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The Anglicans who voted against women bishops showed true Dunkirk spirit

Now the ‘Church in turmoil’ headline will run for another five years

By on Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A meeting of the General Synod at the Assembly Hall of Church House (Photo: PA)

A meeting of the General Synod at the Assembly Hall of Church House (Photo: PA)

According to the BBC News at Ten, which led with the story last night, the defeat of the women bishops measure in the General Synod represented the victory of “a vocal minority”. I interpret this to mean that having been given a vote, these dissenters from the majority line then proceeded to use their vote as they pleased, which is not the point of voting at all, at least not as the BBC sees it. It has all gone horribly wrong. The measure was meant to be passed. Now we will all have to wait five years, according to the Synod rules, until another vote can be taken, and we have a chance to finally get it right. What the BBC neglects to mention is that if you have a free vote, well, people must be allowed to vote freely. And if you set up rules allowing for a minority to block the will of the majority, can you complain when they do? They were your rules after all.

Rather oddly, I sympathise with the liberal consensus on this one. The Church of England ordains women, and has done so for over two decades; it must therefore follow that there is no theological reason for not consecrating them as bishops. To say that woman can become priests but not bishops is illogical.

At the same time one cannot but feel a sneaking admiration for the little over a third of the members of the House of Laity, who decided to resist the inevitable. They must know, however, that their voting down the measure will delay it but not in the end stop it. The Church of England must surely have women bishops; it is only a question of when; and a question of with what safeguards for dissenters. But the “vocal minority” have stood up against the overwhelming consensus inside the Church of England, and outside it too. (It is remarkable how people who never go to church care so deeply about women bishops!) They have shown the true Dunkirk spirit – though that they succeeded may have taken some of them by surprise.

In the end, does this matter? It does, in that it means that this question is still not resolved, and it would have been nice for the new archbishop to have come into office with all this behind him. The Church of England now faces five more years of an argument which is substantially over, bar the shouting. But that shouting will go on, and it may not be pretty. Moreover, there are better things to talk about; but the media will of course stick with the “Church in turmoil” headline that it loves so much.

But if those who oppose women bishops on theological grounds think that this represents a turning point, I very much doubt that this is the case. Female ordination is now part of the Anglican landscape. This last year more women were ordained than men in the Church of England, and in the not too distant future the Anglican ministry may become predominantly female. And the funny thing is that no one really minds. Those of us who oppose female ordination – and yes, I am certainly one that holds it to be an impossibility (if I did not, I would be an Anglican) – are the sort of people who the BBC and others look upon as a vocal minority: professional pains in the neck, who really ought not to be allowed to ruin the harmony of the overwhelming consensus mentioned above.

I seem to remember, years ago, back in the late 1980s, Margaret Thatcher saying something along the lines of “Women make wonderful dentists and doctors, why shouldn’t they make wonderful priests as well?” As in other matters, Mrs Thatcher spoke for so many when she uttered those words. For most of the United Kingdom, that is what the priesthood is – it is one of the caring professions, a form of social work, something that women can plainly do very well. So why shouldn’t they?

But my view of the priesthood is rather different from Mrs Thatcher’s. The priesthood is not a caring profession as such; it is a rather different line of work. In fact it is not work or a job at all. The priest exists for one thing and one thing only; all his other activities are icing on the cake; the priest is there to climb Mount Calvary and offer the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He is there to say hoc est enim corpus meum (“This is my body”). That is his one purpose, though he may fulfil many others as well. But amid the multitude of tasks, the centrality of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must not be lost sight of. But try to explain this to people who mutter about equality legislation being brought to bear, and it will seem to them to be antiquated nonsense.

Women priests seem perfectly natural to many Anglicans (and many liberal Roman Catholics too) because to them a priest is not really what, let us say, the Council of Trent had in mind. But I hold to the classical view of the priesthood, as exemplified by Trent and the Catholic tradition. As to the brave minority in the Synod, perhaps they may agree with me, in which case, their place is here, where I stand, on this riverbank, Tiber, not Thames.

  • Denis Jackson

    yes I heard that the synod members were all convinced that the’ Holy Spirit’ was clearly on their side, what a load of bunk.

  • Robin L

    Yes Fr Alexander you are, of course right, The Catholic priesthood is a ‘sacrificing’ priesthood
    and not an office that ‘presides’ over ‘the meal’. Benedict XV1 has already made it clear that the
    Eucharist is a sacrifice, the sacrifice of Our Lord, the self-giving of God in the face of our hatred
    and betrayals. Even in pre-Christian times women and children were protected from sacrifice
    both from victimage and from executing (as it were) the sacrifice. This carried over into the self-sacrifice of Our Lord who was both Victim and Priest, uniting in himself the concentrated violence of sin and thereby overcoming it FOR US!
    However Catholics ought to acquaint themselves with the arguments of  their female opponents
    by reading : Haye van der Meer SJ: (1973) Women Priests in the Catholic Church?  Temple University Press Philadelphia.
    One strand of the feminist argument on priestesses is Carl Jung’s emphasis on the need of men to
    express his anima ( feminine in him) and women to express the animus (male in her). The argument for this integration is presumed to lie at the psychic and spiritual level and not on the biological
    and physical level.
    Whether this is a sufficient reason to admit women to the priesthood is doubtful for it is too narrow and ahistorical to meet the demands of  reason and revelation (see Pope John Paul II  Faith and Reason:
    Fides et Ration)
    Anyway we must know our opponents reasons and their desires. We live in interesting if conflicted times.

  • Guest

    “But amid the multitude of tasks, the centrality of the Eucharistic Sacrifice must not be lost sight of.”

    You fail to explain why women can’t do this.

  • Guest

    So only Catholics are true Christians – what a heretic you must be to believe that.

  • Guest

    There were woman apostles (and prophets and pastors) - have you not read the bible?

  • Guest

    There is no authority – that is the point.  You can assert anything you like, but for anyone else to believe it you need EVIDENCE.  Otherwise it is all hot air and vanity by self-impotant men who claimed to speak for God but were only speaking for themselves.

  • Arden Forester

    That is offensive because they are trying to be offensive. Ignorance is one thing, but this is not ignorance.

  • Chumblies

    To Charles Martel: That is an incredibly hurtful comment, which quite frankly you should be ashamed of.

    To state that every Anglican Catholic such as myself is a ‘heretic’ is dangerous and narrow minded.

    Have a Blessed Christmas.