Archive | February, 2012

General Synod members, please ignore: On receiving women as “non-Bishops”

6 Feb

I rarely write about intra-church politics and I try to limit my participation in such debates.  I find that one can get so caught up in arguing one’s “side” that tempers are frayed, the argument becomes the issue, and the gospel message is abandoned on account of the tone of the conversation.

But I feel pretty strongly on the issue of receiving women into the episcopate because I’m a feminist Anglican.  If I did not love women, I’d  not be concerned about their being sidelined.  If I did not care about the episcopate, I would not be Catholic, and were I not Catholic, I wouldn’t be Anglican.  For many Anglicans, I think Bishops play a rather shadowy role, they get a mention each week in “the intercessions”, they show up every so often for a confirmation, and that’s about it for your average C of E pew warmer.  But that’s to considerably downplay their significance.  The episcopacy matters on account of its existence as the sign of unity in Jesus Christ.  See the excellent article, That We May Be One on Edward Green’s + blog.

The bishop (whose role seems minimised in Anglican circles) is the one from whom his/her priests’ priesthood is authorized.  Individual presbyters (at least in Catholic theology) are only presbyters by virtue of their participation[1] in the office of their bishops.  This point should not be understated.  Indeed, some catholic theologies would go so far as to say that priests only exercise “second-rank” priesthood.  In the Early Church, what mattered was the episcopacy because priests were only acting, basically, as Bishop delegates.  As a result of communion with the Bishop, and authorization from the Bishop, a priest exercises priestly ministry.

Here I’d like to acknowledge a post made by Revd Lesley, who would counter-argue that Bishops are not the focus for Unity, for our focus for Unity is Jesus Christ.  To some degree, I think she’s correct, but I believe she attempts a sleight of hand.  At least in so far as we discover and receive Jesus Christ, Catholic theology would suggest that we do so through the sacraments, and since the sacraments can only be administered by a priest whose priesthood is exercised on account of authorization by the Bishop, it seems that our focus for Unity is still the Bishop.  I’d posit, in response, that Jesus Christ is NOT the focus for unity.  Jesus Christ IS our unity, as the one in whom we live, move and have our being.

You’ll note that I already said “her” when referring to the role of the Bishop because I acknowledge that we already have received women in other parts of the Anglican Communion.  You might also note that I try to use the word “receive” about women bishops.  I believe they’ve always “existed” in different ways, but the church hasn’t always acknowledged their existence in the form of ministerial office. The existence of bishops (who happen to be women) is the logical out working of the Holy Spirit’s action through baptism (which I, and many others, hope and pray the wider church will come to acknowledge).  Thus, I would like to state at the outset that I entirely, wholeheartedly support women’s participation at all levels of ministerial order throughout the church.   And that’s why I believe that women should NOT YET be received as Bishops.

You might wonder why, since I support women’s ministry at all levels of the church, I hope the move will be delayed a while longer?  Personally, I’d be as delighted to receive and pray for a woman as a Bishop as I would for a man, although I must confess that for the average pew sitter such as me, it wouldn’t affect parish daily life one iota.  That this is the case probably implies there’s something problematic about the way episcopal office is practiced.  But the question remains as to why I do not believe that women should yet be received as Bishops.  My problem is that I do not believe, whatever the result of the C of E  General Synod 2012, that even if women were granted permission to accept their episcopal offices that they would actually assume the role of Bishops.  The reception of women as Bishops (prior to a more considerable degree of agreement on the matter) does not do women or the church any favours.

It’s my concern that to receive women as Bishops would be to add an additional level of ministerial order to that acknowledged by Ignatius in the 2nd century.  Ignatius (in his letter to the Philadelphians) speaks of bishops, presbyters and deacons.  Were the Anglican church to receive women as Bishops at this moment in time, what we would do is to introduce a kind of super-presbyter, and not a Bishop (or, if you’d prefer, a second-rank Bishop).  That’s because many traditional Anglo-catholics are likely to opt for a structure akin to an additional province (which is broadly practiced through flying bishops at present), and thus wouldn’t need to acknowledge a woman as their Bishop.  The existence of an additional province would result in women bishops not being equivalent to their male counterparts in any of the provinces, and there also being a breakdown of unity between the bishops, which would essentially lead to schism in the Church of England (more serious than that which currently exists due to refusal to admit even the orders of fellow brother presbyters).  Conservative Evangelicals who, at present, are simply taught to ignore their bishops would potentially also jump into the “alternative province” fold, leading to a situation similar to that in the United States where we have both the TEC and ACNA and other branches of ever-increasing Protestant-isation.   An additional concern about  schism within the Church of England would be that it might harm fellow-Christians.  I fear the wider Church would look on in horror, note that women bishops lead to schism and move ever more firmly and resolutely away from receiving women into any ministerial office.   My contention is that the introduction of super-presbyters would not be desired by anybody.

