The Westminster Abbey Institute

Advent Lectures 2006: Anglicans and Ministry

13th December 2006 at 18:15

The Parting of Friends?

2. Anglicans and Ministry

Last week I explained why I have taken as the title for this series of lectures 'The Parting of Friends?,' which was the title Newman gave to his last sermon as an Anglican. When Newman preached on 'The Parting of Friends' - without a question mark - he knew that very shortly he and some of his closest friends would not be able to share the sacrament which most closely unites Christians to each other and to our Lord, the Holy Communion. Nevertheless, he believed that there were issues of truth which had brought him and his friends to this point, and in obedient discipleship they could not paper over the cracks. Anglicans today are faced with the possibility of such a parting of the ways.

I explained last week that I have been privileged to be a member of two Commissions, one the Inter-Anglican Doctrinal and Theological Commission and the other the Rochester Commission, where the members have worked closely as friends and fellow-Anglicans, but where we know we have differing views on issues which have the potential to divide us at the eucharist. None of us wants this, and the experience of new divisions arising within Anglicanism makes us realise all the more the value of the Anglicanism we share. Even more, however, we value the truths we believe we have learned as Anglicans and we know that we cannot purchase unity at the price of truth - or, if we do, that unity itself will be devalued.

The Rochester Commission was convened by the Church of England to lay out the arguments to be considered if the General Synod decided to move towards legislation that would enable women to become bishops. Mercifully, as I saw it, we were not asked to make a recommendation, but only, as fairly as we could, to lay out the arguments on both sides. The members of the Commission were thus representative of those who have argued on both sides of this question. At present we remain in communion with one another because we do not have women bishops in the Church of England, but were women to be ordained as bishops some opponents of this would be in serious difficulties. The General Synod has now commissioned proposals (actually, revised proposals) as to what sort of legislation should be brought forward to allow women to become bishops, so the point at which women are ordained bishop is probably not very far away. Work is beginning to craft the legislation in such a way that those who cannot conscientiously accept women bishops may remain within the Church of England, but it is difficult to see how this can be done satisfactorily, and if it cannot be done satisfactorily those who are opposed to women bishops will, I fear, choose to leave - not because they wish to join another Christian denomination, but because they will believe the Church of England has left them. At that point there will be a real 'parting of friends'.

The Inter-Anglican Doctrinal Commission, as I said last week, has been engaged for some five years in a study of 'communion', trying to understand what communion means to members of the Anglican Communion round the world, and so how it can be strengthened. It is clear that the situations from which we come are profoundly different, and that we practise our Anglicanism in profoundly different ways. Just to take one example, most of our members live in countries with a British colonial past, and for some of them this puts the Anglican church at a distinct cultural disadvantage since it is the church of the former colonial power. For others, Anglicanism has taken deep roots in their culture, so it looks very different and is indeed very different to English Anglicanism. Some of our members come from countries where there is a strong Muslim presence, or a Muslim majority, so the idea of a sacred text which can be interpreted in different ways looks distinctly 'foreign'. When they see the ordination in the United States of a practising homosexual bishop, to many in the non-Western world this looks like public endorsement of corrupt western practices. It certainly does not commend Christianity in the eyes of Muslims who believe they have been given the very text of their sacred book by God and that homosexual practice is to be abhorred. On the other hand, from the American perspective, and also from the British perspective, not to open up discussion of the plurality of insights in the Bible, not to promote the ministry of women in the church, and not to challenge prejudiced, and sometimes vicious, attitudes towards homosexuality, would be a failure of ministry in a culture where open discussion and inclusive social practice are rightly prized. As I stressed last week, modern means of communication, CNN and the internet, now bring churches of different understandings and different cultures into immediate contact with one another. They confront us with our differences so starkly that we are facing the real possibility of a 'parting of friends'.

