There are three theological concepts which hold together indissolubly from an Anglo-Catholic point of view. The first is the incarnation, in which human flesh became divine. The second is the sacramental life, in which creatures of bread and wine become bearers of the divine. The third is social justice, in which we commit ourselves to work for the revealing of the divine in the human.
These are all aspects of what it means to talk about the Body of Christ – Jesus, the host, the church as a whole – working in the world.
For the Anglo-Catholic, the way in which we gain some assurance on these things is by talking about proper order within the church – so, valid ordination of priests for example, and also a prohibition on lay presidency. These things are not abstract and arcane, however much they may appear to be so to outsiders. Rather, an acceptance of proper order is how those three theological concepts are given practical effect – right doctrine, right worship, right behaviour.
What is increasingly concerning me is that this entire understanding of the faith has been quietly set aside in order to pursue unity between different factions of our church. Sadly, the political compromise that has been reached – the five guiding principles – destroys this understanding not simply for those who are opposed to women’s ministry, but for those who support it.
The Church of England, as part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church has, from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, the authority to ordain priests. The Roman Catholic church, for one, denies that the Church of England has such authority which is why I (and many others) could never become Roman Catholics – to do so would mean accepting that the sacraments that we have celebrated have not had validity. I cannot fathom the internal anguish that would enable a priest to accept such a verdict.
At the moment the Church of England is processing questions about women’s ordination and consecration. I believe that the Church of England has authority to make a decision in these matters. That is, when the Church of England says that women can be priests, and puts that decision into effect, it is acting in a way that does not jeopardise proper order. Women priests ordained after such a decision are validly ordained and so on.
There are those within the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion who disagree with this, for various reasons, including questions of proper order. However, those who do not believe that the Church of England has authority to make this decision are committed to an alternative path of church order. We have seen the implications of this with regard to Philip North’s prospective ministry in Sheffield. A crucial question has been whether, as a Diocesan Bishop, Philip North could accept the ministry of women priests in the Sheffield Diocese (and by ‘accept’ I mean be sacramentally efficacious, ie act within the ‘proper order’ outlined above).
I do not see how this is possible. That is, I do not see how a Diocesan who rejects the authority of the Church of England on this question can then exercise a Diocesan ministry within that same Church. This is, of course, the point that Martyn Percy has made so forcibly. I am starting to believe that the only way forward for those who reject the decision made by the Church of England on this matter is to walk separately in some way – more on this below.
The House of Bishops has been concerned to prevent such a separation, in order to preserve some form of unity. I have my suspicions that this is driven by several unholy reasons as well as – or possibly instead of – the more respectable desire for unity. I am quite certain that there are elements within the House of Bishops which are simply playing a long game and hoping for the Forward in Faith group to die out.
Yet my concern now is as much for those who take an Anglo-Catholic perspective who have accepted (on good Anglo-Catholic grounds) the authority of the Church on this question, and who choose to remain. The political compromise of the five Guiding Principles does not just place Forward in Faith into an impossible position; it also undermines those Anglo-Catholics who remain. It does this because it does not take sacramental life seriously. This is why I believe that it paves the way for lay presidency at some point in the future. If the proper order of the church can be set aside in this situation, if it becomes simply another part of the political negotiations, then from an Anglo-Catholic perspective that proper order no longer exists. It can only exist if it is taken as of the essence of the church; that is, where it is absent, there the apostolic church has also been removed.
(This is not to put boundaries around God’s grace, or even to say that this is the wrong development – it is simply to say that, from an Anglo-Catholic point of view, it is impossible to hold on to proper order whilst at the same time accepting the five Guiding Principles. They contradict each other.)
The House of Bishops has become a house of low virtue, possibly because it has become animated by a fear of death in the form of numerical decline and financial ruin. I do not believe that the five Guiding Principles can in any way provide a way forward for the church. What is most important is that the House begins to cultivate some stronger virtues.
The first one is simply honour. Beneath all the theological gloss we need to accept that this has been a long and bruising political fight and as with all genuine fights there are winners and losers. What is essential now is for the victors to act with honour and magnanimity, and not succumb to a desire to force ‘scorched earth’ upon those who have lost the debate.
This could take the form of a generous dispensation for those who are opposed, not in the form of individual payments to individual clergy that object (how we have fallen for that modern idolatry!) but rather that the Church of England should divest itself of those parishes and properties associated with Forward in Faith; that is, to recognise that in this divorce, some of the marital assets belong to each partner.
The Church of England has too many churches and following an honourable path might allow for two things to happen – far friendlier relations with those who would then leave, who would not then see themselves in a fight to the death with those who simply wish to exterminate them, and also an opening for the Gamaliel principle to operate – that is, if the rejection of women’s ordained and consecrated ministry is against the will of God, then time will tell.
In order for this to work, the second virtue that the House needs to cultivate is honesty. Bishops need to be set free to speak clearly and openly and honestly with each other and with the wider church over which they exercise oversight. The burial of dissent has led simply to monstrosities and we need to bring things out into the open. Most especially the integrity of the church as a decision making body has been embarrassingly compromised and the church has brought itself into disrepute. We need to remove the bandage from the infected wound in order to properly cleanse it and heal.
The third virtue is humility. The Church of England as such is not an eternal institution. It had a particular worldly birth and it may yet have a particular worldly death. It may well be that this process of divestment is how the Church of England should come to an end – setting out many different lifeboats and leaving behind a sinking shell for the state to continue to manage.
If this happens, the chances are that the conservative evangelicals may well follow Forward in Faith out of the door. After all, what trust can they possibly have in the processes of the Church of England now, especially with one eye towards the ongoing argument around equal marriage?
The truth is that there are many different Anglicanisms that are presently sharing the structure of the inherited, established church. Is there anything which binds them together beyond institutional inertia, is there any place of theological integrity, congruent with our inheritance, on which we might all stand? I rather hope that there is such a place, and the the house of Anglicanism can keep many rooms. I have learnt a great deal from those whose expression of faith is not Anglo-Catholic, and I remain of the view that there is a distinct vocation for the Anglican theological vision.
Yet in order to find out what binds us together it is imperative that we cast out the spirit of timidity from the House of Bishops. In this as in so many other areas we act like a vessel that has been holed below the waterline but the officers on deck act like a people who do not know how we have been struck – let alone what to do about it! I reiterate that in making these criticisms of the House of Bishops I am not criticising particular individuals but rather the culture has embedded itself within it – it is a fallen principality that stands in need of redemption.
We need to recognise that unity as such can become a false idol, and that it can become opposed to the truth that sets us free. We need to risk dying, for only by doing so might we also be born again – and renewed to preach the gospel effectively in this time and in this nation.