Bible is clear on differentiating roles between men and women, and the “headship” of the former.
What was equally predictable as the Synod’s vote was the softly-softly response of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, the movement set up by Pope Benedict XVI in 2011 to allow Anglicans to enter into full communication with the Catholic Church while retaining much of their heritage and traditions. Mgr. Keith Newton, the Ordinariate’s head, invited disaffected Anglicans “considering their future” to attend “exploration days” that offer insight into Catholic Christian faith and worship.
In remains to be seen how many Anglicans—particularly Anglo-Catholics—will take up this appropriate and dignified offer, but the most challenging moment for Anglican reformers lies ahead, when the first female bishop is blessed and when she in turn ordains future Anglican ministers.
Proponents of female ordination fuse arguments drawn from Scripture with contemporary lines of thinking. Women feature prominently in the Bible, of course, but advocates point to the leadership of women like Mary Magdalene to claim a role for women more than as just role models (some of which they claim is supported by archaeological evidence). All four gospels agree Mary Magdalene was the first witness to the Resurrection, and St Paul commended to early Christians “our sister Pheobe, a deacon (diakonos) of the church at Cenchrea” (Romans 16:1), for instance.
Anglican supporters even draw comfort from the Pontifical Bible Commission. It concluded, in its 1976 report Can Women Be Priests?, that “it does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way and once and for all the problem of the possible accession of women to the presbyterate.” Supporters consider this a determination that there is no Biblical reason for prohibiting the ordination of women.
There appears to be evidence for gender equality in the Old and New Testaments, too. Quotes such as “Humankind was created as God’s reflection: in the divine image God created them, female and male, God made them” (Genesis 1:27) and “In Christ there is no Jew or Greek, slave or citizen, male or female. All are one in Christ Jesus” (Galations 3:28) bookend the Bible and are seized on as evidence that female ordination is a theologically valid progression.
Supporters also point to the practical need for increased female presence in today’s Church of England, where declining male ordinations force churches to close and parishes to merge. It is not a great leap to link the problem of a shrinking priesthood to the solution of feminism and gender equality, viewing the priesthood as merely another form of employment amongst many which has a disproportionately low number of females. After all, as Gaudium et Spes notes, “Every type of discrimination … based on sex … is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God’s intent” (paragraph 29).
Yet the practical arguments also seem the weakest. The Church of England is suffering a long and steady decline in the size of its congregations, requiring fewer priests, not more. And even then, the pool of potential candidates for the episcopacy is large enough without including female priests.
For all the talk of equality and inclusion, the fundamental counter-arguments, against female ordination to Holy Orders, whether deacon, priest or bishop, remain rooted in theology.
In a magisterial essay in 1993, against the backdrop of the visit of the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, to Rome, where he met with Pope John Paul II at the height of the debate over ordaining women to the Anglican priesthood, Michael Novak set out three theological bases for restriction of ordination to males.
Firstly, the liturgical role of the priest is present in his identity as the “representative of Jesus Christ, head of the community and bridegroom of His bride, the Church” in “the ancient order of priests descending from Melchizedek,” whereby “his being is ontologically marked with the priesthood forever.”
The fact is clear: the selected representative of the community for the worship-prayer of the people has been unmistakeably and deliberately differentiated by gender. And the ground of this selection has been canonically and with all due solemnity codified as a gift given solely to (relatively few) males.
His duties regarding liturgy clearly set the priest apart from other forms of leadership in the Church. Lest the reader be unclear about this, Novak drives the point home with a discursus on what he calls “the rules of concrete flesh” or “consistency … with the metaphors of gender through which … God has chosen to reveal Himself both in the Scriptures and in the long tradition of theological reflection.” This is instanced in the doctrine of the Trinity, the relationship between Father and Son, the prayer to “Our Father,” the Incarnation—all of which tie-in closely and directly with the masculinity of the priest:
One cannot easily imagine in the Christmas narrative the First Person of the Trinity being represented as “God the Mother,” inseminated by a human male. It is mystery enough that a human female, Mary, “conceived of the Holy Spirit,” one with the Father, should bear a human-divine Son. But in this case the humanness of the Son is given concrete meaning. The Son of God is born from the womb of a human mother, nursed by her, brought up by her as other sons are brought up by their mothers. In this respect, the Catholic priest, male as he has always been, is an effortlessly symbolic representative of “the Son of God,” bringing before His Father His bride, the Catholic people.
Finally, God chose to reveal Himself via a son, a fact that cannot be wished away by female episcopacies:
He could have come in female flesh, as Daughter, but He did not; He chose to come in male flesh, as Son. To be sure, mystery surrounds this choice, as it does all human conceptions of and language about God’s actions in history. This mystery offers fertile, and no doubt fruitful, grounds for wonder, awe, and meditation. But there can be no doubt about the fact.
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is approaching in a few years’ time, and the tussle over female bishops is a salient reminder what divergence has occurred. The Anglican rejection of apostolic succession, the Petrine promise and the hierarchy is brought to the fore by the decision to consecrate women. The substance of the decision to consecrate women is, perhaps, less relevant than the process by which it was made: democracy over authority, modernity over tradition.
Editor’s note: The image above pictures Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral on May 3 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Anglican decision to ordain women. (Photo credit: John Stillwell / PA wire)