The Theology of ‘Taint’ – by a Roman Catholic Priest

Tainted theology
30 January 2015 by Fr Ashley Beck

On Monday, Candlemas, Revd Philip North will be consecrated as the Anglican Suffragan Bishop of Burnley, a week after the consecration of the Revd Libby Lane as Suffragan Bishop of Stockport, both in York Minster. Perhaps non-Anglicans should not comment about Anglican ordinations, but now that the Church of England has begun to ordain women to its episcopate, others can reflect on what has happened in terms of sacramental theology and ecclesiology as part of ecumenical dialogue.

Libby Lane's episcopal ordinationAnglican bishops, with Dr Sentamu (centre left) celebrate with Libby Lane after her episcopal ordination. Photo: PA

This is prompted by the arrangements made for the consecrations by the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu : at the first he presided at the liturgy and was the principal consecrator, along with many other bishops; at the second he will not be, although he will be present – only three bishops are to lay hands on the new bishop, while the archbishop and others are to exercise what he has called “gracious restraint” by not doing so. He has written that he was not influenced by a “theology of taint”.

Non-Anglicans recognise that this is motivated by love and the wish to remain in the same communion. But, as has been true for over 20 years, there are serious problems in for traditional sacramental theology, a theology which Anglicans have often claimed to share with the Catholic and Orthodox churches. A sacrament is a binding “pledge”, rooted in how the word was used in the ancient world: by its very nature it has an objective reality, something definite and unambiguous.

The “theology of taint” to which the archbishop referred is a device which enabled some Anglo-Catholics after 1994 to remain Anglicans: they avoid for sacramental purposes bishops who ordain women, while remaining under their jurisdiction, and the Anglican authorities have acceded to this by supplying “untainted” prelates, of whom Philip North is the latest. Quite apart from the disturbing use by some of the word “taint”, this has been as much a departure from traditional theology of ministry as the decision to ordain women: and surely in spite of his protests Dr Sentamu is really subscribing to it. He could preside at the second consecration as he did at the first, but has chosen not to do so; surely he is conceding the opponents’ view of his hands as being somewhat tainted, and what is in effect a challenge to his authority. The bishops playing the key role in the two ceremonies are not the same bishops.

Catholics in northern England will want to work with both new Anglican bishops and will wish them well. But this theological question will not go away. In what sense are Bishop Lane and Bishop North bishops of the same Church? A bishop is by definition a focus for unity: how can bishops function if they do not accept each other’s ministry? Mutual love does not make these questions go away; and if all of us are still seeking real unity we need to face them.

Ashley Beck is Assistant Priest of Beckenham in the Archdiocese of Southwark and a lecturer in pastoral ministry at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He was an Anglican clergyman from 1985 until 1994


What the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Sentamu, may have to say about the propriety of his utilisation of ‘Gracious Restraint’ in not laying hands upon the new F.i.F. Bishop, Fr. Phillip North, at his consecration on the Feast of Candlemass, February 1, 2015, at York Minster; his non-action will provoke the argument of a ‘theology of taint’ in the C.of E.

Mind you, the business of ‘Flying Bishops’ in the Church of England has already shown the division between those in the Church who accept women as sharers of the Image of Likeness of Christ as ministers of the sacraments of the Church, and those who do not. Under that polity, those who refuse the ministry of a woman could (and still can) refuse to accept it, demanding, instead, only the ministry of men as priests and bishops. This has led to the idea that the ministry of women in the Church of England is ‘tainted’. 

Whatever one’s theological terminology around the situation, the fact remains that there is in the minds of some people a stigma attached, by some members of the Church, to anyone taking part in the ordination of women – extending, naturally, to the ministry of the women so ordained. What this has done, already in the Church of England, is to divide the priesthood into two different classes: (1) that deriving from a purely male line, and (2) that deriving from a female origin – or from a male who has assisted at ordination of a female.

Now that a female bishop has been ordained in the Church of England, there will be those in the Church who will refuse her episcopal ministrations – requiring a male bishop (with no history of assisting at the ordination of a female) to provide alternate oversight. What that will do to the House of Bishops in the C. of E. is, of course, provide the presence of a two-tier episcopate – based on gender. As the author of this article in the Tablet suggests, this is a move against catholic doctrine on the collegiality of bishops.

Mind you, as Roman Catholics do not at present officially recognise Anglican Orders, they would seem to have no grounds for criticism of the way we organise our ministerial polity!

See Also:

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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3 Responses to The Theology of ‘Taint’ – by a Roman Catholic Priest

  1. Tremendous things here. I’m very satisfied to peer your article.

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    Will you please drop me a e-mail?

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