Perhaps, though, if we are friends, we can agree to differ in these difficult areas. Some will argue strongly that this is what we should do, but a moment's thought shows us how difficult that would be with respect to the ordination of women as bishops. Within, say, the Church of England, there are those who cannot accept the ordination of women to the episcopate - and those who cannot accept that women should be excluded from the episcopate. They may 'agree to differ' and some members of the church will doubtless look for the ministry of a bishop of the opposite gender. It may, perhaps, be possible to legislate for this possibility. But at the level of the college of bishops, if the bishops are to be a college, they will have fully to accept one another's ministry and to share communion. The bishops of a church, of a communion, cannot agree to differ to the extent that they do not share the eucharist - or, if they do, the use of the term will have been stretched beyond recognition.

The ordination of women to the episcopate, then, forces of the issue of communion at the level of the episcopate, just short of forcing the issue as to whether a woman can be an archbishop or primate. Now we have a female primate in the Anglican Communion - Katharine Jefferts Schori of the Episcopal Church of America - this absolutely forces the issue of the collegiality of all the primates. I know of none that has withdrawn from communion with her on the grounds of gender, which suggests that many within the Anglican Communion now broadly accept the legitimacy of women in positions of the highest authority, even though this has not been tested with regard to the Archbishopric of Canterbury. This is of profound significance for the future unity of the Anglican Communion. Those who differ from the emerging consensus that women can be priests, or bishops, or archbishops, are likely to find that they practise their Anglicanism within an increasingly circumscribed enclave, quite possibly one that splits from the main body of Anglicanism. Once women are bishops in the Church of England, the position of those English Anglicans who believe women can be neither priests nor bishops will, I think, despite the attempt to safeguard it legally, be difficult to maintain.

If 'visible unity' truly is the goal of the ecumenical movement, we cannot view the prospect of the 'parting of friends' amongst Anglicans who currently enjoy 'visible unity' with anything but the deepest sadness. I believe that the bonds which hold together this extraordinarily diverse group of Christians from all round the world - as an Anglican one goes on being amazed at the extent and diversity of Anglicans - are a precious gift of God given in the midst of a great deal of human frailty and continuing bad behaviour towards one another. Hence the need to explore more deeply what it is that holds Anglicans together in ministry.

Anglicans, women and ministry

Anglicans, as I said last week, are a split-off part of the western Church. We trace our roots back to the earliest church and believe that in our baptism we are one with Christians of the West and the East. Anglicans have always taken baptism, which is the sacrament by which all members of the body of Christ are fully included, extremely seriously. Ministry within the body of Christ is first and foremost a gift of Christ to the whole body:

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all.

But grace was given to each of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it is said, "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive; he gave gifts to his people." The gifts he gave were that some should be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Eph. 4: 4-13)

In baptism, all Christians share a fundamental equality in Christ: 'As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus' (Gal 3:27-8). It needs to be said very strongly that whatever differentiation of ministries we recognise in the Church, and whether we relate that differentiation to gender or not, none is superior to any other. Each is the gift of Christ to an individual for the sake of the body, and the aim is for the whole body to work in harmony: 'You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.' Hence the importance of Paul's metaphor of the body, taken from current classical writing, in which he argues that each member of the body has their own indispensable part to play. In Galatians baptismal equality is stressed (Gal 3:27-8); the stress in 1 Corinthians is on interdependence (1 Cor 12:12-26).

All ministries within the Body of Christ are rooted in the baptismal equality of all Christians, regardless of ethnicity, social status or gender. The Preface to the Ordinal of the Book of Common Prayer 1662 famously asserts, 'It is evident unto all men (sic!) diligently reading holy Scripture and ancient Authors, that from the Apostles' time there have been these orders of Ministers in Christ's Church; Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.' This is not of course accepted by the Churches of the Reformation, which see only two orders of ministry, bishops not being accepted as a distinct 'order,' but that is not a discussion I wish to pursue here. What I want to note here is that this is the structure of ordained ministry accepted in the Anglican Communion, and that there has been a steady development for some sixty years, since the ordination of the first woman priest in the extreme conditions of the Second Word War, towards the acceptance of women as deacons, priests and bishops. For four hundred years it has been 'evident unto Anglicans reading the history of the Church' that these orders of ministry have been overwhelmingly confined to men. In recent years, however, there has been much debate about the extent of any possible exceptions to which Scripture and the life of the early church bear witness, and the extent to which those exceptions are hard to spot because they have been deliberately played down or concealed, presumably by men.

