The Church of England has reached an impasse over the issue of women bishops. As conservatives blame the liberals and liberals blame the conservatives – and both blame the bishops – might a candid friend suggest that they would be more honest if they blamed themselves?
On 11 November 1992, the General Synod gave the required two-thirds majority to the decision to ordain women as priests. There were three hostages to fortune given that day. The first was to suppose a theological issue could be settled by such a majority as that. Not long before, the issue of unity with the Methodists had required a 75 per cent majority, which it failed to get. Two-thirds was chosen simply because the pro-women-priests side felt it could be achieved.
Secondly, the assumption was made that the issue of the consecration (i.e. ordination) of women bishops could be postponed to another day. Anything that might have alarmed the waverers was removed. Indeed, even this minimalist proposal was only secured by a margin of two votes, and there were more than that number of abstentions. But in the apostolic tradition, the priesthood is a unity. Priests exercise their ministry with their bishop; bishops with their priests. Theologically, one follows from the other. It is the attempt to separate them that is now coming unstuck, for the theological unity of the ordained ministry is deeply embedded in the Church of England’s structure, where it has survived since before the Reformation.
Thirdly, the two-thirds requirement guaranteed that up to a third of the Church would withhold its assent. The solution was to give the minority what was, in effect, their own Church-within-a-Church, with its own bishops who would not themselves ordain women (dubbed flying bishops because in effect they flew in when episcopal ministry was needed, and then flew out again).
This had two consequences. It meant abandoning any attempt to achieve a better consensus, to bring the Church to one mind on the matter. The Church proper and the Church-within-a-Church were henceforth destined to be rival and mutually incompatible versions of Anglican orthodoxy. It also implied that there was, in conservative eyes at least, a fundamental flaw in the episcopal credentials of any bishop who had ordained women, a ‘taint’.
By voting for the flying-bishop proposal as part of the minimalist package, furthermore, the liberal majority had colluded in this theology of taint, whether they meant to or not.
But it is not a doctrine known to the Catholic and apostolic tradition, to which the Church of England has pledged to be faithful. Nor is it biblical. It is a toxic novelty. Nowhere in the tradition is it written that a parish may excommunicate its own bishop and opt for another one, which is what the flying bishops idea amounts to. If a parish decided to reject the ministry of the local bishop if that bishop was female, it could arguably question her orders. But to reject it because a (male) bishop had, at least once, ordained a woman priest is contrary to the necessary (and Catholic) principle of ex opere operato – that the validity of a sacramental ministry is independent of the worthiness of the office-holder.
So the pro-women-priests majority may have set up this untenable situation by their eagerness to scrape up a two-thirds majority. But the anti-women-priests minority then made a grievous error by embracing the theology of episcopal taint that the flying bishops solution implied, contrary to the Catholic tradition. Henceforth they were sitting on a time bomb. If the Church decided to follow the logic of 11 November 1992 and ordain women as bishops, the minority’s position would become hopeless. Bishops often participate in each other’s consecrations: ‘taint’ would become a sort of theological virus, transmitted by the laying on of hands. Sooner or later, none would be untainted.
The measure to ordain women bishops was adjourned by the General Synod this week because it entitled parishes by law to choose a bishop of the pure kind if their local diocesan bishop is tainted (or even more so, if the local bishop is female). The objection was made that this is deeply insulting to women priests and to any woman subsequently chosen as a bishop. So it may be, but this is an issue that is better dealt with by rigorous theological analysis than by indignant rhetoric.
Theological chickens have a habit of coming home to roost. The next step forward therefore needs to be a step back, to examine afresh what happened on 11 November 1992. And to be honest about – wherever that may lead.
Clifford Longley is an Editorial Consultant to The Tablet. He is a journalist who has been a religious affairs specialist since 1972, for The Times for 20 years and then until 2000 for the Daily Telegraph.