St Paul tells the Corinthians that it is shocking that they are settling their disputes bygoing to the law courts. We live in an increasingly litigious society where people increasingly reach for the law for compensation and redress as a first resort rather than a last resort.
Perhaps it is not so surprising then that the bishops find themselves meeting once again to consider the legislative framework for allowing women into the episcopate in the Church of England, after their last tinkerings were rejected by General Synod.
In a disordered world, law is a necessary and a good thing, but all it can do is enforce outward conformity. St Paul speaks of a different standard that should operate within the church: one that seeks to foster an inner attitude of love and respect. Could it be that we reach to the law to replace something we have lost or at least is weakened in modern society: mutual respect and honour for those of radically different views and opinions?
Ironically enough, the Church of England has had a framework in place to help it handle disputes and controversies in matters of faith almost from its beginning: the much-neglected Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, enshrined in the Book of Common Prayer that are almost entirely the work of Thomas Cranmer specifically “for the avoidance of controversies in opinions in matters of faith.” They were written to help a church, born in the Reformation, to conduct itself as a national church where differing opinions and views were expected and accepted.
Article XXVI, On the unworthiness of Ministers which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament, is particularly relevant at the moment:
Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in the receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.
Nevertheless it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally being found guilty, by just judgement be deposed
It is clear from the second paragraph of the Article this is not intended as a blanket ban on clergy discipline. The Article allows that, after due process, ministers may be removed from office. Nevertheless, the Article upholds the view common throughout the Western church since the time of St Augustine that the sacraments are valid and effective for salvation even when performed by ministers unfit for the duties they carry out. In the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas pushed this belief just about as far as it could go. According to Aquinas, even rank unbelief on the part of the minister celebrating the sacrament is not enough to stop the effectiveness of the sacrament because its work depends not on the qualities of the priest but on God alone. For Aquinas, just about the only thing that could invalidate the sacrament was the wilful and deliberate attempt to subvert it on the part of the celebrant. Under such circumstances, the sacrament is not being celebrated at all. I would be surprised to find any priest in the Church of England who felt that they were worthy of celebrating the sacraments, except on the one ground that they sincerely believe that God has called them to do so and that the wider Church has confirmed that sense of call.
So, even if we have got it wrong, and we shouldn’t consecrate women as bishops, according to this Article, their ministry will still perfectly valid and effective. If we are genuine about respecting differing views on this issue, Article XXVI suggests how we might live together in the same church.
Consider the situation of two diocesan bishops in a future church where women bishops are a reality: a male bishop unable to accept in good conscience that women can be lawfully consecrated, and a woman bishop. Can two such bishops exist in the same House of Bishops without destroying its collegiality? Article XXVI suggests that not only can they, but that they should.
Our male bishop might find himself thinking as follows:
“ I could never take part in the consecration of a woman, and I should not hide either in public or in private, my belief that the church has taken a false step. But I can also recognise that the church has made this decision in good faith, the church believes (wrongly in my view) that God is calling women into the episcopate, and has exercised the power given to it by the Spirit. In taking this step, the church intends to continue to do what it has always done, in the sense that it has always had bishops. It has not broken faith, it continues to be the Church of Christ, but has fallen into error. There is nothing new in that, and I must continue to relate to this church. I can relate to those bishops who consecrate women priests as well as to those women bishops themselves as partners in the Gospel who have overreached themselves, rather than as those who have fallen away from Christ. I may decide not to receive communion from such bishops, because though there are many defective Eucharists around, these are the ones that call for a public witness from me. But I will continue to receive communion with such bishops because in receiving communion we are all fellow Christians accepting the lord’s invitation. Likewise, I need not refuse the ministry of a priest or deacon, ordained by a woman bishop, though if they should ask for it I could confer on them conditional ordination for their own conscience sake.My overriding concern should be not to break further an already broken church”
Meanwhile our woman bishop might reason like this:
“ The Holy Spirit led the church to accept this step, and in accepting consecration, I have declared it a true discernment of God’s will. I was asked for a courageous discernment to match the courage of the church. What would that be worth if it could not cope with the ambiguities it has generated. God chooses to show strength through weakness and vulnerability. I acted in full knowledge that there are those who oppose both my and the church’s decision, and I said that I respected their position. Now I should prove that by showing cheerful patience, not to do so would show that I acted without due consideration. Continual wrong footing of my opponents and demands that I be allowed to exercise my rightful powers merely confirms that my calling is not from God. Those in my diocese who refuse the sacraments from me have a harder part than I do, because the church has judged them mistaken. I can prove my episcopal authority only as Jesus proved his authority, by care and oversight and sacrifice whenever and wherever opportunities open up to me. We all need time for experience to bring us to the point where we look at one another and wonder what all the fuss was about. The best way for me to help it forward is not to be fretful.”
So please: less directive, enforcing legislation, no talk of separate integrities. Instead let’s be Anglican and Christian about this. In the 350th anniversary year of the BCP, thank God that it has preserved Cranmer’s ideas on living together with different opinions.