Recent research has uncovered the extent to which the order of deaconesseswas known in the early church and was subsequently suppressed.1 Phoebe is called in Paul's Letter to the Romans a 'deacon of the church at Cenchreae' (Rom 16:1). Reference was made to women deacons at a number of Councils of the early Church:

At the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, 451 AD, an earlier minimal age of 60 years for women deacons was relaxed to 40 years Ö : 'Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age.' Voluntary celibacy was understood to be a condition.

'A Woman shall not receive the laying on of hands as a deaconess under forty years of age, and then only after searching examination. And if, after she has had hands laid on her and has continued for a time to minister, she shall despise the grace of God and give herself in marriage, she shall be anathematized as well as the man united to her.' (Council of Chalcedon, canon 15)

John Wijngaards notes that The Council of Trullo, convoked in Constantinople in 692 AD, re-affirmed the minimum age set by the Council of Chalcedon for women deacons:

Notice, he says, that the Council speaks of a real 'ordination' [cheirotonia] for women deacons, using exactly the same term for priests and male deacons! Though this term is occasionally also applied to minor orders, it is significant that the ordination of women deacons is mentioned in one breath with that of priests and male deacons.

Wijngaards argues that women were ordained to an order of 'deacons', and were not simply lay people with a diaconal function. He claims they were known throughout the early church, and did not disappear from the Byzantine Church until perhaps the tenth century. His argues that women could receive sacramental ordination - which is, of course, what women deacons now receive within the Church of England.

Here I would just make one theological point. In the writings of Ignatius, at the beginning of the second century, it is clear that he is familiar with three orders of ministry, bishops, priests and deacons. For Ignatius, the bishop is an image of God the father. It is not the priest but the deacon who is an image of Jesus Christ, because the ministry of the deacon is one of service: Ignatius speaks of the 'diakoniaof Jesus Christ' (Magn. 6). There is no indication that Ignatius ever thought in terms of women deacons, but it is clear that for him the diaconalrole is the one that mirrors Christ's ministry of service. If women can be deacons, then women in ministry can in the fullest sense model Christ - because Christ is the prototypical deacon.

The evidence for there having been women priests in the early church is much controverted, and I do not wish to discus it here. Now that there is twenty years' experience of the ministry of women priests within the Church of England, however, there is a point that can be made about the fittingness of a woman priest celebrating the eucharist. It is often argued that the celebrant of the eucharist stands in persona Christi and that this representational role is most appropriately taken by a male, who speaks the words of the male Christ at the Last Supper: 'This is my body' and 'This is my blood'. This line of argument has been strengthened by the westward-facing position of the priest at the eucharist, which makes for an obvious analogy with influential depictions of Jesus at the Last Supper, like that of Leonardo da Vinci. However, where the priest celebrates facing east, it is far clearer that the priest is not only the representative of Christ to the people but even more of the people to the Father (something that is only possible in and through the high priesthood of Christ). The eucharistic prayer is addressed to the Father on behalf of the people of God, the Church. The traditional imagery of the Church is both male ('the body of Christ') and female ('the bride of Christ'). There is nothing in the imagery of the eucharistic celebration that need preclude a female celebrant: on the contrary where a women prays on behalf of the church which is the bride of the lamb (to which the whole people respond with their 'Amen') it is made very clear that this prayer is a response to the self-giving of the bridegroom. Whilst it would be dangerous to use such a comment prescriptively - to argue from the iconography alone that women ought to be priests - we can at least say that where women are priests there is an element of 'fittingness' about their representative ministry. Certainly, there is nothing about the maleness of a male priest that makes him uniquely suited for his representational role in the eucharist: the key to the representational role is actually the humanity of the priest. This is a representative human being, representing both humanity to God and God to humanity.

