The question of whether or not the Church of England will appoint women bishops drags on and on. (We will of course put to one side here the question of the validity of Anglican orders: though our view has been somewhat softened in its expression by the ARCIC process, it is still, of course, the unavoidable view of the Catholic Church that they are, in Leo XIII’s not exactly tactful words, “absolutely null and utterly void”).
The Anglican bishops have now decided that they will delay the final decision as to whether or not to proceed to legislate on the matter. The reason for this is that those opposed to any special arrangements being made, for those parishes who don’t want to be in the diocese of a woman bishop, object strongly to these arrangements, so much so that they are threatening to vote the whole thing down. This would mean that they would all have to start again from the beginning of the whole weary synodical process; it could take another five years.
As to why many Synod members don’t like these special arrangements — which they say will mean the establishment of a second-rate episcopate for women — it is germane to note that by this stage the arguments against them are entirely secular. The Evangelicals don’t want women bishops because they say that scripture requires male headship in the Church. That’s a theological reason. Anglo-Catholics don’t recognise that they can be bishops at all, because they don’t accept (for recognisably “Catholic” reasons) that women can be ordained priest in the first place. That, too, is a clearly theological reason. Those who want women bishops, by contrast, say it’s now nothing to do with theology, and that it’s a matter of their human rights as women, and that if parishes are allowed to refuse a woman’s episcopal ministry and to opt out of their dioceses into a kind of limbo — serviced by something like the present obsolescent arrangement of “flying bishops” — that will mean that those women the Church of England would raise to the Anglican episcopate would be second-class bishops, since not only would the Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics not fully recognise them: neither would the Church of England.
This objection has nothing to do with theology, and you don’t need to be an Anglican or even a Christian to see the force of it. The arguments in favour of women bishops have nothing to do with theology, says Rabbi Julia Neuberger, and she is dead right: once, that is, you have accepted that the women who have been “ordained” priests really are priests, since if you are a priest there can be no theological reason why you should not become a bishop. And the Church of England has already made a clear decision about that.
The fact is that the Anglo-Catholics who are still determined to stay in the Church of England are in an impossible situation. As I wrote in this column last February (the last time the Synod discussed the matter),
… if you accept that women may be priests, that those women already ordained as such by the Church of England are validly ordained (and I actually heard a member of the Catholic group in Synod actually saying on the radio that he did accept them as priests, but that he didn’t want them to become bishops) then what are you on about? If a woman is a priest, then she is eligible to be a bishop. If she’s not, she isn’t. Either way, you are a member of a Church in which there are now hundreds of women priests: and whether you put yourself in a ghetto which doesn’t accept them or not, you are still in full communion with them (and don’t give me that stuff about “impaired communion”: you are in full communion with your own bishops (flying or not), who are themselves in full communion with the male bishops who ordained all these women, so you are in full communion with them: get used to it, or leave.
As to why Julia Neuberger thinks it’s any of her business, or why I do, come to that, the answer is simple enough. The Church of England is established by law under the crown; it is the state Church, so we too have a stake in it. Ultimately its affairs are regulated by Parliament: when, that is to say, the Synod has legislated to establish a female episcopate, its legislation must be taken across the road and translated into English secular law by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Then the Queen must give her assent. All this would normally be a formality: whatever the Synod wants Parliament usually lets it have. It has been little noticed, however, that this time, members of the 30-strong parliamentary committee of MPs and peers known as the “ecclesiastical committee”, which would have to agree that the Synodical legislation is “expedient” before it proceeds on its weary way, are saying firmly that any “special arrangements” for dissident parishes would not be accepted by them.
This is, of course, for entirely secular reasons, as members of the ecclesiastical committee are making clear: the Synod’s legislation will have to conform with the Human Rights Act. That means that the “special arrangements” the House of Bishops want incorporated into the new law will not get past Parliament. “This is now the second time the bishops have tried to water down the proposals,” says Ben Bradshaw MP, a member of the parliamentary committee. “These would, in the eyes of many Anglicans, create a two-tier bishopric and a lesser status for women… I have spoken to some of my colleagues on the ecclesiastical committee and they share my concerns about the amendments.”
Simon Hughes MP, another member of the committee, says that its members have a “duty” to ensure the proposals do not conflict with equality law. “The ecclesiastical committee obviously does not set out to impose its will on [the Church], however we have a duty to make sure that anything that comes before us does not break any of the principles of the law of the land,” he said.
There you have it, really: an Erastian Church is ultimately a secular organisation, though one in which religion is permitted, so long as it doesn’t clash with the ethical principles which govern secular society. Well, you may say, don’t we all have to conform with “the principles of the law of the land”? Well, no, actually: the Catholic Church will not be ordaining women priests and bishops however much secular society thinks we should; nor will we be “marrying” homosexuals; in the end, the C of E will almost certainly have to. Secular human rights law does not and cannot touch us: we are the Church, and if they try to make us we will disobey.
Anglo-Catholics need to understand clearly that there is no longer a place for them in the Church of England; they are not wanted. They have, however, an alternative, in communion with the one true Church: the ordinariate has been erected precisely for them. If they will not become part of it, they will have simply to accept that they are members of a Church with women priests and women bishops and get used to it. But if they do, they had better stop calling themselves “Anglo-Catholics”: they will have forfeited the right.