Almost 27 years ago I attended a debate between Rowan Williams and Graham Leonard in Christ Church College at Oxford University. The debate was on the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. Pope John Paul II had ruled that the Catholic Church was not competent to change the tradition and had forbidden any further discussion of the question, at least in the Catholic Church. But sometimes questions cannot be settled prematurely, even by papal or episcopal fiat. There is a sense in which the community itself comes to a decision about “ripeness” and takes its time to arrive at a deeper understanding and peace. This, too, can be the work of the Holy Spirit.
As was to be expected, the debate in Christ Church was polite. At no time did I feel there was any danger to my blood pressure. It was a very Anglican debate. I do not recall either side developing an irrefutable argument, but I do remember it dawning on me, perhaps a little late, that whatever the theological issues, it was a debate about the identity of Anglicanism itself: Was it a Reformed church or was it a Catholic church? Could it be both?
Several years later, in 1992, an Anglican friend and priest rang me to tell me that, at last, the synod had voted in favor of women’s ordination. He observed that although it had been a painful process, the decision had been arrived at in a very legitimate, Anglican way—through the houses of bishops, clergy and laity. It had not been unanimous, but the process of discernment had involved the whole body of the church. I was glad that it was a decision that obviously brought him consolation, and especially glad for his wife and my other friends who then went on to be ordained. Although on this occasion I did not share their theological position, I never doubted their integrity and desire to serve the church, the sacrifices they had made and continue to make and the power and grace of their ministry. They have kept before me the deep and consoling challenge of the priesthood of Christ, which ultimately must transcend gender, as it belongs to the whole people of God. Of course, having accepted both theologically and culturally the ordination of women to the priesthood, it would have been incoherent not to accept that women could become bishops—which the General Synod eventually did just last month (July 14).
I do not know if there is one theology of priesthood in the Anglican tradition. In any dealings I have had with Anglicans—whether “high” or “low”—I have been impressed by their cultural and evangelical commitment, but I have been conscious of the wide variation in their understanding of what their priesthood is and entails. So Anglicans have a church that is in the process of redefining itself, and part of that seems to be the search for a functional ecclesiology of tolerance, a recognized theology of plurality within the one body that is allowed to express itself in different forms and disciplines. It seems to be a neat line to walk here between plurality and what some would see as a tolerated structural schism.
I wonder if the desire to accommodate different theologies in expressly different forms of office achieves a real ecclesial communion, or whether it represents a strained compromise in which people, at their best, have deep charitable dispositions towards each other, but live with a sort of quiet desolation at a divided body. Structural accommodations do not necessarily mean reconciliations, as we Roman Catholics know from our own ecclesial experience.
I also wonder what it would be like to be a bishop in such circumstances. How does one have a real sense of being a focus of ecclesial unity and exercise a deep pastoral solicitude for the whole body of Christ when a significant proportion of that body rejects one’s ministry? The metaphor most used in the post-decision conversation is that of family—a family in which there can be differences of commitments and lifestyles but one that still wants to remain a family with obligations to each other. Is that metaphor now a nostalgic memory from an earlier settlement, or is it the beginning of a genuinely renewed ecclesiology that Anglicanism needs if it is to avoid a series of ad hoc arrangements that ultimately entrench division rather than resolve it?
The Church of England is undergoing a profound transformation—culturally as well as theologically and spiritually. Around its theological questions are also national and cultural ones. Can it remain an established church? Does that really serve the nation and the other Christian communities, as is often claimed? Does it allow the church real freedom, or does it subtly force it into accommodations with the spirit of the secular state? Whose head is really on the coin?
There is no doubt that the failure of the Anglican Church to agree upon women bishops last year drew considerable pressure from the government and parliament to change. Indeed, the risk of assimilationism can emerge from unexpected quarters: the question of women bishops was almost overshadowed by the support expressed by Lord Carey, former archbishop of Canterbury, for legalizing assisted dying. It raised a deep but unaddressed question about the witness of a “national” church. Although the question of women bishops and the church’s defense of life can seem far apart in the public mind, they are theologically related to the very nature of the church’s fidelity to Christ in history: not only how it lives that fidelity but how it comes to discern it in each age.
Of course, our own church cannot simply be a member of the audience as the Anglican drama unfolds. The Catholic Church has by its very nature a deep effective and affective solicitude for the whole body of Christ. Over the years I have felt privileged to watch the Anglican Church develop and evolve not just in response to the pressures of demographics and cultural change but with a profound and costly search for ways of embodying the Gospel. For all of us there is a sense that what emerges includes both a lasting truth and the contingency with which that truth must be given shape in history. This can be confusing, containing both grief and hope and the struggle between the siren voices of integrism and assimilationism, together with the different sorts of secular politics these represent.
But I have been conscious also of Karl Barth’s teaching on the patience of God, who not only waits for us but accompanies us and, in every sense, makes time for us. This is far from a political process of change; it is about how we live and give shape to our salvation history so as to make Christ visible and available in our age. Patience is more than pragmatism or even a virtue, it is a grace born out of our trust in Christ’s faithfulness to us. Every Christian community, especially our own, needs this patience as an ecclesial gift.
Since the day I listened to the debate in Christ Church all those years ago, the words of Rowan Williams remained with me. If I remember them correctly, he said that as a church we needed to remove all that impedes our living and witnessing to the Gospel of Christ. Yes! That surely is the primary task of a bishop, whatever the gender or whatever the confession. It is the hard work of love for the great church about which none of us can be complacent.