A single church or a partnership?

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I am uneasy about the way some people are arguing that Sheffield should accept a traditionalist diocesan bishop—for example, Jan MacFarlane, Bishop of Repton, on Sunday Programme 5 March (description / links)—because of the principle of ‘mutual flourishing’. I think they make a false equivalence between groups that are not in fact equivalent, either in principle or in practice.

  • Where a woman bishop is consecrated as diocesan, traditionalist priests and parishes can receive episcopal oversight from someone they consider ‘safe’, who is not part of the hierarchy of that diocese. When a traditionalist diocesan is appointed, who by his choice (not theirs) is not in full communion with them, women priests and those who support them and receive their ministry have only the suffragan to relate to. This is a structural difference which is not affected by the personal skills and warmth of the person appointed.
  • Traditionalists who accept the discipline of Forward in the Faith and The Society practise separatism within the Church with regard to communion and ordination. They do this freely and by their own choice: ‘to provide episcopal oversight to which churches, institutions and individuals will freely submit themselves’—Purposes of The Society. The rest of the Church does not operate in a separatist way with them.
  • Traditionalists defend their practice with reference to relationships with other church denominations; that is to say that the rest of us, and the sacraments we participate in with our women priests, are, as it were, a different church (The Society paper, ‘Communion and Catholicity in the Church of England’ 3.4, comparing the current situation with ‘most ecumenical relationships’). They recognise a baptismal communion that we share but not a Eucharistic one (The Society leaflet, ‘Communion and Full Communion’). They acknowledge that our sacraments (like those of other Christian denominations) may, in the eyes of God, have some efficacy, but if so this is a matter of ‘uncovenanted mercies’ (I am thinking of having a tee shirt made). They are not ‘safe’ or to be commended. (The Society paper, ‘A Catholic Life in the Church of England’ 2.9).

It is one thing to ensure, in love, that those who do not accept the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate have a way of not feeling forced out of the Church of England. It is completely different to decide to treat this group—which regards the rest of the Church of England as an aberrant body with which it chooses not to be in full communion—as having equivalent rights to hold authority over those who are inhabiting the decisions of the General Synod about women’s ministry.

If traditionalists and the rest of the church are now equivalent groups, then the Church of England has effectively agreed that it simultaneously does and does not recognise the validity of the ordination of women as priests and bishops and the sacraments they celebrate. This is either a total incoherence or we are now not a single Church at all but an ecumenical partnership.

Janet Morley
Lay person,
St Mark’s, Broomhill, Sheffield
(where the clergy are female).