The issues about the ordination of women to the episcopate are different, because the episcopate is traditionally a role that entails 'rule' within the church ('oversight' and jurisdiction). It would be quite understandable that someone might accept the ministry of women priests but believe that episcope is a role for men. Nevertheless, there are certain aspects of episcopacy which specifically reflect the ministry of women in the gospels. Mary Magdalene, who was the first to meet the risen Christ and who brought the news of his resurrection to the disciples, has been traditionally called the 'apostle to the apostles'. Within the Celtic Church, which was not organised into settled dioceses as the Roman Church was, following the model of Roman civil administration, the role of the bishop as a preacher of the gospel was particularly stressed. Thus, when Aidan became bishop of Lindisfarne, he went on expeditions to preach the gospel to the Northumbrians with the help of King Oswald.2 The role of women as communicators of the gospel has been important to the Church from the beginning (by contrast with courts of law, where the testimony of women was not accepted).

Secondly, there have been women who have exercised very considerable jurisdiction in the western church as abbesses, sometimes over monasteries that included men. Though Hilda was not ordained formally as a bishop, her work involved a ministry of episcope very similar to that we have come to associate with a bishop. The Benedictine Rule was, of course, written in the expectation that the Abbot would be a man: the Abbot is believed to act 'in the place of Christ in the monastery' (chapter II). Where women follow the Benedictine Rule, it is clear that this representational role must be taken by a woman.

Thirdly, where there are women and men in positions of authority within the church it is possible to see much more clearly the complementary role of women and men in representing the image of God. Just as the image of God was, according to Genesis to be seen in Adam and Eve together, and then, according to Hebrews, in Jesus Christ, so the hope of the Church for the future is that women and men together will demonstrate the restoration of the 'image of God' in a renewed humanity. It is this restoration which Christians believe is given to us in baptism, but which has to be worked out in the life of the Church. Where women and men share episcopetogether (as is now the case in parts of the Anglican Communion) we can see the image of God in the Christlike exercise of authority (of episcope) by women and men together.

I think we can risk a fourth speculation. It is well-known that there are images from the early church of Mary as a priest, but not, to my knowledge, as a bishop. However, it is granted within the Christian tradition that Mary has a unique place among the apostles. At the beginning of Acts she is depicted with the eleven in the upper room (Acts 1:14). From the beginning, the Church has held Mary, the theotokos (the one who bore God Incarnate in the highest honour. We often sing:

O higher than the cherubim,
More glorious than the seraphim,
Lead their praises, Alleluia!
Thou bearer of th'eternal Word,
Most gracious, magnify the Lord.

Respond, ye souls in endless rest,
Ye patriarchs and prophets blest,
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Ye holy twelve, ye martyrs strong,
All saints triumphant, raise the song.

'Lead their praises': in Christian iconography, Mary is seen as prototypical of redeemed humanity; she is the one who exemplifies the praise of the Church for its Lord when she says 'My soul doth magnify the Lord'. The tradition of her dormition and the assumption of her body into heaven suggests a unique place of honour for her in the purposes of God. If this is right, then there can be nothing intrinsic to womanhood as such which precludes a position of the highest honour within and even over the apostolic church. In the dialectic of authority and service, Mary reminds us that where authority is rooted in perfect obedience there is no privileging of male or female. If it possible for Mary to 'lead the praises' of the twelve in heaven, then, perhaps, it will be possible for a woman to 'lead the praises' of God's church on earth.

