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A Church That Loves Women Priests—And Bishops, Too



Greg Daly - published on 11/18/14

England's Anglicans expect their first female prelate by Christmas.

“Christ would never ask us to do something immoral,” said Boston’s Cardinal Seán O’Malley on CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday night, when asked whether it was immoral that the Church does not ordain women as priests.

Explaining that “the tradition of the Church is that we have always ordained men, and that the priesthood reflects the incarnation of Christ, who, in his humanity, is a man,” the cardinal stated that the Church’s position is “a matter of vocation and what God has given to us.”

“If I were founding a church,” he said, “I’d love to have to have women priests, but Christ founded it, and what he has given us is something different.”

Less than a day later, across the Atlantic, the Church of England’s general synod voted to enter into church law the necessary legislation to enable women to become bishops of England’s established church. The English decision follows similar changes in the Anglican churches of Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. Pat Storey, Church of Ireland bishop of Meath and Kildare, is the first woman bishop in that country—one of 29 such bishops in the global Anglican Communion. With five English vacancies for junior bishops — termed “suffragans” — as well as four dioceses needing bishops, England could have its first female Anglican bishops before the end of the year.

Father Ed Tomlinson, a priest of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, describes this move as demonstrating “a radically different understanding of holy orders from that of historic and normative Christianity.” The former Anglican clergyman points out that while the media are bound to urge that the Catholic Church follow suit, “Rome is not against women bishops due to its beliefs about women but because of its beliefs about bishops.”

Monday’s vote, in Church House, Westminster, on Amending Canon 33 has been a long time coming, the Church of England having first ordained women as deacons in 1987 and as priests in 1994. The general synod voted in 2005 to remove the legal obstacles to women becoming bishops, but in 2012 the synod’s House of Laity rejected the necessary legislation by just six votes. This July, however, the synod gave the legislation the two-thirds support it required, with Parliament’s ecclesiastical committee likewise supporting the change in October, such that the law’s clearing of the final hurdle was almost a formality.

The road to this point has not been smooth. England’s Anglican community has not been short of those who felt that by ordaining women, whether to the priesthood or the episcopate, the Church of England was breaking from the teaching of Christ, the tradition of the Church, and the broader Christian family.

On Monday, though, barely 30 of the 480 or so at the synod raised their hands to oppose the motion, which needed but a simple majority to pass. In July, though, there had been serious opposition. Susie Leafe, director of the conservative evangelical group Reform, told the BBC that she was “very disappointed” by the decision, arguing that there was “at least a quarter of the Church for whom this package does not provide for their theological convictions.” Prebendary David Houlding, a member of synod’s Catholic Group, expressed concerns in July about how the change could affect Anglican relations with the Catholic Church.

Echoing Houlding’s fears, Birmingham’s Archbishop Bernard Longley, chairman of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales’ Department for Dialogue and Unity, responded to July’s substantive decision by restating the Church’s commitment to dialogue with the Anglican Communion and the Church of England in particular. Emphasizing that “the goal of ecumenical dialogue continues to be full visible ecclesial communion,” Archbishop Longley said that this requires “full communion in the episcopal office.” As such, he lamented how the Church of England’s decision “sadly places a further obstacle on the path to this unity between us.”

While Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, has said the Church of England will “continue to seek the flourishing in the church of those who disagree,” confidence in such flourishing would seem foolhardy. The Reform group expects that those Anglican congregations that cannot accept women bishops will be forced to leave if women should be ordained to head their dioceses; an obvious new home for them would be the Anglican Mission in England, a support structure set up by the Global Anglican Future Conference. Others have already left, some joining the Catholic Church, whether as members of the recently established Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham or as individual converts. It is estimated now that as many of a tenth of the Catholic diocesan clergy in England and Wales took their first steps on the road to priesthood as members of the Church of England.

Such turmoil was, of course, predictable. As long ago as 1948, C.S. Lewis wrote in response to recommendations that the Church of England should declare women capable of Priests’ Orders that “To take such a revolutionary step at the present moment, to cut ourselves off from the Christian past and to widen the divisions between ourselves and other Churches by establishing an order of priestesses in our midst, would be an almost wanton degree of imprudence. And the Church of England herself would be torn in shreds by the operation.”

For Lewis, such a change would involve “something even deeper than a revolution,” and would entail the Church of England becoming “a different religion.”

Foreshadowing Cardinal O’Malley’s recent comments, he pointed to the priest’s role in representing God to the people, arguing that for a woman to represent God as a priest does would entail such suggestions as that “the Incarnation might just as well have taken a female as a male form, and the Second Person of the Trinity be as well called the Daughter as the Son, and that “the mystical marriage were reversed, that the Church were the Bridegroom and Christ the Bride.”

Such imagery, he said, should not be taken lightly, since “God Himself has taught us how to speak of Him.” To disregard as arbitrary the masculine imagery of revelation, he argued, is an argument against Christianity itself. 

The majority of today’s English Anglicans would surely disagree, with the Reverend Giles Fraser claiming in The Guardian that theological arguments used to resist female bishops "have always been a thin disguise for patriarchy," and that in response to Monday’s decision, "most people in the church will want to holler a pretty emphatic hallelujah." Regardless of the wisdom or otherwise of his dismissal of opponents’ concerns as cynical prejudice masquerading as sincere theology, it seems clear that the synod’s decision will strike many as a triumph for fairness and common sense. Some, however, might argue that regardless of motive it is akin to rearranging the Titanic’s deck chairs.

Speaking to "Christianity Today" in October, Lancaster University’s Professor Linda Woodhead said that the Church of England is at a crisis point and is now on its “last chance.” The 50-year-old professor in the sociology of religion said that people of her age “are the last generation who in large numbers care about the Church of England.” Unconvinced that the Church of England is in terminal decline, Woodhead nonetheless fears that it will be reduced to small middle-class enclaves.

The figures seem to support her. Whereas more than half of Britons over 70 identify as members of the Church of England, fewer than a tenth of those under 20 do so, and writing in "Christianity Today," Ruth Gledhill cites Ben Clements of British Religion in Numbers (BRIN) as having found that the percentage of respondents to the British Election Study identifying as Anglican has declined from 64.5 percent of those questioned in 1963 to just 31.1 percent this year.

It is perhaps not surprising that Tim Thornton, Anglican bishop of Truro, said on Radio Cornwall just over a week ago that analysis of attendance figures pointed to an unavoidable conclusion and that the Church of England has only “five or six years” to save itself.

Whether the appointment of women bishops will serve to reverse the Anglican decline remains to be seen.

Greg Daly covers the U.K. and Ireland for Aleteia.

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