AN ORSERVER OF recent events in the Church of England could be forgiven for concluding that, after years of showing suspicious symptoms, the old lady has finally suceumbed to clinical schizophrenia. At opposite ends of the kingdom two events took place which are difficult to reconcile as the rational acts of one body.
In York Minster on a Monday, with all the traditional panoply and with a reasonable turnout of bishops from around the country, Archdeacon John Gaisford became the Bishop of Beverley (a see revived for the purpose). He is the first of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors, "Flying Bishops", under the Act of Synod.
Although the provincial visitors were appointed, in the Archbishop of York, John Habgood's memorable phrase, because they will be able to "get on with us" (the Church's liberal establishment, that is), they were also appointed precisely because they will be unable to "get on with" women priests. Bishop Gaisford is an "impossiblist" just the sort of fellow that the Dean of Bristol told television viewers not long ago should be denied ordination. Gaisford believes that women cannot be priests and that no amount of voting m whatever ecclesial body can make them such. I le will be unable to recognise their orders and unprepared to treat them as fellow ministers of work and sacrament.
In the Dean of Bristol's Cathedral on the following Saturday, with a good deal of media razzamatazz, the longstanding relationship between Barry Rogerson, the Bishop of Bristol and the Movement for the Ordination of Women was consummated. Bishop Rogerson obligingly provided Bishop Gaisford with a whole catalogue of women, from the Rev Angela Berners-Wilson alphabetically onwards, whose ministry his very office will oblige him to repudiate.
Understandably, neither bishop seems quite to have grasped the full implications of th:.. bizarre events in which they are caught up. Interviewed by the press after the service in York, Bishop Gaisford was in confident mood. He hoped, he said, that he would have many successors, who would be forming and serving an enduring constituency in the Church of England. His expectation is that the orthodox constituency will go from strength to strength.
Bishop Rogerson, on the other hand, has no such expectation. He was asked, a few days before his service, if a brief statement of dissent might be read out in the cathedral. The rite, opponents pointed out, asks a plain question: "Is it therefore your will that they should be ordained?" And like the Bishop of Beverly they could give a straight answer: no. The Bishop of Bristol replied: "The question to the people in the ordination service is not intended to provide an opportunity for public objections or demonstration... Departure from the printed service and or interruptions at this or any other point would be most inappropriate."
When the great, the good and the consecrated an so obviously at variance, what are the rest of us to conclude? Has the House of Bishops finally given up the unequal struggle and abandoned collegiality? To the single most pressing question of the moment: arc the women ordained last Saturday priests in the Church of God (or at least in the Church of England)? The bishops speak with decidedly forked tongue.
'lbe Canons of the Church of' England appear to offer clearer guidance: those who are "made, ordained and consecrated bishops, priest and deacons," according to the Ordinal, "are lawfully made ordained and consecrated, and ought to be accounted, both by themselves and others, to be truly bishops, priests or deacons".
On a plain reading of the text, then, Bishop Rogerson was more than justified in denying the protesters a voice; and Bishop Gaisford has been condemned by the Archbishop of York to committing a whole series of ecclesiastical offences. But plain reading of a text is a fairly un-Anglican activity And as it turns out, there has been a recent and significant modification to Canon A4.
The Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993 (though not legally binding) nevertheless makes bold to assert exactly the opposite of the canon. "Discernment of the rightness or otherwise of the decision to ordain women", it enjoins, "should be as open a process as possible".
Bishop Gaisford, then, can legitimately go on repudiating the ministry of those Bishop Rogerson ordains. But Rogerson himself had better beware lest he fall foul of another of the Act's pious injunctions. "The integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood," it goes on rather smugly, "should be mutually recognised and respected."
So are the women ordained last Saturday priests? The official Church of England answer seems to be yes... and no. Yes, if you arc Bishop Rogerson; and emphatically No if you are Bishop Gaisford. Yes, if the Canons are your guide; No, if the Act of Synod is your bag. Both answers are legitimate and neither is final.
To say that this situation is unsatisfactory is radically to understate the case. Doubt about the validity of orders is, after all, not like doubt about some theological proposition or scientific theory, The orders exist expressly to give reassurance and to express unity. The interchangeability and mutual recognition of priests within a diocese and of bishops between dioceses expresses and actualises, in each place, the fellowship of the whole body.
To abandon that interchangeability and mutual acceptability, as the Church of England has now done, not only in effect but by design, is not to engage in some bold experiment or to adventure into new and unchartered territories of the spirit. It is simply to empty the apostolic of its significance and purpose.
The Church of England's tragedy is that it is in no one's interest to do so; and yet no one can avoid doing it. The Act of Synod, the very device meant to achieve the impossible and to hold opposites together proves to be itself a new cause of division. For it is one thing to claim that the Church of England has the authority to make women priests. It is quite another, and quite as serious, to say the validity of someone's orders can legitimately be a matter of private opinion. t