Church of England synod vote leaves Anglo-Catholics with difficult choice

It was a narrow vote when it came, but no one doubted that it was decisive. 

Last month’s Church of England synod meeting in the northern city of York rejected special provisions for opponents of women bishops, a decision that was made in the face of pleas from the Church’s two most senior bishops, who had proposed that Anglo-Catholics and conservative evangelicals could be exempt from the authority of a female bishop once the ordination of women to the episcopate is approved in two years’ time. 

But the move by Archbishop Rowan Williams of Canterbury and Archbishop John Sentamu of York failed after it was voted down by just five votes by the House of Clergy, one of the three synod houses (the other two are bishops and laity) that make up the Church of England’s parliament. 

The vote was a further signal that opinion within the Church of England has shifted sharply against opponents of female bishops — and for good theological reasons. What the archbishops were proposing would have effectively created a second-class episcopate — female bishops who would not be given the authority of male bishops — which is hard to reconcile with the premise of gender equality that lies behind women’s ordination. But by acquiescing to the logic of a theological principle — women as bishops must have the full authority of male bishops — the Church was sacrificing another, long-standing principle of Anglicanism, that disagreements about its identity need to be accommodated through compromise. 

Feelings of betrayal 

For Catholic-minded Anglicans, the decision spells the end of that idea: the Church of England is, essentially, Protestant, and other views of it cannot be accommodated to the point of challenging that idea. 

The synod’s decision, one Anglo-Catholic priest told Our Sunday Visitor, “reduces toward vanishing point the possibility that the Church of England will continue to have any place for Catholic Christians.” 

Anglo-Catholics feel betrayed. The 1,000-odd priests who belong to the Forward in Faith movement point to the reassurances they were given in 1994, when the Church chose to ordain women as priests. They were told, at the time, that the Catholic view of Anglicanism remained legitimate and theologically respectable. 

“That promise was not given in earnest, and has now been rescinded,” the priest told OSV. The bishop who leads Forward in Faith, John Broadhurst, compared the synod decision to discovering that “your mother is not your mother. Like you have been deceived.”

Theological struggles 

When Pope Benedict XVI in October allowed Anglican traditionalists to be received into communion with Rome via an “ordinariate” — a quasi-diocese, comparable in canon law to a military vicariate — that would allow them to retain their liturgies and traditions, the offer was greeted cautiously in the Church of England. Anglo-Catholics generally agreed not to consider the option until Easter, as they waited to see how far a synod in February would move toward a definite decision to ordain women as bishops. 

When that synod cleared the path to legislation in two years’ time, the Anglo-Catholics said they would await the outcome of the July 9-13 General Synod in order to see how far, if at all, the Church was willing to allow separate structures of authority. Now they must decide whether to remain in the Church of England or to cross the Tiber, either corporately (through the ordinariate) or individually. 

But it would be wrong to assume — as many news reports have done — that the synod decision will lead to an “exodus” of Catholic traditionalists. For a start, two years remain before the legislation is enacted that will result in the first female bishop. 

The decision, in other words, does not have to be made immediately. But more significant is the complexity of the decision itself — both practically and theologically. 

Anglo-Catholics have struggled for more than 100 years to reconcile the separation of the Church of England from the universal Church with their conviction that sacramentally they were united with it. 

Anglo-Catholic priests believe that their orders are valid, despite the papal bull of 1896 declaring them to be “null and void.” Being received into communion by Rome would mean submitting to the idea that Rome had been right all along. The ordinariate, while welcome, does little to sweeten this pill. 

“The ordinariate is a sign of love, of the affection which Benedict XVI seems genuinely to feel for Anglicans,” the priest told OSV. “But the pain I would feel in admitting that the Church of England cannot ever have been part of the true Church would be exacerbated by buying into a church within a church — in other words, undermining my sacramental union with the one true Church by buying into a fresh institutional separateness.” 

The ordinariate, he said, “is very small beer compared to the grief of abjuring our orders, and our decades of sacraments received.”

Practical considerations 

Just as important are the “practical” considerations — the pastoral care of parishes and congregations, the salaries and vicarages, and the status of the vicar in English life. The ordinariate eases the decision in those cases where the parishioners are of the same mind as their priest, but these are rare.  

Some of those vicars remain determined to continue to press their case, worried that a decision to cross the Tiber now will empty the synod of opponents when the final legislative hurdle is crossed in 2012. Few believe there is much chance of affecting that decision. But the sense that they are betraying the cause for which they have fought for so long will not easily disappear. Others hope — against all the odds — that while there is nothing now to impede the ordination of women bishops, the betrayal by the synod of the Church’s 1994 reassurances will play badly in the parishes, leading to further delays in enacting the legislation. Some, in other words, want to continue to play synod politics.  

Most know that there is now little point, but that doesn’t mean an exodus to Rome as much as a slow dribble. An application to the bishops of England and Wales for the establishment of an ordinariate is likely to be made soon; a small number of parishes will choose to join it, while others will hold back, waiting on their experience. Most will continue to wrestle in conscience with very difficult choices.  

Austen Ivereigh writes from England.

Influential Visit (sidebar)

The ordinariate of England and Wales, when it is set up, is almost certain to bear the name of Cardinal John Henry Newman, whose Sept. 19 beatification Pope Benedict XVI will preside at a park outside Birmingham, close to the spot where the great 19th-century convert was buried. 

The pope’s Sept. 16-19 visit to England and Scotland is likely to have a considerable impact on the choices Anglo-Catholics face. The sight of him greeting the queen, and praying with the archbishop of Canterbury at the tomb of St. Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, will do more for Anglicans to imagine themselves as Roman Catholics than perhaps anything since the famous meeting of Archbishop Robert Runcie and Pope Paul VI. The sight of the popemobile in Parliament Square or of Pope Benedict holding a dialogue with Prime Minister David Cameron could do much to bridge the divide between faith and country. 

And who better to look to on their journey than Cardinal Newman? Every Anglo-Catholic now stands, as he once did, at the door of decision.