For the bishops (as yet unelect) who were female, this would be a form of cruelty.  There is nothing more sexist than to proclaim that women are equal in role to men, and then simply to appoint them to another role entirely.  Of course, such discrimination would not be intentional, but would, I believe, be the consequence of receiving them too soon.  It is simply not fair on the women in question (and they hardly need additional opprobrium).  But (and this affects many more women), it sends out the message that “different, but not equal is OK” even though we were all dunked in the same font.  Let’s not send out the message that fudging an issue on which we disagree is good enough. For every other baptised women who seeks to root her dignity in being created in the image of God, we must continue to hold out for full equality, and voting on women bishops prior to agreement on any code of practice appears to be folly.

From an ecumenical point of view[2], a fourth “order” might not be as much of a concern as has been suggested, especially if it might be viewed in the same manner as the offices of minor-order, which are rather out of fashion since the Second Vatican Council.  (I’m not putting the office of  the “super-presbyter” in the same category as that of a minor order, merely suggesting that it could be said that the role was a superfluous office added by one part of the tradition that could potentially be ignored by the wider tradition.)  It would mean that, again, technically, it would be possible to argue ecumenically that despite its best intentions, the Church of England had never succeeded in actually receiving women as bishops!  As a result, ecumenical relations need not be hindered, but, despite our best efforts, we’d not have women bishops either.

It seems a shame, at this critical juncture to go down the route of speculating about ecumenical relations in light of the reception of women bishops[3], given that  the Roman Catholic Church at least, has made a considerable concession through their near-admission of women as occupiers of the office of ministerial priesthood.  It’s not a cut and dried affair, but I’d like to suggest that Cardinal Walter Kasper’s address to a Meeting of the C of E bishops in 2006 is remarkable on account of this statement:

A resolution in favour of the ordination of women to the episcopate within the Church of England would most certainly lower the temperature once more; in terms of the possible recognition of Anglican Orders, it would lead not only to a short-lived cold, but to a serious and long-lasting chill.”

What is not said is as important as what is stated. Bearing in mind that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis stated “the church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women…”, that here Cardinal Kasper implies a “possible” recognition of orders is in itself extraordinary.

I might, of course, be mistaken about the degrees of schism that could take place within the Anglican Communion.  There may just be a mass exodus to the ordinariate.  But if that’s the case, I can’t help but feel we will ALL have “lost”.  It would be easier, for somebody on my “side” to conclude that I couldn’t wait to see the back of a bunch of sexist, misogynistic[4] people with whom I shared nothing.  But actually, these are our  brothers (and sisters) with whom we currently eat and share friendships, and their presence is part of what keeps us Catholic.

On Twitter, a few days ago, I asked to hear from female priests within the Anglican Catholic tradition on the matter of apostolic continuity and women bishops.  I received no replies.  I’d still be intrigued to receive such a response here because I’m wondering whether there are alternative ways to imagine how to move forward that give full equality to women without denigrating the historic episcopacy?

The General Synod will begin tomorrow and happily nobody will read this blog, but I wanted to outline why I feel that women “non-Bishops” will be bad for women.  I find it immensely alarming that much of the Women Bishops  debate online is that it is couched in terms of “rights” and “fear”.  Nobody has the “right” to be a priest or a bishop or a baptised person.  We receive offices and sacraments as gifts.  I am deeply troubled by the theological illiteracy amongst bloggers and tweeters who I’m fairly certain ought to know better, and since they don’t, I believe they’ve  been failed by the church.

Whatever the outcome, we must continue, however difficult, to pray and struggle to become what we proclaim:  One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic.

[1] I think “participation” is fair, but others might prefer “communion”.  See Catholic Encyclopedia Entry on Priest and The Priest and The Bishop.

[2] By “ecumenical”, I refer to Rome and the different types of Orthodox because, I believe, as an Anglican-catholic we share more with our church “parents” than we do with Protestants.

[3] I have forced myself to think long and hard about whether I’d have made this type of argument against the admission of women to ministerial priesthood in 1992.  I can only conclude that I would not, on account of the distinction between the role of priest and bishop which I allude to in paragraph three.

[4] As I hope will be clear from my argument, I don’t happen to believe that every person who refuses to acknowledge the role of women in the episcopate is sexist, misogynistic or acting out of fear.  It is the role of those of us who believe the Holy Spirit is doing something new to state our case more clearly, and name-calling does not achieve this end.

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