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News

Women bishops obstacle on the path to unity
14 July 2014 18:29 by Ruth Gledhill, Liz Dodd

The Church of England's decision to consecrate women as bishops marked a "difficult moment" that will "sadly" harm relations with the Catholic Church, the archbishop responsible for ecumenism has warned.

Speaking for the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, Archbishop Bernard Longley said today that the end goal of dialogue between the two Churches remained "full visible ecclesial communion" that "embraces full communion in the episcopal office". 

"The decision of the Church of England to admit women to the episcopate therefore sadly places a further obstacle on the path to this unity between us," he added.

"At this difficult moment we affirm again the significant ecumenical progress which has been made in the decades since the Second Vatican Council and the development of firm and lasting friendships between our communities. We rejoice in these bonds of affection and will do all we can to strengthen them and seek together to witness to the Gospel in our society," he said.

However he said the bishops "note and appreciate" the pastoral provision made within the legislation for "those members of the Church of England who continue to hold to the historic understanding of the episcopate shared by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches".

The editor of the Vatican’s semi-official newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, Giovanni Maria Vian, who is also a historian, said the vote will have “an extremely negative impact” on the path to ecumenical unity.

He said: “It's a decision that complicates the ecumenical path. The problem is not only with Rome but also with Orthodox Churches, and that the Anglican Church is itself divided on the issue.”

He said that the Anglicans in the southern half of the globe, who are now the majority, are largely opposed to female bishops.

"It's a problem for the Anglican Communion, which will now have even more internal divisions. But this decision also complicates the ecumenical movement towards the ancient Eastern Churches and the Orthodox Churches."

"The 'yes' to women bishops is a step that does not facilitate the unity of doctrine."

"To keep the hope of unity alive, spiritual ecumenism and the daily friendship between Christians of different denominations will have to grow and overcome the theological divisions."

"We need however to clarify some key points. This is a serious decision that is likely to have an extremely negative impact on the route towards the unity of all Christians."

Cheers and whoops of joy erupted at General Synod, both inside and outside the chamber at York University after an overwhelming majority of bishops and clergy voted to ordain women bishops.

Of the bishops, 37 voted in favour, two against and one abstained. Of the clergy, 162 voted in favour, 25 against and four abstained. The opposition was strongest in the House of Laity, responsible for defeating the measure by six votes in November 2012, where 45 voted against, 152 in favour and five abstained. A two-thirds majority was needed in each of the three houses of the synod.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, whose new style of leadership played a significant role in resolving the deadlock over women, said: “To pass this legislation is to commit ourselves to an adventure in faith and hope.”

Its success, he said, would require “integrity and courage.” Speeches given on the floor had been costly, painful and hopeful, yet it had not been culture versus theology, but genuine theological argument. “Reimagining and spiritual growth are inextricably entwined if we are to demonstrate the reality of Jesus and serve the common good,” he said.

Crucial to it all was the independent process to hold everyone to account for the promises they make to each other. Advocating “the flourishing in the Church of all those who disagree,” he added: “If I did not think that was likely, I could not support this legislation.” Even if in the past the Church had been overwhelmed by the tortuous path it had taken, it must not be daunted by what lies ahead of it now. “You do not chuck out family even when you disagree.”

Revd Jennifer Tomlinson, of Chelmsford, said: “If we say yes, our ministry will be even more biblical, as we show the world that in Christ, there is neither male nor female.”

Susannah Leafe, of Truro, said her experience of “facilitated talks” she had been told it was “ridiculous” to expect the concerns of conservative evangelicals into account because they were “wrong”. The outcome was that the “majority” ended up telling the “minority” what was good for them. “We are going to need a change in culture. We are going to need a respect of conscience and conviction … because there’s a world out there that needs to hear the real Gospel.”

Dr Philip Giddings, chairman of the House of Laity, said a better way had been found than November 2012, when the last package failed by six votes, but the package still did not meet the needs of everyone in the Church. He said: “The key for me is that this package is adequate.”

This was because of the new House of Bishops’ guidelines, which bishops and clergy will be disciplined over if they fail to adhere to and which pledge proper oversight for those opposed to women bishops, as well as providing an independent reviewer to act as an ombudsman in disputes.

For many, he said, the new package still did not give the level of protection that Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics were asking for. But in a significant step, given the respect in which he is held by traditionalists and Evangelicals, he said he would now vote for the legislation in spite of his reservations. He had been expected to vote against or abstain.

The Bishop of Rochester, James Langstaff, admitted that because this was the Church of England, the nation, including parliament and media, was taking “a keen interest” in what the General Synod said and did, along with other churches and the wider Anglican Communion. “But, while we must be aware of those others, we are here today to do what we believe under God to be right.”

He urged the synod to weigh “carefully” the consequences for morale and the Church’s witness to the nation were the legislation to fail once again. The synod would be seen as “frustrating” the view of the wider church.

The Rev David Houlding, a leading Anglo-Catholic, said: “We have to learn to trust and go on trusting no matter how much it costs.” There will be an ecumenical price to pay with the Church’s Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox brothers and sisters, he warned, but the dialogue will continue. “We are proceeding without Catholic consent. Nonetheless we must not lose sight of the aspiration set before us in the great chorus of the Christian hymn, One church one faith, one Lord. To that end we must continue to work.”