Anglicans, men and ministry

Anglicans are, of course, heirs to a tradition in which the ministry of women as deacons and, more questionably, as priests is thought by some to have been suppressed - but the experience of women as deacons, priests and bishops has now become part of the living tradition of our Communion. Those who argue against this development argue on three main grounds:

1. The evidence of Scripture. There are two passages in the New Testament which, taken at face value, would forbid the leadership of women in the church: 1 Cor 14: 33-4 ('As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as even the law says. If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.'); 1 Timothy 2:12-15 ('I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet woman will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.') There are other passages which teach that men should have the 'headship' over women ('Wives, be subject to your husbands as is fitting in the Lord ' (Col 3:18 cf. Eph 5:21ff; 1 Pet 3:1 ff: 'Likewise you husbands, live considerately with your wives, bestowing honour on the woman as the weaker sex'). More broadly, the argument is made that since Jesus chose only men to be disciples and apostles we are not at liberty to choose female leaders for the churches; but this is countered by questioning whether the Junia mentioned in Romans 16:7 is female and an apostle. This, however, is to tinker at the edge of the thrust of New Testament teaching. Outside the Gospels, such evidence as we have of an emerging 'order' in the infant Christian churches points to an acceptance of a taxis or order that was assumed in the Jewish and Hellenistic world: a taxis that privileged the male.

On the other hand, the place within the Gospel tradition of Mary, the mother of Jesus, of Mary Magdalene, of the sisters Mary and Martha, and of other women, shows that women played a key role in the founding of the Christian movement and when contemporary assumptions about the superiority of men were stripped away in favour of a thoroughgoing baptismal equality another dynamic was at work. If we are to accept that dynamic as authoritative, we cannot take texts like those which enjoin the silence of women in the churches at face value. We have to argue that our situation is so different from that in the early churches (for instance, with an abundance of educated Christian women who can take positions of leadership) that such prohibitions no longer apply. Perhaps we should note how few Christian churches observe them to the letter.

2. The evidence of tradition. In asking last week what it is that holds Anglicans together, we saw in effect the enormous power of a 'common culture' to hold Christians together until new questions are forced upon us from outside. Anglicans are heirs to a tradition which rationalised the dominance of men within the structures of authority not least by the consistent practice of that dominance. We might speak about tradition as a whole series of assumptions we make in reading the Scriptures. Until recently, the assumption that when the Scriptures spoke of deacons, presbyters or bishops it would be speaking about men, and therefore when the church spoke about deacons, priests or bishops it too would be speaking about men, ran very deep. This was rationalised by a farrago of arguments about women as 'the weaker sex'; about Eve's vulnerability to temptation; about menstrual bodily impurity; and the emotional instability of women. All of this was undergirded within medieval western tradition by the authority of Aristotle, who saw females as 'failed males'. The arguments, of course, were concocted by men, and now that we have current and rich experience of women as deacons, priests and bishops (and of much else that is relevant, such as equality of opportunity in employment law) our ways of reading Scripture are changing - but this is a gradual process involving a real lack of consensus and a need for what last week I called 'negative capability' (i.e. patience with one another).3

3. The lack of authority within individual provinces of the Anglican Communion or the Anglican Communion as a whole to make the decision to ordain women as deacons, priests or bishops. This for many who are unsure about these developments is a crucial argument. If there were to be an Ecumenical Council, like the great ecumenical councils of the early church, which endorsed these developments, we could confidently move in this direction. But while we are divided from Roman Catholics and the Orthodox at the eucharist there could be no such council, especially one which included Anglicans - and to make a move without such conciliar authority would take us further from those whom we see as our sisters and brothers within the one, holy, catholic church. If Rome and the Orthodox were to move in this direction, this would give some sort of conciliar authority, or even if Rome were to do this alone. But for Anglicans to take authority to break with a tradition of male episcopate that can be traced back to the apostles themselves (or at least to their generation) is decisively to break with the holy, catholic church to which we claim to belong. It is to place ourselves among the Protestant denominations that have severed themselves from the tradition of that Church.

As a rider to this, we should note that Anglicans have accepted that this is not a decision which could be taken for the Communion as a whole. It has been taken on a province-by province basis, led by the United States. Opponents of the ordination of women usually argue that this is not a decision which can be remitted to provinces of the Anglican Communion. It is a decision which bears upon both to the catholicity and the apostolicity of the church. To agree to differ on this issue, whether with Rome and the Orthodox, or amongst ourselves, would be, for such opponents, to show that Anglicans have a defective understanding of apostolicity and of catholicity. It would make it very difficult for them to remain Anglican. Where this argument it put, it is incumbent on defenders of the ordination of women to argue the case for their understanding of apostolicity and catholicity, and with this discussion I shall end.

