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The vote by the Church of England to ordain women as bishops changes nothing in its official relations with the Catholic Church. And yet it changes a great deal. It is to be noted that the decision in England only confirms a reality that has existed in worldwide Anglicanism since 1989. The Anglican–Roman Catholic dialogue has been dealing with the reality of women clerics since the 1970s, (early ordinations took place in Asia, North America and New Zealand) and so this decision in one part of the Anglican Communion changes little; indeed, a woman bishop from Canada, Linda Nicholls, is a member of the current Anglican-Catholic dialogue commission, ARCIC III.
But ecumenical relations are not just about cold theological facts. Progress in dialogue is built also on personal co-operation, on feeling comfortable in each other’s presence. And here the decision does create a problem. Anglicans can be frustrated by Rome’s concentration on what happens at Canterbury (or, in this case, York). In 1989, the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, noted this fixation, suggesting that Rome had ignored “ the actual existence of women priests in the United States for a number of years … We have never tried to hide this.”
Yet among most Anglicans, the Church of England does have a sentimental position as “mother Church”, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is the “first among equals”. If anyone is a spokesman for Anglicanism, it is he, and accordingly Rome is right to take notice of developments in Anglicanism as they occur in the Church of England. The discussions leading to the 1992 vote for women priests occasioned a particularly frank exchange between Pope and Archbishop, and it was to a gathering of Church of England bishops in 2008 that the then-head of the Vatican’s ecumenical office, Cardinal Walter Kasper, gave his dire warning that the ordination of women would move Anglicanism away from Catholic orthodoxy and closer to the continental Reformed Churches.
Thus, this is a critical moment for ecumenical dialogue. Anglicans do not seem always to realise how difficult such a move is for Catholics. In 2009 Archbishop Rowan Williams tried to suggest that the ordination of women as priests is a “second-order issue” of mere canonical or juridical significance. ARCIC had previously argued that the question of the ordination of women is of a “different kind” to more serious theological issues. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith gave short shrift to these notions, asserting that the ordination of women is a doctrinal issue, intrinsic to the theology of priesthood.
Thus, it is true to say that hope of union has receded. There is no mid-point now between having women bishops and not having them. From speaking of unity, realistically dialogue now considers how two traditions, one of which ordains women bishops and one which does not, co-exist. The rug has been pulled from under those who longed for unity within the foreseeable future.
Yet ecumenists are upbeat; they have come too far, and weathered too many disappointments, not to continue to have faith in the movement. Ecumenism, they point out, is not a human construct, but a divine imperative. Wonders have happened; the Holy Spirit is not discouraged. At a time when, institutionally, we seem far away apart, faith in God’s will for unity has to be stronger than ever.
Mgr Mark Langham is Catholic chaplain to the University of Cambridge and was previously co-secretary to ARCIC III and an official at the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity