Do the five guiding principles commit the Church of England to lay presidency?

I’ve been thinking a lot about Philip North and the situation in Sheffield. One thought in particular is simply this: if the five guiding principles (5GP) are accepted, then the Church of England has abandoned the theology that makes objecting to lay presidency coherent. In other words, if we accept the 5GP, then the Church of England will end up accepting lay presidency. I think that this is a facet of the discussion that has been missed, so I shall try and spell out what my thinking is.

There are two grounds to the theology that cannot recognise women bishops as legitimate. The first rests upon the authority of Scripture, viz all the language about headship and the need for teaching in church, for example, to be male. My concern here is not with this first ground.

The second ground, however, rests upon the notion of apostolic succession, and the sense that, in order to properly exercise a priestly authority, that authority needs to have been granted by a church authority which is itself properly constituted and derivative from the apostles themselves. The Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are generally recognised to have such authority; the Church of England claims a similar authority for itself (hence the third principle states that the CofE “continues to share the historic episcopate with other Churches”).

This language of historic episcopacy carries with it a particular understanding of what it means to carry out the ‘cure of souls’, and the relationship between an individual priest and the bishop under whose episcope that priest serves. It is, at heart, a shared ministry; that is, the link between the priest in a diocese and the bishop of that diocese is not simply an administrative matter. Crucially, it is this link between the priest and the bishop that establishes the legitimacy of the priest presiding at Holy Communion.

Now the 5GP are intended to bridge a theological gulf between those who can accept women as bishops and those who cannot. This may be of the Holy Spirit; disunity is a sin after all. However, I do believe that we need to fully understand what it is that we are committing ourselves to in order to achieve such unity.

Martyn Percy did highlight this problem in the questions he raised for Philip North. I believe that the issue is more far-reaching. In order to ensure unity between those with different views on the question of women bishops the 5GP are teaching in practice that the classic Anglican (Anglo-Catholic) understanding of holy orders is not a first-order question. That is, it is saying that it is perfectly possible to be a Diocesan Bishop whilst at the same time believing that a proportion of those clergy over whom that Bishop exercises oversight are not true priests.

From a Protestant point of view this is a simple pragmatic compromise. From an Anglo-Catholic point of view, the most essential element is now lost: the link with a wider church is now sundered.

Once this has been accepted and established – what possible bar is there against lay presidency? (Which is, of course, already practiced in parts of the Anglican Communion.) If there is no longer any necessity for an apostolic link in those who are to work as priests in a Diocese, why not open up presidency at the Eucharist to all? Clearly the apostolic link is no longer of the esse of the church, if it can be laid aside in this way. (I have to say, I’m rather astonished that the leaders of the Society have gone along with the 5GP. It may well be that there are aspects to this that I do not see, or there is information that I am unaware of.)

The 5GP may, as I say, be of the Holy Spirit. It may well be that the Anglo-Catholic emphasis, shared with the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic churches, is simply no longer capable of bearing divine grace in our present context and milieu. Alternatively, it may be that it is the Church of England itself which fits that description.

I just think that the church needs to be aware of what it is signing up to in the 5GP; a little more theological leadership and a little less management.

8 thoughts on “Do the five guiding principles commit the Church of England to lay presidency?

  1. I think your (interesting) argument falls down with this line:

    “Crucially, it is this link between the priest and the bishop that establishes the legitimacy of the priest presiding at Holy Communion.”

    I do not believe that to be the case. The link between a priest and the bishop of the diocese establishes the canonicity of the priest presiding at Holy Communion. The legitimacy (or “validity” in a Catholic understanding) is established by the priest’s ordination.

    • OK, but how does that affect my argument? A Philip North would be allowing an invalid priest to celebrate HC in his Diocese; the point remains I think?

  2. What roles do orthodoxy and heresy play in this do you think? The legitimacy of the Eucharistic derives in part from the absence of heresy and the essence of orthodoxy/conformity. Does this inform any part of your discussion?

  3. A quick interjection from someone in the Sheffield diocese.

    I think Bishop Philip North’s position is perhaps more nuanced than you, or many other commentators, seem to realise. Please see this summary of the meeting that took place between him and Sheffield’s female clergy may help if you haven’t seen it: . A particular item of interest is the statement : ” Canonically ordained means a priest is a priest is a priest and a bishop is a bishop is a bishop.”

  4. I don’t want to claim to speak for Bishop Philip (and perhaps I also may misunderstand him – my own understanding of his position on this is 2nd hand but includes some that have spoken to him directly about it), but my best guess is that in terms of universal catholicity – he regards female orders as something akin to ‘valid but illicit’. That is – he believes that the Church of England did not have the authority to choose to ordain and consecrate women in isolation from other parts of the church catholic. However, now that they have done it – the ordinations are valid, female priests are real and their sacramental ministry is effectual. On that basis, he may continue to abstain from ordaining women – partly due to ecumenical concerns and partly out of respect for those who he is called to minister (which may include those holding a more ontological kind of opposition to female ordination).

  5. I think your view that the 5GPs logically leads to lay presidency rests on a particular undersanding of ontological objection to women’s ordination. To those that don’t hold an ontological objection the argument doesn’t necessarily follow through.

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