It Takes Time: On the future shape of the Anglican Church

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.

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Nicholas Clifford
3 years 7 months ago
Very interesting, an the words of Archbishop Williams at the end remain central to any consideration of the church's role, and in particular to its role in the larger society. (Or should we now refer to him as "Archbishop Emeritus?" Fr. Hanvey's article speaks of the "Anglican Church," meaning that it has to do with the Church of England. But what about the larger issue of the Anglican Communion, which embraces churches (like the Episcopal Church in the US) as well as the Church of England? For them, presumably, the question of the establishment or disestablishment of the Church of England is simply a local UK issue (and perhaps presently will be a local purely English issue, if Scotland goes its own way) rather than affecting the international Anglican Communion as a whole? How far can national churches within that larger Communion make their own policies (and beliefs) and still remain part of that Communion? After all, here in the US there have been women bishops for some years, and indeed the present Presiding Bishop is a woman and, by all report, a very good bishop indeed. I have no idea what the answer to that question may be, or how the Anglican Communion as a whole will answer it, and it's clear that it has led to some divisive feelings between western and non-western members of that Communion. Nevetheless, it may well be that we Roman Catholics have something to learn about the shaping of local churches. To what extent, for instance, does Rome's forbidding the ordination of women genuinely reflect a theological objection, and to what extent is it simply an outgrowth of a traditional misogyny? For what it's worth, the business world seems to be discovering that in some positions of leadership women do rather better than men (for reasons that may have to do with history, culture, or just plain old testosterone) and it's at least arguable that a few women in high places in the Vatican would never have let the sex abuse crisis get out of hand to the point where it becomes an existential threat to the whole Church (whether women would also have run the Vatican Bank in a more honest and Christian way is a question I'll leave to the bankers!).
Vincent Varnas
3 years 7 months ago
As a former Roman Catholic and now an Anglican Postulant about to be ordained a transitional deacon this year and a priest next year, I believe I have a somewhat unique perspective upon the question of the ecclesial position of Anglicanism in America. As Mr. Clifford so well put it, there is a worldwide Anglican communion and the Episcopal Church in the United States is just one of them. The Anglican Province of America (APA) is another. APA is traditional and many/most congregations are High Church and one of the "continuing churches" of Anglicanism. APA does not ordain women, does not allow gay marriage, and does not support abortion. It does adhere to the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, has an episcopate, recognizes the real presence of Christ albeit a spiritual presence in the Eucharist (but not transubstantiation), has seven sacraments, follows Catholic tradition up to about 600 A.D., maintains Apostolic Tradition and Apostolic Succession, believes that all that is necessary for salvation will be found in Holy Scripture (does not subscribe to "Solo Scriptura", but follows Scripture first, then tradition, then reason in all matters of faith), adheres to the theological doctrines of the first seven Church Councils, prays the Apostles Creed, Nicene Creed and Athanasian Creed (with a capital "C" for Catholic), and believes that all bishops (including the Bishop of Rome) are equal, as did St. Cyprian and many other bishops during the Patristic Period of the primitive Church. We consider ourselves to be the "reformed" Catholic Church.
Mike Evans
3 years 7 months ago
I have served on serveral boards and councils with Episcopal women priests and deacons. I can testify that their ministry is highly valued and well received and that they seem extremely attentive to both men and women within their parishes. I have also served with several women from other mainline churches who are pastors of parishes and among the ordained leadership. I find that in most cases their enthusiasm and commitment often exceeds that of their male counterparts. There is no sense of them being "second class" in any way. The argumentative tension that Father Hanvey portrays is not involved with theology or quality of ministry - it is simply misogyny. At the very least the Roman Catholic Church should begin ordaining women as permanent deacons. There is surely no shortage of need.
John Fitzgerald
3 years 7 months ago
The hierarchy can dress up its treatment of women in all sorts of theological and "tradition based" guises -- sincerely believed -- but it's simple long held cultural prejudice.
3 years 6 months ago
We look back on the Pharisees through the lens that Jesus provided. Yet perhaps the Pharisees are us. Jesus picked two of the 613 laws of the Torah, and said "these are all the law and the prophets." Love of God and one another are more important to Christianity than this or that "teaching" of the Church. We are called to love and justice. The Pharisees were insistent upon upholding all the teachings of the Torah, to which Jesus responded with Luke 11:46. How are we to evaluate a particular teaching? If the teaching is not grounded in love and justice, is it worthy to be called a teaching of the Church? The rule against ordination of women has no basis in love or justice. But it has been a long practice. The Anglicans as a community are slowly coming to grips with this contrast between the traditional culture of the Church and the priority which Jesus gave to love and justice. It is doubly ironic to be countercultural about a secular society moving toward greater justice towards women and, at the same time, to stand blind and mute about an unloving and unjust practice embedded in Church culture. In 1975 the Anglicans invited the Roman Catholic Church to join them in this dialogue, but Pope Paul VI felt bound by the tradition and rejected the invitation. I wonder how Paul VI responded when he entered the Pearly Gates. "Why did you not undertake this dialogue, which addresses discrimination against women?" Perhaps he would have responded, "I was simply following your example in choosing the twelve." "But did I not leave you with the Spirit?" And the response might have been, "Yes, and we have listened and for two thousand years the Spirit's answer has been consistent -- you chose the twelve and there were no women. There were no gentiles either, but Paul took care of that question early on." So it all comes back to Christ's example, and an interpretation of that example that elevates an invidious discrimination over love and justice. Are we party to a hidebound tradition that ignores what the Master taught about love and justice? If so, we are like the servant who buried the talents, for fear of risking what had been given. God is patient. It is never too late to make amends. To interpret the example of Jesus with the twelve as a divine command to exclude women from priestly ministry is nothing short of idolatry. How did we get into this blind alley? More importantly, how do we get out? The first step is to recognize that there is no shred of love or justice in the traditional practice against ordination of women. What, then, can the Church do "to love more tenderly, to act more justly, and to walk more humbly with our God"? I am thankful that James Hanvey, S.J., has written his article in a manner that prompts these kinds of questions.


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