Women priests and bishops: Anglicanism's crisis of identity

Women priests and bishops: Anglicanism's crisis of identity

David Wetherell

In late 2012 the General Synod of the Church of England narrowly defeated legislation which would have allowed the ordination of women bishops. Women have already been made bishops in other Anglican churches, including the United States, Canada and New Zealand. And since 2008 four Australian women have been ordained to the episcopate, following the ordination of women priests 21 years ago. The struggle for the inclusion of women at all levels of the Australian Anglican Church has at last been achieved.

The reality of women priests and bishops has provoked a crisis of identity within Anglicanism. The Church has frequently claimed that it is a "bridge church" between Catholicism and Protestantism. But is this still true? Until recently the comprehensiveness of the Anglican Church has been urged on the grounds of alleged continuity with Catholic belief, and at the same time with those elements which were absorbed from the 16th century Reformation. It is one of the most pluralistic churches in the world, certainly the most pluralistic of the historic churches.

Thomas Cranmer

One observation needs to be made immediately. In the sacrament of the Mass or Eucharist and the ordination of its male clergy (to which women priests are claimed to be successors) the mother Church of England during the Reformation drew on the Calvinist and Lutheran thinking imported from the Continent which was uppermost in the theology of Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, author of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) (1549) and the more overtly Protestant Ordinal (Ordination Service) of 1550 and revised BCP of 1552.

The Anglo-Catholic wing of the Anglican Church, however, has always claimed that "Cranmer" is only one of several defining moments for the Church of England, and that the Anglican male priestly order is part of the priesthood of the Universal Church.

Until very recently most Anglican leaders in Australia and elsewhere have emphatically asserted that the Church of England is Catholic, one of three great ancient churches – Rome, the Eastern Orthodox, the Church of England. The push to ordain women priests and bishops has dealt a coup de grace to such assertions.

Anglo-Catholic hopes about Rome's acceptance of Church of England priestly orders were dashed in 1896 by Pope Leo XIII, who declared Anglican orders "absolutely null and utterly void". But Anglo-Catholics gained a measure of limited confidence from the Patriarch of Constantinople's encyclical to the Eastern Orthodox churches in 1922 provisionally recognising the validity of Anglican orders.

The massive late 20th century Roman Catholic scholarship of such writers as Francis Clark (1967) has come to the same conclusion as Leo XIII and for the same reasons – that the Anglican ordination service is defective in form (i.e., its wording) and intention (i.e., its purpose), both of which, implied Leo XIII, create Protestant pastors rather than Catholic priests.

In disagreement with Clark, the Anglican Benedictine monk, Dom Gregory Dix, whose book The Question of Anglican Orders (1944) was standard reading for Anglican theological students from World War II, insisted that, in the form of its service of ordination, the parent Church of England continuously claimed from the Reformation that by its rites, it "intends to do and does essentially what the Catholic Church has meant from the Apostles' time"; that the word "priest" is stated six times during the 1550 service of Ordination; and that the intention of the rite of priestly ordination is stated "with the most unambiguous clarity".

Even more recently, the Anglican scholar John Hunwicke has amplified the case for continuity with the pre-Reformation Church. According to Hunwicke, the different stages of the 16th century Reformation, with its different conflicting power-groups between the reigns of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, do not provide a coherent Protestant theological structure at variance with Catholic doctrine.

Until the mid-1970s, the cumulative evidence produced by Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic scholars pointed to the conclusion that Francis Clark, in the shadow of Leo XIII, was prejudiced by the narrowness of his focus on Cranmer. At that time, some scholarly voices within the Roman Catholic Church were favouring a Catholic re-opening of the question of Anglican orders.

In Britain, Cardinal John Heenan said that the matter of Anglican orders was now "open to free discussion". In Ballarat, Victoria, Father (later Cardinal) George Pell, a member of a joint Anglican-Roman Catholic Commission, was asked by the Ballarat Commission to raise the question of the papal bull of 1896 with the appropriate Vatican authorities. The response to Dr Pell by the Vatican was that the matter was "under consideration" and that a more comprehensive response could be expected in due course. The door was slightly ajar. It is significant that a scholarly Catholic colloquium in Britain during the 1970s was hopefully entitled, "Anglican Orders: the Growing Consensus."

Then came the purported ordination of women to the Anglican priesthood. In Anglo-Catholic, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox eyes, this showed Anglicans as a whole veering back towards reformed Protestantism. A blow has thus been dealt, not only to Anglo-Catholics, but also to the "growing consensus" among influential Roman Catholic scholars.

