Monsignor Andrew Burnham, pictured above centre with the Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Menini, and Sister Winsome of the Ordinariate has asked me to share with you his reflections following the decision of the Church of England to admit women to the Anglican Episcopate. Before joining the Catholic Church Monsignor Burnham was the Bishop of Ebbsfleet. A passionate ecumenist he has long advocated RITA. Which stands for “Rome Is The Answer!”
Women Bishops and Unity with Rome
For many years, those in the Anglican Communion who have been opposed to the ordination of women, have been attacked for misogyny and sexism. It has been well understood that Catholics and Orthodox have been trapped within ancient systems, making their male-only Holy Order inevitable, at least for the present. Like Orthodox Jews and Muslims, these age-old denominations would find – will find – huge difficulty with escaping from tradition. Anglicans, however – so the argument goes – have a means in their system of synodical government to escape and thus they can escape and must escape.
For the late Peter Hebblethwaite, a generation ago, Anglicanism, with its historic orders of bishop, priest, and deacon, would be a laboratory for the Universal Church. As the ministry of women bishops, priests and deacons was gradually accepted at local level, so the whole Christian world would learn how inevitable this development is, how godly and welcome. The argument works where gender is thought to be irrelevant – there is nothing intrinsically different about men and women. It works no less well where the sexes are thought to be complementary. Women bring a whole raft of new skills, a new sensitivity, enabling wholeness to be discovered, half the human race being no longer barred from exercising representative ministry.
So much for sociology. The theology is a bit more difficult. There are roughly three positions, two quite well-developed and one less so. The first of the two quite well-developed notions is that the emancipation of women, like the ending of slavery, is the working out of Galatians 3:28 (‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ ESV). This is a theological position but it rides on what nowadays is called the human rights agenda. Wilberforce and slavery. The suffragettes and female emancipation. If we call this the liberal position, we are using an accessible shorthand rather than a sharp description.
The second well-developed notion, beloved of charismatic evangelicals, is that God the Holy Spirit is always doing something new in his Church and one of the important new things he has been doing is opening the ordained ministry to women. God at work in his world. God at work in his Church.
The third position – less worked-out but espoused by no less a figure than the Archbishop of Canterbury during the final, 2014 stage of the debate in the Church of England, is that there should always have been women as bishops, priests, and deacons. Two thousand years of church history – and the ongoing practice of the majority of the Christian Church – stand indicted by the failure to recognise and use women’s ministry. It is a slightly dangerous argument for obvious historical reasons and it takes the risk of indicting Jesus Christ for choosing male apostles. The New Testament and the Church of the Ecumenical Councils, as well as the Church of the mediaeval period and the Protestant Reformation all fall short. We are saved by the Enlightenment, not the most reliable of allies.
The virtue of the decision of the General Synod in 2014 overwhelmingly to vote in favour of women bishops is that it restores coherence to English Anglicanism. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral is, as it were repaired, once the mutual recognition of ministry, lost in the 1970s, is restored. The position of those opposed to women’s ordination is respected. Once more they are said to have an honoured place and it would be churlish and discourteous to point out that, in this matter, rhetoric has always been stronger than practice in the twenty years since women have been ordained priest in England. The important difference now is that the language of reception and communion have been largely ditched in favour of the language of tolerance.
Until this point it has been possible – not always easy, but possible – to say that the ordination of women in Anglicanism has been provisional, awaiting the eventual verdict of the Universal Church. Something like Peter Hebblethwaite’s view. The new position is that not accepting women’s ministry – rather like a disability – is accepted lovingly. This priest does not fly: we won’t ask him to be a chaplain in the airforce. That priest is claustrophobic: we won’t ask him to visit prisoners. Those parishes don’t want a woman vicar: we’ll let them have a male one. It is, of course, licensed sexism and, like guest-houses being required to accept gay couples, and bakers being required to ice cakes with gay messages on them, it is only a matter of time before such prejudices become no longer tolerated.
The pressing issue for many will be: should one leave the Anglican Communion if one believes profoundly that women bishops are an impossibility, that the Eucharist celebrated by a woman priest is not truly confected? It might be thought, mutatis mutandis, that the conservative evangelical version of this is similar but, of course, it is not. The Anglo-catholic version of the argument is ontological and the system, if it breaks down, ceases to be a system. The conservative evangelical minds his own business and finds order not in the wider structures but in the life of the local congregation and its relationship with like-minded groups, of whatever order, presbyterian or episcopalian.
It is not the job of Catholics, even Catholics who have been Anglicans, to persuade others to leave the Anglican Communion. Nor could one become a Catholic legitimately simply on the basis of the implosion, as one would see it, of Anglican ecclesiology. Anglicans are not Catholics who believe a bit less. Catholics are not Anglicans who believe a bit more. In the end, the similarities between the two systems – Anglo-catholic and Roman Catholic – as Newman saw are illusory. In the end they are two very different systems.
A personal anecdote illustrates this well. On 15th July, travelling to London, the train had to make an unscheduled stop. As happens, the passengers, silent until this point but anticipating a delay that was possibly a long one, began to talk. My neighbour, a man in his forties, asked me which I was. ‘Catholic’ I replied. He then raised with me what the difference was. He had it in one: Catholics look to the Pope and Anglicans (because of Henry VIII’s divorce) to the English Crown. Then he wanted to talk about what most concerned him: not the front page news about women bishops, that was displayed on our table, but the absurd claim, attributed to Pope Francis, and no doubt made off the papal cuff, that 2% of Catholic clergy were pædophiles. For him, and for me, and for many, comparing Catholics and Anglicans is like comparing apples and oranges. To become a Catholic, then, is inevitable and necessary not because of what happens elsewhere but because one becomes convinced of the claim of the Church that the Catholic Church subsists in the Roman Catholic Church.