Women priests: the unfinished story

 — Nov. 15, 199715 nov. 1997

It is five years since the Church of England voted to ordain women as priests. In the eyes of Rome this move presents a grave ecumenical obstacle. Anglicans widely regard it as a blessing, but it has been fiercely resisted by a substantial minority, and threats of schism are now on the increase, writes an assistant editor of The Tablet.

For many Anglicans, the eleventh day of the eleventh month stirs memories of present as well as past conflicts: last Tuesday was the fifth anniversary of the General Synod’s vote in favour of women priests. By common consent the decision presaged the biggest upheaval in the Church of England since the Reformation, prompting 300 clergymen to resign their orders in protest at what they saw as a fracturing of the apostolic ministry. But in ordaining its women deacons in 1994 the Church gained nearly seven times as many new priests as it lost, and the new recruits are now serving at all levels of the hierarchy up to the rank of archdeacon. There appears to be ready agreement among most church people that the ordained ministry has been refreshed by “more open and collaborative styles of leadership,” and that women priests are accepted with enthusiasm by an evergrowing majority of congregations in consequence. “It’s an incarnational thing,” said one erstwhile sceptic. “When you see someone doing the job effectively, you’re quickly won over.”

Tuesday’s anniversary was marked by services of thanksgiving. Yet for all the gains and the gladness, female clergy retain a sense of unfulfilled promise fuelled by the belief that “though the war was won, there are still battles to fight,” as one put it. This is not just due to the time still needed to win over instinctive conservatives — often older members of the laity — but because the legislation itself is less decisive than at first appeared.

A year after its 1992 decision, the Church of England approved a so-called Act of Synod designed to forestall a mass exodus of traditionalists: this gave official recognition to both sides of the argument, termed “two integrities.” Over 850 parishes were permitted to declare themselves no-go areas for women priests and authorisation was given for the appointment of provincial episcopal visitors (“flying bishops”) to provide oversight for dissenters who consider themselves “out of communion” with their diocesan hierarchies.

Three such bishops now operate in the province of Canterbury and one in the province of York. Freed from administrative burdens, they minister to 300 congregations between them and spend much of their time travelling. Far from appeasing both sides, however, the Act has further exposed irreconcilable differences: traditionalist Anglo-Catholic parishes are said to be withdrawing ever further from the mainstream of church life, prompting charges of “congregationalism” from their critics. One commentator remarks that the Church of England “now motors on one permanently punctured tyre”; and although the vote for women priests was also by definition an endorsement of their eventual consecration to the episcopate, the advent of women bishops seems likely to stretch current divergences to the point of schism.

This forecast of the danger is not idle — it crops up early in conversation with women priests, as well as their traditionalist critics — but it is remote from the parochial round that forms the heart of Anglican life. Pastoral and organisational skills are what most people seek in their clergy, and competence in these areas is plainly not something confined to men or to women.

The point is simply put by Canon Margaret Bettis, incumbent of two rural villages in Bedfordshire. “Things were very rundown when I arrived here two years ago and both churches had single-figure congregations,” she recalls. “They said they’d far rather have a woman who got things going than a man who would not. I have worked hard at nurturing people and the results are encouraging. Church attendance is up, young couples are starting to get involved again, both churches are being restored and we are financially very viable.” Her installation this year as a canon of St Albans came in recognition of her achievement, and she has been “constantly supported” by male colleagues.

The Revd Katharine Rumens is also breaking new ground as curate at St John’s, Waterloo, in a needy part of the diocese of Southwark in London. Being also chaplain to the South Bank Arts complex and London Weekend Television, she “still meets surprised and delighted secular people every week who say, ‘You’re the first woman priest I’ve met’.” The fact that her position is a surprise to them is a sign, she thinks, that “the Church of England is less known about and less at the heart of national life than it thinks.” On the other hand, the sight of a woman presiding at weddings and funerals can make those who come to church “more alert and watchful” than they might otherwise be, which in turn offers “greater opportunities for mission.”

But it is the ministry as a whole that has changed, according to the Revd Hilary Ison, chaplain at an Exeter hospice. “Women certainly have distinctive gifts,” she suggests, “but our presence also frees up men to break out of traditional moulds. I have worked with a priest who was looked down on by his male colleagues because he tended to concentrate not so much on tasks as on what other people thought and felt. Now this way of operating has become more accepted and stereotypes are being broken down. We are all free to be creative as well as efficient.”

