15 July 2014, The Tablet

God knows where the women bishops vote leaves Anglican-Catholic relations

by Mgr Mark Langham

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

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User comments (15)

Comment by: John Loughran
Posted: 23/07/2014 18:50:01

When will our Church leaders allow God to call women and married people to serve him in the ordained priesthood?

Comment by: Jim Mccrea
Posted: 22/07/2014 22:28:19

See Mt 16:19 and Mt 18:18: Martin, I take it that you deny that this authority passes to the church throughout time and that which was bound once cannot be loosed at another time.

Comment by: Martin
Posted: 22/07/2014 13:57:02

I am concerned by some of the frankly heterodox comments I see below.

The Church is very clear on the impossibility of women being capable of valid reception of Holy Orders. It is equally clear that this is a doctrine to which all the faithful must assent.

To purport to ordain women puts at risk the very validity of the sacraments. No Mass a woman - "ordained" or not - celebrated could ever possibly be valid. No absolution could be effective. If, Heaven forfend, they were "ordained" as bishops then no priest they ordained would be a priest and no bishop they consecrated would be such. The entire Sacramental basis of the Church would be undermined and the souls of the faithful, which depend upon the Sacraments, would be put at risk.

Why should we risk this merely in order to satisfy secular notions of equality?

The matter is closed. The Church has spoken. Enough with your dissent. Enough!

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 21/07/2014 21:37:16

The "Imago Dei" needs no adjustment ... it is clear in Galatians 3:27-29.

Comment by: hilartwise
Posted: 20/07/2014 16:17:53

I suspect women priests may be a reality sooner rather than later, in spite of what the hierarchy may say. Of course certain adjustments must be made to the meaning of "imago Dei" etc. When the Holy Spirit moves, we will all, at least most of us fall in line. It will happen gradually, however.

Comment by: mamamia
Posted: 18/07/2014 17:51:25

This whole debate comes down to Anglicans not accepting the doctrine of transubstantiation. That is why they can proceed with the ordination of women as priests and bishops within their communion.

Transubstantiation is a core belief for Catholics and one that no Pope can ever change. There are also, of course, other doctrinal differences which prevent full unity. As long as the Anglican Church in England is the state church it has to comply with government passed legislation, e.g. SSM, Abortion, Divorce, and possibly Euthanasia, which the Catholic Church formally objects to.

This is not a black & white issue nor is a question of equal rights which feminists like us to believe.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 18/07/2014 17:18:11

Let me translate your comments, Mygraceissufficient:

To ordain women to the Catholic priesthood would be to admit that Catholic doctrine in this matter has been wrong in the past.

Comment by: Hugh Millar
Posted: 18/07/2014 16:58:20

Tina Beattie has the rights of it here. There is no reason why women should be barred from becoming priests in the Catholic Church. An organisation which acts unreasonably, especially in an unfairly discriminatory way, can't claim the loyalty of reasonable people. The 'one, true, holy, catholic and apostolic church' is, like other religious organisations, just a bunch of people trying to find the way to lead a good life together. This is an unnecessary and unjust obstacle.

Comment by: Jane
Posted: 17/07/2014 19:28:21

Thank you Denis. You have hit the nail on the head. As a convert from the Anglican Church where I was an active member and licenced lay reader; I had felt incresing drawn to the Catholic Church. The day I braved a week day Mass I was made very welcome. After the Mass I spoke to the priest about my presence. He listened carefully and asked if I wished to become a Catholic. I somehow knew quite instinctively that it was Jesus speaking to me through the priest. I knew perfectly clearly the answer I gave was of utmost importance. I give grateful thanks to God in leading me home to the Catholic Church.

Comment by: Mygraceissufficient
Posted: 17/07/2014 14:19:09

It is ludicrous to talk of women being ordained in the Catholic Church. Our understanding of the difference/complementarity of the sexes precludes it. To imagine that you can have women priests/bishops in the Catholic Church would be to unravel, and do violence to, the whole corpus of Catholic teaching. It is illogical, secular, liberal, unthinking, uninformed nonsense to think in this way!

The CofE has no such thoroughgoing joined-up theology in terms of the way different 'teaching' hang together. Nor do they have priesthood as the Catholic Church understands it. It is to compare oranges with apples ...

The inevitability of women as 'bishops' in the CofE was overwhelming. It is equally overwhelming as an impossibility - ever - in our beloved Catholic Church (new Pope or not!).

Comment by: Denis
Posted: 17/07/2014 11:20:47

I would appreciate correction on this, but isn't the fundamental problem that the C of E has a different understanding of the role of a priest from that held by the Catholic Church.
The Catholic priest acts in the person of Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass. The C of E sees the priest's role as commemorative. Recalling Christ's words rather than Christ acting through that person to manifest himself in the form of bread and wine. That being the case the C of E quite rightly has no objections to a woman ordained as a priest and logically therefore as a bishop.

Comment by: Ecumenically minded member of CWO
Posted: 17/07/2014 11:10:36

"Anglicans do not seem always to realise how difficult such a move is for Catholics" Mgr Langham as a Catholic seeking closer ecumenical relations I applaud the Anglican vote for women bishops. The Catholic hierarchy do not have a good recent record in ecumenical relationships. Pope Benedict did not appear to discuss his decision to develop the Ordinariate with his Anglican colleagues. As a long standing member of Churches Together I was increasingly apologising for the hardening Catholic attitude towards sharing the Eucharist in ecumenical gatherings and comments on the validity of Anglican priests.
As a member of CWO I applaud the decision for women bishops. I see the absence of women priests linked to a particular theology of priesthood and I continue to urge the Catholic hierarchy to look again. at ordained ministry. Please disentangle and really discern what has become a patriarchal tradition developing away from the early days of the Church. Christ did not institute the priesthood as we know it today.

Pippa Bonner

Comment by: Tina Beattie
Posted: 16/07/2014 20:24:16

“Anglicans do not seem always to realise how difficult such a move is for Catholics.” It might be difficult for the Catholic hierarchy and for some Catholics, but for many Catholics the real difficulty is not that the Anglican Church ordains women, but that the Catholic Church refuses even to allow us to have a theological discussion about the possibility. Ecumenical dialogue is not just what happens between church hierarchies wedded to their respective doctrinal positions. Perhaps more importantly, it is about the day to day working and worshipping together of millions of ordinary Christians. I doubt that many of us are disappointed or discouraged by this latest development.

Pope Francis tells us that the door is closed on women priests, but he is a fine theologian and he often speaks with a twinkle in his eye. Surely he knows that the first thing the risen Christ did was to walk through locked doors to be with his terrified followers? I don’t know what the Catholic hierarchy is so afraid of about women priests, but I know that frightened men locking the doors won’t keep Christ out, when he decides to walk through and stand on the altar in the womanly flesh that his mother gave to him.

Comment by: Sandi
Posted: 16/07/2014 16:07:48

The Roman Catholic church seems to believe that "unity" means that other christian churches must conform to what Rome believes in all matters. It does not ever seem to occur to the Vatican that perhaps they should re-think their own position. The Roman church is wrong in denying access to a sacrament to women. The Anglicans and most of the Protestant churches are way ahead of Rome in understanding this.

I applaud the Anglicans for their decision. The Roman Catholic church has often lagged other christians in officially "developing" its teachings. Since Rome is wrong in this matter, it is likely that the "push" from Anglicanism will speed the day when Rome finally rights a terrible wrong.

Comment by: Jim McCrea
Posted: 15/07/2014 21:10:36

I suspect that the Anglicans don't feel a particular need to "wait" for Catholics or the Orthodox to come to an agreement re: women priests and bishops.

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