Geoffrey Kirk: Women Bishops, the Ordinariate and the future of Anglo-Catholics

5 01 2012

Dr Geoffrey Kirk calls on the opponents of women bishops to admit that the battle has been lost in January’s New Directions:

‘Final Approval of the current draft Women Bishops legislation is not a foregone conclusion; the best way to secure its safe passage would be to amend it to provide properly for traditionalists; modest amendment of the legislation, together with a suitably drafted Code of Practice could yet enable the Church of England to move forward together on women bishops in 2012. Failure to amend the legislation could result in the failure of the legislation at Final Approval, which would delay the introduction of women bishops for many years to come’ Thus the leader of the Catholic Group in Synod of the forth-coming debate.

So it has come to this: a movement which once embraced a vocation to reassert and affirm the Catholic nature of the Church of England, to defend its orders as those of the Universal Church, and so to progress the unity of Christendom, is reduced to horse-trading for its very existence, arguing in favour of what it most bitterly opposes in order to eke out a ghetto existence in the home it once supposed to be its own. A group of bishops, most of whom (and some immediately before they were so recently consecrated) sought arrangements of reconciliation with the Holy See, are now the sponsors of a ‘Society’ within the Church of England which promises a future which without compromise it cannot deliver.

What am I to say?

This ignominious ending to a long and hard-fought campaign is properly a cause of grief and shame. Shame, because it is a betrayal of the entire Catholic movement – of Keble as well as Newman, of Pusey as well as Froude. Grief, because it has exposed a fault-line which, in our generous optimism, many of us supposed not to be there. When Benedict XVI called their bluff, men whose rallying cry had been ‘Look to the Rock from which we are hewn!’ looked the other way. When the life-boat was launched, they complained about its colour. They claimed to act out of affection for the Church of their baptism and ordination. Tragically that is a demonstration of loyalty which, in the course of time, the Church of England will discover that it can well do without.

It may simply be that there is, even among Anglo-Catholics, a residual, irrational, atavistic anti-Romanism which the passage of time has not been able to erode. But I think there is a deeper and more disturbing explanation for this sorry state of affairs.

A characteristic of modern Anglicanism, of all parties and opinions, has been creeping indifferentism. In increasing numbers people have concluded that doctrine does not matter – that it is merely ‘theological’, in the Harold Wilson sense of abstruse and irrelevant. How vividly I remember Dennis Nineham celebrating in the college chapel in a chasuble bought by Austin Farrer, behaving for all the world as though he believed in the Real Presence, when he did not even believe in the Incarnation. And I wondered what John Keble would have made of that. The virus has proved not only lethal but catching. It was doctrinal indifferentism which allowed the development of the so-called ‘Doctrine of Reception’ which was embraced by opponents of women priests more or less tongue-in-cheek. And that has left its doleful mark.

‘Reception’ was an idea borrowed from the world of ecumenism, where for two generations and more, theologians had been practising the dark arts of fabricating agreement where truly none was to be found. By ‘Reception’ the Church of England was enabled to authorise orders about whose validity it freely admitted that it was itself uncertain – thus undermining its own trustworthiness and reliability. By ‘Reception’ bishops were enabled to license to the cure of souls ‘which is both mine and thine’ clergy about whose orders they were in doubt, and whose administration of the dominical sacraments was therefore equally dubious – thus jettisoning their own claim to be guardians of faith and sacraments.

‘Reception’ was, of course, a scam in which the proponents of women priests did not for a moment believe. By embracing it, to whatever degree, opponents nurtured the seed of their own downfall: they compromised the doctrine of sacramental assurance which lay at the heart of their ecclesiology. Now the Catholic Group is eager to ‘move forward together on women bishops’. Will they, I wonder, vote for the legislation they have so long opposed in order to secure the minimal concessions to which they are sure to be condemned? Nothing could be more demeaning; but anything is possible when principle and self-respect alike have been abandoned.

Those who live by the Synod die by the Synod. And where traditional Anglo-Catholics are concerned the writing on the Synodical wall has for some time been visible to all but the most determinedly myopic. From the failure to receive the Blackburn Report in July 2000 to the defeat of the Archbishops’ amendment in July 2010 the message has been clear. There is, therefore, something verging on the pathological about the expectation that there will be a last minute change of heart. Like a neurotic victim of domestic violence, the optimists are compulsively returning to the scene of their own suffering.

Let enough be enough. The time has come for opponents of women priests and bishops to admit that the game is up, that the battle is lost, and that the logic of the proponents’ arguments will not admit the possibility of a mixed economy. The future has already happened; let them look to The Episcopal Church of the United States and to the Church of Sweden to see the shape of things to come.



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