Women bishops are ‘further obstacle’ to unity

Before he announced the result of the Church of England’s General Synod vote on July 14, the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, called for “restraint and sensitivity.” Like everyone else at the university campus in the north of England where the synod was meeting, he knew how long it had taken to get there, how at the previous vote, in November 2012, the move to ordain women as bishops had been derailed by being just six votes short of the required two-thirds in the House of Laity, one of three Houses (the others are Clergy and Bishops) that make up the Church of England’s “parliament.”

Yet once the vote was announced after five weary hours of debate — 152 in favor, 45 against, with five abstentions — Archbishop Sentamu couldn’t stop the whoops and cheers, or the bottles of champagne being uncorked outside. If, in one sense, the Church of England was only catching up with the 80 million-strong Anglican Church worldwide, where in the United States, New Zealand, Canada, Southern Africa, India and Ireland 37 women bishops have been consecrated, no one doubts the significance of the mother Church of Anglicanism going the same way.

For those who saw this issue in terms of equality, this was the end of a road that began in the early 1900s, when women’s ordination began to be talked about as part of the suffragette movement. But not until the 1970s did the first Anglicans — the Episcopal Church in the United States — take the first step; and even though the General Synod declared in 1975 that “there is no fundamental objection to the ordination of women to the priesthood,” it took until 1994 for the Church of England to have its first women priests.

Challenges of decision

Having taken that decision — which led to an exodus of close to 500 Anglican priests becoming Roman Catholics — it was inevitable that women bishops would be next: currently 1 in 5 priests in the Church of England are female, and about 20 of them are in a position to be ordained as bishops. But getting to that point has been fraught.

Unlike the Anglican Church elsewhere in the world, the Church of England is tied to the British state by establishment, seeing itself a national umbrella under which both Catholic and the Reformed traditions can coexist. Because bishops are in charge of dioceses, the challenge has been to develop structures of governance that allow those who object to a female episcopate — conservative evangelicals, as well as Anglo-Catholics — to continue in integrity as Anglicans. The new legislation, much simpler than previous tortuous attempts, commits bishops to respect and care for dissenters, with an independent ombudsman to resolve disputes.

A roadblock for unity

The other reason it has taken so long is that both supporters and opponents of the move have been aware of its implications for relations between the churches. That became clear in 2008, when the General Synod voted to consecrate women bishops without providing alternative structures of oversight for traditionalists, and Anglo-Catholic bishops left the synod hall in tears.

At the Lambeth Conference — when the worldwide Anglican Church meets — later that year, Cardinal Walter Kasper, who at that time headed the Vatican’s Christian unity council, was blunt. He said papal teaching was clear that the Church has no authority to ordain women, that doing so would turn Anglicans away from the common position of the Churches of the First Millennium, and that consecrating women as bishops “effectively and definitively blocks a possible recognition of Anglican orders by the Catholic Church.”

Cardinal Kasper was telling Anglicans, in effect, that they had to choose between the understanding of the episcopate held by the Catholic and Orthodox tradition on the one hand, or by the Reformed Churches on the other.

For many Anglicans, who see themselves as incorporating both traditions, that choice has been painful. But it has been made easier by a second exodus of Anglo-Catholic priests who in 2008 reached the painful conclusion that, with women bishops on the horizon, there was no longer any point in hoping for their orders to be recognized by Rome.

After the Lambeth Conference, Anglo-Catholic bishops went to the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in Rome to begin the talks that led the following year to a new canonical structure, akin to a diocese, that allows Anglicans to become Catholics as groups, with their clergy, while retaining many liturgical traditions.

Committed to dialogue

The idea for a uniate-type structure for ex-Anglicans within the Catholic Church had been rejected back in the 1980s by Rome for fear it would destroy hope of corporate unification held out at that time by the official Anglican-Catholic dialogue. The ordinariate signaled to both Catholic-minded Anglicans and Rome that unity was no longer achievable in practice, even if it remains, officially, the objective of Rome’s talks with all the churches.

“The goal of ecumenical dialogue continues to be full visible ecclesial communion,” insisted Archbishop Bernard Longley, chairman of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), following the July vote. Yet because “full ecclesial communion embraces full communion in the episcopal office,” he added, the Church of England’s decision “sadly places a further obstacle on the path to this unity between us. Nevertheless, we are committed to continuing our ecumenical dialogue, seeking deeper mutual understanding and practical cooperation wherever possible.”

“Practical cooperation” is now the main focus of Catholic-Anglican dialogue. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has a warm relationship with Pope Francis, and the two Churches are working together both nationally and internationally on a host of issues, among them human trafficking.

Following the synod vote, Archbishop Welby wrote to Pope Francis and Orthodox leaders to persuade them not to withdraw that cooperation, arguing that there is more that unites the Churches than divides them and that they should not let differences over issues such as women bishops prevent them standing together on major global questions.

Nor will it. A woman bishop (a Canadian suffragan) already sits on ARCIC, and when they are ordained, Church of England women bishops are as likely to be received with ecumenical courtesy as their male counterparts. After all, Leo XII’s famous papal decree of 1896, Apostolicae Curae, which declares Anglican orders invalid for all time, has not prevented warm relations between Catholic and Anglican leaders before now, and it applies equally to men and women.

Austen Ivereigh is a British Catholic journalist, commentator and director of Catholic Voices (www.catholicvoices.org.uk).