Wednesday, May 02, 2007

FiFUK: Response to Affirming Catholicism


The recently published Affirming Catholicism submission to the Legislative Drafting Group engages directly with our own submission Consistent with Canon A4, which we published only after the Drafting Group had had ample time to consider it. The members of the Affirming Catholicism Working Party judge that our arguments on the meaning and effect of Canon A4 “cannot be sustained” (p.24). The purpose of this short paper is not to reject their conclusions (which of course we do), but to draw attention to other features of their submission. The Affirming Catholicism document crudely caricatures the position we have carefully set out, traduces the real legal and historical position, understands ‘the Church’ in a very narrow sense and is disturbing in its un-Anglican and intolerant zeal to stifle public expressions of dissent and doubt.

· Caricature: We are patronised as those “who continue to have difficulties with the ordained ministry of women” (p.12). Our parishes, it is suggested, may have passed Resolution A out of dislike of “the sound of a women’s voice singing the preface to the Eucharistic prayer” (p.24). It is tragic, at this stage in the debate, that an issue which for us touches the divine imagery of Father and Son in the economy of salvation as it has been handed down to the Church of our own day from the Apostles themselves, should be trivialised as mere aesthetic preference. The Submission claims, moreover, that we consider any decision to admit women to the priesthood or episcopate to be “null and void” (p.4). On the contrary, we have always maintained that women priests are duly and canonically ordained, whilst also agreeing with the Windsor Report and Bonds of Peace that there is to the development ‘a degree of provisionality’.

· Denial: Like the Bishops of Guildford and Gloucester, the authors of this submission seem unable to grasp the plain meaning of the statutory language of Resolutions A and B in the 1993 Measure. It is not about “declining” (Guildford and Gloucester), nor is it about “fettering a discretion”, as Affirming Catholics now maintain (pp.23-24). It is about non-acceptance (“this PCC would not accept.”). Before weighing into our use of the term “validity” (disliked in their Appendix C, but used with approval in the body of their own submission: p.7), the writers would do well to admit that the Resolutions exist to give public expression to the degree of provisionality in the decision to admit women to the priesthood - as the documents undergirding the 1993 Measure make abundantly clear. All this is simply one aspect of the canonical doctrine of reception. When the juridical text of the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 says “discerning the rightness or otherwise”, it means what it says: the decision could prove to be wrong. Recognition of that rightness or wrongness is a matter for all the Christian faithful, individually as well as collectively, who, possessing “a sense of faith,” are together in search of a consensus fidelium.

· ‘Church’: We look in vain, in the submission, for a truly catholic understanding of the ‘Church’. For Affirming Catholics the term seems to refer principally to the Provinces of Canterbury and York. We are told that women’s priestly and episcopal orders will be sacramentally assured by the “core catholic principle” that they depend on “the act of the Church” (p.7). This is plainly contrary to the consistent Anglican claim (e.g. Saepius Officio) to share the orders of the Universal Church. It raises again the problem inherent in the recent Synod motion originating from the House of Bishops. That motion claimed the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate to be ‘consistent with the Faith of the Church as the Church of England received it’. How, we naturally ask, can this be so when it is contrary to the consistent practice of the great churches of East and West from whom the Church of England received both faith and order? We are puzzled, moreover, by claims that our proposals for a structural solution in the event of the ordination of women to the episcopate would ‘sidestep’ or ‘undermine’ (p8) the legitimate authority of the Ordinary. As we believe we have shown, in Part Two of Consecrated Women?, the notion of the wall-to-wall territorial integrity of dioceses is not a principle upheld by English Church history. The twentieth century, for example, saw a number of new dioceses established, each with its new Ordinary. The creation of dioceses, with the resultant alteration of diocesan boundaries - which is what would be entailed in establishing a future structured arrangement along the lines that we have suggested - would not inhibit but free existing diocesan structures to pursue their “overall policy and pastoral strategy” (p.11). The existence of new dioceses, separated out from existing ones, would no more ‘sidestep’ or ‘undermine’ the Ordinary of the diocese than is the case with neighbouring dioceses presently existing.

· Intolerance: The main purpose of the submission, it appears, is a thoroughly un-Anglican attempt to repress and stifle dissent. It is allowed, once women bishops are a “fact”, that provision should be made for “dissenters” (who “may wish that it had not happened” and “retain their private doubts”) But no provision is allowed for those who question the decision itself (pp3-4) In this future church, all clergy, “whatever their private reservations, should recognize and teach that the Church of England does ordain women as deacons, priests and bishops” (p.18), with ordination candidates being expected to declare their mind on the matter (p.18). Such a position is both logically and morally indefensible. To assign opinions about their role and status within the Church to the private sphere is effectively to deny that bishops are public figures and ought to be the focuses of unity and expressions of the integrity of the dioceses which they serve.

Forward in Faith has sought, in its submissions to the Legislative Group and in the second part of Consecrated Women?, to set out proposals for future structured arrangements which take account of a genuine difference of opinion on a matter which affects, but does not necessarily destroy, the unity of the Church. They are proposals which would allow women to be - in every sense - bishops in the dioceses to which they were called. They would reserve to those conscientiously opposed the necessary freedom to act upon their convictions with integrity. Many of the details of such proposals remain to be worked out, and there will no doubt be anomalies in any settlement. But we are clear that no arrangements can work for us, or for those in favour of the innovation, which do not provide opponents with bishops who have real and actual jurisdiction. Suffragans of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York will not do and will not work.

Patronising caricatures of our position, expressed in “pastoral” terminal care meted out as a result of 5-yearly decisions by two-thirds majorities of special parochial church meetings (meetings which have never had such a decision-making role in the past) do not, in our view, contribute usefully to the current debate about provision (to which the Legislative Group is committed by its remit from the Synod).

The Reverend Paul J Benfield, LLB, BTh, of Lincoln’s Inn, Barrister

Vicar of St Nicholas, Fleetwood, Diocese of Blackburn

Member of the General Synod of the Church of England

Dr Brian Hanson, CBE, DCL, LLM, Solicitor and Ecclesiastical Notary

sometime Registrar and Legal Adviser to the General Synod of the Church of England

Chairman of the House of Laity, Diocese of Chichester

The Reverend James Patrick, LLB, of the Inner Temple, Barrister

Recorder of the Crown Court

Honorary Assistant Curate of All Saints with St John, Clifton, Diocese of Bristol

Mr Clifford Payton, BCL, MA, of the Inner Temple, Barrister

sometime Churchwarden of the Parish of St Giles in Reading, Diocese of Oxford

The Reverend Jonathan Redvers Harris, LLB, LLM, Solicitor

Vicar of All Saints, Ryde, Diocese of Portsmouth


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