The Church of England has at last agreed to ordain women as bishops. I say ‘at last’, because this move is long overdue. If women can be deacons, then they can be bishops, and they have been deacons for over two decades. The Church of England has at last caught up with itself.
I am, of course, opposed to the ordination of women. If I were in favour I would be morally obliged, I think, to become an Anglican. But I welcome this latest step as it restores some sanity to the world. There was no earthly reason why that ‘stained glass ceiling’ was in place; except there was. If the Church of England believes in apostolic succession, then the ordination of future priests is compromised if the ordaining prelate is female. However, though this argument has been aired many a time, it was not allowed to carry the day. In fact, the real delay to the legislation has been over the safeguards to be put in place to protect those who will refuse the ministry of women bishops.
The Catholic Bishops of England and Wales have published a brief statement, which I reproduce in full:
The Catholic Church remains fully committed to its dialogue with the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. For the Catholic Church, the goal of ecumenical dialogue continues to be full visible ecclesial communion.
Such full ecclesial communion 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. Nevertheless we are committed to continuing our ecumenical dialogue, seeking deeper mutual understanding and practical cooperation wherever possible.
We note and appreciate the arrangement of pastoral provision, incorporated into the House of Bishops’ Declaration and the amending Canon passed by the General Synod, 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.
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.
This is expressed in terms of fraternal charity, but the message is blunt: there is now a new (and, in human terms, insurmountable) obstacle to unity. Once, when I was in my youth, corporate reunion looked possible in my lifetime. Not any more.
It is interesting to note the Bishops’ reference to Orthodoxy. The Moscow Patriarchate has already spoken out about this matter several times, and in no uncertain terms. It will be interesting to see how they react to this latest development.
From a Catholic point of view, nothing much has changed, for it is the principle of female ordination that is the sticking point. The Anglicans have long embraced the principle, this is merely extending it, not changing it. In many ways this is a very sad day for ecumenism, for it shows the huge gap between Catholics and Anglicans on the question of Apostolic Succession and the nature of the Church. But at the same time it is in a sense a refreshing day, because it clears the air. We know where the Church of England stands now, or rather, we knew where it stood, but our perception of that stance is clearer. And we know where we stand. There is no excuse for further fudging of issues of eccliosiology.
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