Apostolicity, catholicity and ministry

It is vital to the integrity of the Anglican Communion that it should be able to claim its apostolicity and catholicity as a part of the one, holy catholic church. This does not depend entirely on confidence in the authenticity of its ministry (on confidence that in its ministry the Holy Spirit truly is active) but confidence in the authenticity of its ministry is central to that claim. Historically, both Catholics and Orthodox have linked the authenticity of their ministry to a visible apostolic succession of men as bishops, ordained by the laying on of hands for ministry in recognised dioceses. The collegiality of such bishops has been seen as essential to the catholicity of the church; hence the importance of their visible unity, of ordinations to the episcopate being by three bishops, and their all sharing in the eucharist together. For opponents of the ordination of women to the episcopate, who believe that women cannot be bishops, the ordination of women to the episcopate would rupture the apostolicity and the catholicity of the church.

For supporters of the ordination of women to the episcopate, it is precisely this change that will ensure the continuation of apostolicity and catholicity. Not to ordain women as bishops would be to fail to obey the Spirit as the Church is led into new ways of being both apostolic and catholic. The imperative for such a change comes from the desire for a richer exercise of ministry so that the Church can be more fully itself: the Body of Christ both for its members and for all people. The various ministries that are exercised by women and men serve not only the maintenance of the Church in truth but also the spread of the Gospel. By and large, it is not changes within the church but changes in society that have made us realise the opportunities there are for women to minister as well as men - and have caused us to realise in what ways this can enhance both the apostolicity and the catholicity of the Church; to see more clearly how its fidelity to the apostolic Gospel will be better expressed and its inclusive catholicity more apparent where women and men express their baptismal equality in parity of ordained ministry.

Here we can see very clearly that there are two quite different theological paradigms in play. The first is 'traditionalist': it looks back to the foundation of the Church and seeks faithfully to maintain the structures of the Church as they have been given from the early centuries.4 The second is 'charismatic': it looks forward towards the Spirit-given structures that will enable it to witness to the Gospel in anticipation of what God will do in the future. Both seek to be faithful to the Scriptures, but from a very different perspective. Ultimately, of course, tradition and the Spirit must be brought into harmony. In discussing the tension between a 'traditionalist' and a 'charismatic' approach, I have not sought to be neutral but to show why bothmay claim to be authentically Anglican, but those who subscribe broadly to one of these two approaches may find themselves so far from the other approach that is impossible to remain in communion. Up to this point, despite severe tensions the Communion has pretty well held together, which must give hope of its finding a way through. Certainly, the work of the Eames Commission on Women and the Anglican Episcopate has helped in the maintaining of 'the highest degree of communion possible' amongst Anglicans.5 The Lambeth Conference of 2008 will be a major opportunity to work for mutual understanding and the maintaining of communion. Intriguingly, it will probably be the first Lambeth Conference at which women bishops make a significant contribution.


1 Wijngaards, John, The Ordination of Women in the Catholic Church ((London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2001), pp. 139-55.


2 Bede, A History of the English Church and People (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, revised edition, 1968), III, 5, p. 149.


3 Though the term 'negative capability' is not used, see the emphasis on the need for patience in E. Radner and P. Turner's well argued The Fate of Communion, The Agony of Anglicanism and the Future of a Global Church (Grand Rapids, Michigan/Cambridge U.K.: 2006).


4 Bishop Kallistos Ware bluntly quotes John Meyendorff: 'Do we wish to belong to the same Church as that which Christ founded?' (Elizabeth Behr-Sigel and Kallistos Ware, The Ordination of Women in the Orthodox Church (Geneva: WCC Publications, 2000, p. 67)). Of course, both sides in this debate would doubtless argue 'Yes!.


5 Women in the Anglican Episcopate, the Eames Commission and the Monitoring Group Reports (Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1998).