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Thursday, 12 February 2009

Reflecting on Women Bishops, and being ‘in communion’

So the next step towards women bishops has been taken, keeping the CofE ‘on track for consecrating women bishops in 2014’ as Robert Piggot put it on the BBC. He also reported that this was making it more likely that some conservatives would leave the church.

The trouble is people are going to leave, whatever the Synod decides to do - or even decides not to do. Because doing nothing is not a workable option in a church whose synod has said there are no theological objections to he ordination of women, as traditionalists keep on hoping; and consecrating women bishops will almost definitely exclude some from the church too.

This slowly-slowly, gently, ‘period of reception’, let’s aim not to cause division, try not to hurt others feelings: is a very Anglican way of doing things, and is perhaps making the current process so much more difficult now. When the church of Rome decides to make a change, it is simply pronounced, and is enacted immediately. That day. Sorted. We
in the CofE try to be so much more accommodating, consensual. Synodical.

Take the ‘period of reception’. Traditionalists say we have not had long enough for that yet. That’s fair enough - but how long is long enough? It will be 15 years this year since women were ordained priest in the CofE. In informal conversations with some traditionalist colleagues, when I have ask them about how long the period of reception should be, the answer appears pretty close to a mathematical definition of infinity. Or some say until the Roman Catholic church accepts women in ministry. (In a slightly cynical moment, I wondered if some might then flee from such liberal catholicism to the Orthodox church.)

A ‘Fresh Expression’ of bishops was what the bishop of Dover, Stephen Venner, intimated as a possible way forward in yesterday’s debate. Some sort of alternative dioceses perhaps? Back in the July synod, in the first day long debate, I spoke of the church in Aotearoa New Zealand, and it’s three ‘Tikangas’, or ‘cultural streams’. Three layers of church laid over the map of the country, for the Maori, Pakeha (white settler), and Pasefika (the Diocese of Polynesia) churches. All sharing the same multi-lingual Prayer Book, canons, General Synod, and orders; but with different theological colleges, and little active interaction at anything other than national level. I suggested that this might be a way forward - but that it was far from a panacea. How much are they all really part of the one church? What of being in communion? Really in communion?

At the time, I thought it had little more to offer us in the CofE other than being interesting construct, but an unlikely pointer towards any solutions for us. I have begun to think otherwise. I have already submitted a short summary of the pattern and structures of the NZ church to the Manchester Group, and in the light of Bishop Nigel McCulloch’s conjecture that ‘every thing is now up for grabs’ in the next stage of drafting the legislation, I will probably submit something a little more substantial.

As things stand, I cannot see how complementary bishops will suit either those seeking, or rejecting, women in the episcopate. We need something different; and these ‘layers’ of church - rather than separate provinces - has every chance of being as realistic a way forward as most of the other possibilities.

However, I suspect that if there is a mistrust in an individual's orders, it is hard to be in communion with them. And not being in communion, it would seem to me, means fundamentally being in different churches already. Perhaps the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with the other three ‘Instruments of Communion’, may remain the focus for unity and being in (the Anglican) communion. Until the Archbishop of Canterbury is a woman, that is...

Alastair Cutting GS101

1 comment:

Peter Kirk said...

Interesting. I can't help thinking that similar parallel layers are probably the only realistic way of solving the divisions in North American Anglicanism without open schism. That seems to be what the Primates were moving towards in Alexandria. Perhaps, as I suggested here, it is time to put behind us the ancient (but post-apostolic) system of geographical provinces and dioceses, to replace it with something which meets the needs of the church in the third millennium.