Michael Perham, the Bishop of Gloucester, said: “It is the whole church that has been disabled by the arguments strife and discord among us as we have struggled to resolve this issue… I want us all to flourish all contributing distinctively to the overall life of the Church.” Evangelicals can stop falling out, Anglo-Catholics can recover a unity they have lost. “If we can let God make it, today can be a day when the Church flourishes afresh and those who have been divided can once again be friends.”

Yesterday synod voted to make less mention of the devil during baptisms after he was deemed too much of a “cartoon-like character” and expelled from a new text.

Meeting in York, the General Synod on Sunday gave initial approval to new texts, which will not replace existing rites but merely exist alongside them, to go forward for revision.

Instead of asking parents and godparents to “reject the devil and all rebellion against God”, the service asks them to “reject evil”.

The Bishop of Sodor and Man, Robert Paterson, told the synod that feedback from families who had taken part in baptisms suggested they remembered the symbols and actions more than the words used.

“For many people, the devil has been turned into a cartoon-like character of no particular malevolence.

"The problem is helping people with little doctrinal appreciation to understand what we mean by affirming that the devil is a defeated power.” He said the words had been changed in order to “encapsulate what we mean by a broken and restored relationship with God.”

A report for the Church's Liturgical Commission said that clergy frequently found themselves conducting baptisms for 'un-churched' families for whom the existing wording “can seem complex and inaccessible".

Meanwhile synod also approved a measure to allow clergy to “dress down” and exchange the robes and other vestments worn at Morning and Evening Prayer and Holy Communion for more casual clothing.

Already, many clergy, especially Evangelicals and some liberals, eschew clerical collars and other more formal clerical outfits for plain trousers and shirts, with or without ties, especially at non-Eucharistic services.

But technically they are currently in breach of canon law, which currently prescribes a surplice or alp with scarf or stole at Holy Communion, morning and evening prayer.

Revd Christopher Hobbs, from the London Diocese, whose private member’s motion calling for draft legislation to be drawn up was approved by the synod, insisted it was not a “charter for shell suits, or jaffa cakes and Coke”.

He said he was merely suggesting that where a bishop and church council agreed, robes need not be worn, such as a “fresh expression” of church in a school or café, a small, intimate meeting on a stifling summer night, or because the cleric feels robes are a barrier in communicating the Gospel.

But a female chaplain at York University, Dr Rowan Williams, warned that young people attach a "huge amount of meaning" to what they wear. "If religious vestments are a barrier to mission, we are wearing them wrongly," she said. "We don't need to get rid of them, we need to consider what the symbols are."

The Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, cautioned: "The canon is already very, very permissive. So when you are amending it from mandatory to occasional, look carefully at what it is you are amending."

At the opening of the synod meeting, Church of England leaders drew on Catholic doctrines in an attempt to frame a neighbourly discourse of love and respect in advance of the crucial final vote on women bishops on Monday.

The Archbishop of York John Sentamu invited the leading US Evangelical Jim Wallis, a spiritual adviser to US President Barack Obama, to address synod members and then preach on the “Uncommon Good”. Wallis, whose wife Joy Carroll is a former member of the synod and was among the first women to be ordained priest, defined the concept of the common good as “all responsible for all”.

Mr Wallis in particular praised Pope Francis, who he said had transformed the conversation with young people, not by trying to be superman, but simply by being “vicar of Christ” and doing and saying what people think Christians are supposed to do and say.

Citing St John Chrysostom, he said the most perfect definition of being a Christian was doing the common good, because that was what loving your neighbour consisted of. Wallis contrasted this with the “dysfunctional” political climate in Washington. He criticised modern politics and markets. “Don't trust politics or the market, which are riddled with sin,” he said, and warned that the power of sin must not be under-estimated.

He said the theology of the church he grew up in was in effect “save a few people from hell and judge all the others”.

“Loving our neighbour is what will restore our credibility as a Church.” Otherwise the next generation will simply move on from religion. “Religion makes a big mistake when its primary posture is to protect itself and its own interests. God is personal but never private.” The privatisation of faith had led to people walking away, he said.

Before preaching at the synod Eucharist at York Minister, Mr Wallis spent the afternoon and evening addressing and taking part in workshops with members of the synod, on the eve of the all-important vote on women bishops.

“The common good has become quite uncommon. That’s a tremendous problem and, for us, a great opportunity,” he said. “Our life together can be better. Ours is such a shallow and selfish age and we are in need of conversion.”

He praised the Church of England for the amount of work it is doing on the subject.

He said the largest growing affiliation in the US is now “none”.

“I call them the nones. I love the nones. I love the other nuns too.” Most of the nones believe in God. “They just don’t want to affiliate with religion because of what we have or have not done.”

This presented an opportunity to shake up public life as well as for evangelisation. “Because what they are attracted to are those who are doing something to change their communities.”

Although it was not on the agenda, discussions outside the official chamber at York were dominated by the subject of assisted dying after a surprise intervention by a former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey of Clifton, who wrote in yesterday’s Daily Mail that he had changed his mind on the issue. Lord Carey will now back Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill on its Second Reading in the House of Lords this week. At the same time, Archbishop Welby wrote in The Times of why he could never support assisted dying and believes the Bill is “mistaken and dangerous”.

The Church of England, which has consistently opposed the Bill and called for the status quo to be maintained, shifted its stance in response. The Bishop of Carlisle, James Newcome, called for a Royal Commission which he said would allow the "important issue" to be discussed at length. He said the bill should be withdrawn to allow the inquiry to take place. Lord Falconer rejected his plea.