Conflict springing from disagreement over priesthood was much more likely with male colleagues than with lay people, according to most of the women I spoke to. Hilary Ison’s experiences seem typical of the more conservative dioceses. “Half of our 400 priests voted against,” she says, “although this figure has declined as attitudes soften and new faces arrive from other parts of the country. On the other hand it’s harder for women to get a job now, because we’re at the stage when we’re ready for incumbencies, but many churches will not accept a woman in a more senior role than curate. There are nearly 40 women priests in this diocese, but only two are vicars.”

The practical effects of the enduring opposition to women priests are extensive. Rose Hudson-Wilkin, associate priest at the Good Shepherd with St John, West Bromwich, and an officer for black Anglican concerns, complains that she was not invited to the ordination of a priest in her deanery supported by Forward in Faith, the umbrella group for traditionalist clergy. “I didn’t even know that it was happening, though I would happily have just sat in the congregation. I find that exceptionally rude. I think they have a human agenda and aren’t listening to the Spirit. We had 20 years of debate before 1992 and then the matter was settled.”

This view is echoed incessantly. Hilary Ison complains that Forward in Faith are dissociating themselves from the life of the diocese generally. “They have their own deaneries and they see all bishops and priests who celebrate the Eucharist with us as tainted. They are being allowed to take things to extremes. It’s as though the Church hasn’t fully owned its decision to ordain women.”

Behind such comments lie the separate wells from which Anglican theology has traditionally been drawn. Some are simply unconcerned about ecclesiology. Others look to the undivided Church of the first five centuries for their inspiration, others to Geneva, others to Rome; and although this makes for theoretical breadth, it can in practice lead to a dialogue of the deaf. So while Church of England traditionalists have maintained that they have no authority to alter a form of ministry belonging ,o the universal Church, their opponents are equally adamant that the ordination of women was simply a change in order less significant than the reforms ushered in under Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.

These stances in turn govern opposing attitudes towards reception — the process by which a church community comes to accept a decision as its own. One of the flying bishops, Edwin Barnes of Richborough, makes no apology for the perceived belligerence of Forward in Faith’s supporters. “A period of reception means that it is going to take time to discern the rightness of this move. Meanwhile, opponents must be free to express Catholic truth as they understand it.”

Such words enrage women priests, but he returns their accusation of bad faith. “Parliament would never have approved the legislation for women priests without the Act of Synod. And the Act itself will become unworkable as soon as there is a woman bishop, an event which could come sooner rather than later in the event of Anglican-Methodist reunion.” He remains agnostic about a separate province for traditionalists — seen in some quarters as schism by another name — while recognising that the move would have wide support among his constituency.

Since the Pope has affirmed that the Catholic Church has no authority to ordain women as priests, Anglican traditionalists have strong grounds for deploring the move on ecumenical grounds. Yet paradoxically, it is over this question that many women priests seem most sure of themselves. “It is not only Rome we have to think about,” says Christina Rees, a lay synod member who chairs WATCH (Women and the Church), the group that has grown out of the defunct Movement for the Ordination of Women. “The change made us more acceptable to the Methodists and Baptists, who were affronted by a male-only priesthood.” The synod did not go beyond its powers, she argues, because “to be Anglican in the first place is to believe that unilateral action may sometimes be necessary for the sake of the Gospel.”

At the practical level, Katharine Rumens, like all the others I spoke to, said that her relations with Roman Catholic priests had remained “as good as ever.” She also recalled the warmth of her reception by Catholics at the ecumenical gathering in Graz, Austria, earlier this year, adding that she received similar encouragement at a meeting of Spanish theologians in Bilbao. Rose Hudson-Wilkin had a heartfelt anecdote for the doubters. “Our ordination retreat was conducted at Hawkstone Hall, the Catholic centre in Shrewsbury. There was a group of Roman Catholic priests there at the same time, all of whom were very supportive. One had worked behind the Iron Curtain in a place where priests wore a special ring to identify themselves. He gave me his.”

Posted: Nov. 15, 1997 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=6595
Categories: TabletIn this article: Catholic, ordination, women
Transmis : 15 nov. 1997 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=6595
Catégorie : TabletDans cet article : Catholic, ordination, women

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