In the event, the foremost champions of Anglican orders within the Catholic Church conceded that, even had the Vatican agreed with them that the investigations leading to Apostolicae Curae were defective, this would not in itself prove that the verdict of Apostolicae Curae was wrong. It is possible to reach a correct decision for the wrong reasons, and it is conceivable that this is what happened in 1896. However, the ordination of women as "priests" (and not "pastors") provides powerful proof that 1896 may have been right after all. For it demonstrates the Anglican Church acting unilaterally, as Leo XIII put it, by doing otherwise than "what the church does". The decisions of the past thirty years have given fresh vigour to the objection that Anglican orders are simply Protestant.

Women: pastors or priests?

It is not without irony that, at a time when some Roman Catholic scholars were finding fault with the researches of the conservative Jesuit Clark as essentially polemical, champions of women's ordination within the liberal Anglican camp were tending to vindicate Clark's position. For what most advocates of women's 'priesthood' appeared to want is only the ordination of women to Protestant pastoral ministry, flavoured by the use of the Catholic term "priest" as a title and no more. In Protestant ecclesiology the minister is a representative, or extension, of the congregation's "priesthood of all believers".

By contrast, the documents of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission, (ARCIC: 1982), appointed by the highest authorities in both churches, are quite clear: the ministerial priesthood is "not an extension of the common Christian priesthood".

Anglican teaching about the ordained ministerial priesthood has attempted to bridge the gap between Catholic and Protestant, to 'have it both ways'. The result is a reductionist understanding of "the priesthood", a tendency exposed by, and greatly accelerated by, the arguments for the inclusion of women as 'priests'. In its unsophisticated understanding of Holy Orders, a British Catholic commentator has called the Church of England "God's kindergarten".

The paradox is that advocates of women's ordination in Australia have clung to Catholic terminology in speaking of women being "ordained to the priesthood" but at the same time have insisted only on the purely "representative of the congregation" function of the ordained Protestant minister. Their call appears to be actually for presbyters or pastors, not ministerial priests.

Over many years, partly under the leadership of the dioceses of Melbourne and Perth, the Anglican ministry in much of Australia has come to be regarded in overwhelmingly pastor-elder (i.e., presbyteros) and not in priestly (i.e., hiereus) terms. It follows from such a pastoral understanding of ministry that the exclusion of women is regarded as highly objectionable. It would appear, however, that the vocation to which the women say they feel called is in fact pastoral and not sacerdotal (hiereus), that is, not concerned with ritual. But in all world religions possessing an order of priesthood, a concern with ritual has always been regarded as central.

Priests and ritual

The question of ritual bears witness to an anthropological objection to women priests deeper and broader than ancient Christianity itself. In Middle Eastern religions possessing an order of priesthood, the fulfilling of ritual functions was the major defining priestly function. Priests in ancient Egypt conducted a form of public ritual combat symbolically to re-enact the conflict between the Upper and Lower Kingdoms before the emergence of a united Egypt. In Babylon the high priest Marduk re-enacted the victory of the fertility god of spring over the dark powers of winter. In the Christian service of the Mass or Eucharist, the ritual is even more precise, for in his primary function as celebrant of the Mass or Holy Communion the priest ritually recapitulates, or re-enacts, the Last Supper.

Ritual is closely linked to a recognition of visible symbols as the binding elements of any society, and in religious and social structures the significance of ritual can hardly be over-emphasised. Any disciple of Emile Durkheim or Bronislaw Malinowski studying the culture of Australian Aboriginals or Pacific Islanders would well understand that rituals, artifacts and ceremonial feasting are the vehicles of authentic communal religious experience. Most social scientists would probably agree with the English anthropologist Camilla Wedgwood, a student and research assistant of Malinowski, in characterising two broad features of ritual in all religions, no matter how 'primitive' the religious expression may be:

(a) The worshippers recognise that it is ritual, that is, symbolic acts, and

(b) The worshippers believe it re-enacts, in part at least, a genuine historical event.

The service of Holy Communion involves seven ritual actions directly reproducing the historical acts of Jesus at the Last Supper. The first four may be summarised in the words, "In the night He was betrayed, He took bread, He broke it, He blessed it, He gave it", followed by three ritual actions in consecrating the wine. These actions have been interpreted by Christians as relating to the central events of salvation – passion, death and resurrection. And in each of these events the central character is a male.

Thus, as an image or icon of what he represents, the male priest recapitulates Christ's role at the Last Supper. By a secular analogy with the male priesthood, the male actor performs the male role in any Shakespearean drama. The same could be said of Peter Weir's film Gallipoli. For a woman to re-enact the role of an Anzac in such a film would be to parody what actually happened on 25 April 1915. