Unity in Diversity – is this Possible?

Will the Church’s division over women clergy re-ignite?

Now that London has a female bishop, you might assume that the whole saga is over: surely the liberals have effectively won? Well, yes and no: because the traditionalist rump that opposes women’s ordination is still officially affirmed as authentically Anglican, and has its own episcopal structure, the liberals’ victories have a hollow feel. Of course, liberals have grumbled about this odd situation since its origin in 1992. But charitable rhetoric about co-existence has kept such grumbling in check. Might this now change?

You might wonder how this rump has survived, and found new recruits. What is its appeal? It’s hard enough for a vicar to keep a congregation going: why tie one hand behind your back in this way? Well, you could say some clergy like the constraint. Or rather, there are still plenty of young men who are energised by the counter-cultural aura of this movement, who see the sacred mystique of priesthood magnified by this form of defiant otherness, who feel spiritually distinct from jolly down-to-earth females like Kate Bottley of Gogglebox. To a certain mindset, an embattled form of religion, condemned by mainstream culture, feels holier. And more adventurous: it makes a small congregation feel like a brave band of defiant disciples, rather than another disappointing turn-out.

But who occupies the pews of these traditionalist parishes? Do the worshippers share the vicars’ considered dissent from women priests, or is the whole issue something that they are only dimly aware of? The latter. At my local traditionalist parish, the matter is kept very quiet. I recently attended a service and talked to a few people afterwards: two longstanding members of the congregation were unaware of the parish’s position on women clergy.

I phoned Emma Percy, chair of WATCH (Women And The Church). The basic purpose of this organisation, I put it to her, was to lobby for women’s ordination – so can’t it disband? ‘No. It’s still a major issue that the Church says that it is equally valid to say that women can’t be priests – that means the priesthood of women is in a sense still provisional’. So your aim is to re-unite the Church by edging out the traditionalists? ‘Well, I wouldn’t say that’; she laughs slightly, perhaps remembering that both sides are meant to believe in ‘mutual flourishing’. ‘But I think there should be more aspiration to unity, more serious theological work done on this. The problem is that we’ve institutionalised separation.’

Then I spoke to Jonathan Baker, the traditionalist bishop of Fulham. Surely the rhetoric of mutual flourishing is dubious: it glosses over a serious division and leaves women priests feeling provisional. ‘Some women priests may feel that, but the Church of England as a whole has decided that differences on this issue should not be church-dividing. Talk of division is not where it feels that we are now – we’ve moved to a much more forward-looking way of approaching the issue, to accepting that all can have an honoured place. If you look at the history of the church, you see that diversity has never reverted to uniformity – there’s no desire to turn the clock back.’

So he thinks that the Church will accept its divided state for all time? ‘I’d question the premise that the Church is divided – our unity is much greater than our differences. Both sides have made a commitment to live with each other without limit of time – there’s no pre-nuptial agreement limiting that. And it’s a very serious commitment we have all entered into, not something to be revisited lightly.’

The traditionalists seem to relish the rhetoric of diversity, turning a progressive ideal to their advantage. It clearly annoys the liberals, but do they have the stomach to fight it? They would surely be on strong theological ground if they said, ‘No, sorry, a church needs a single authority structure; it’s time to plan the Church’s re-unification.’ But there has been so much rhetoric of virtuous co-existence that seeking to reverse it would be a bloody business. It would dramatically conflict with the niceness that seems the C of E’s prime article of faith, and which Bishop Sarah and her episcopal sisters seem to embody. 

________________________________________________________

This excellent article, by Theo Hobson in this week’s Church Times invites U.K. Anglicans to ponder on the reality of the ‘Two Integrities” within the Church of England, that allows for the flourishing of those in the Church who have serious theological doubts about ordaining women – as well as those who believe that the ordination of women has brought a new integrity into the life of a Church that has discussed the prospect now for many years – other provinces of the Church having already acted on the issue.

This, of course, is not the only important matter that has divided the Church of England and other Anglican Churches in countries where the modern world has brought new insights into the complexities of spirituality, gender & sexuality.

There is also the matter of different views on divorce and re-marriage, where clergy are not forced to celebrate the marriage of a divorcee – so that consciences are not violated by the insistence of the Church on a uniformity in ritual praxis.

Anglicans have long become used to the plurality of liturgical and secondary doctrinal ideas – a reality borne out by the differences that exist in our parish churches and amongst both clergy and congregations. ‘North-Enders’ have managed to thrive in the same Church as extreme Anglo-Catholics (of whom I am not one) – without undue disturbance of the public peace. Even local Clergy Conferences are usually places where priests from the various traditions of the Church are able to meet together over a cup of tea and a lively conversation – without resorting to separation on theological grounds.

That the matter of the recent ACANZP’s General Synod’s decision to allow the Church Blessing of same-gender couples who have been married by the State (without the breaking of a canon law which does not allow the Church to actually ‘marry’ the couple) should have caused the possibility of a schismatic breakaway by a small faction of clergy and people who object to the whole idea of same-sex relationships seems – in the light of the above-mentioned existing pluralities – is less than understandable.

No Anglican clergy person is being forced – against their personal conscience – to bless any couple who are legally married by the State, here in Aotearoa/New Zealand. If a priest or an entire parish object to such relationships among same-sex couples there is absolutely no pressure from the Church for them to access this particular liturgical function. This principle has applied to other instances of conscientious objection of clergy, for instance, to the prospect of re-marriage of divorced persons – without causing a movement towards schismatic separation.

What is required, of course, in all of these instances of conscientious objection (except for the provision of basic sacramental ministry – like Infant Baptism or Holy Communion which may not be withheld from those qualified to receive these sacraments of the Church) –  is for everyone in a ministry unit to allow other clergy and congregations to follow their own conscience in matters of the performance of liturgical functions – as long as they are allowed by the decision of the Local Ordinary  – the diocesan bishop. In ACANZP, the local bishop will have the authority to license particular clergy to carry out S/S Blessings.

Throughout their history, Anglicans in ACANZP have traditionally accepted the wide variety of belief and churchmanship that has been inherited from our Church of England beginnings. We have survived so far without schismatic severance. What is required is a faith in God and a trust of one another that will enable us to live together in peace and unity, while yet admitting that there are differences among us that may be signs of the great variety in God’s creation – rather than stumbling blocks that militate against the Unity of the Spirit – in the bonds of Love and Peace.

“Come Holy Spirit, re-kindle within us the fire of your love, through Jesus Christ our Living and Victorious Lord. Amen”.

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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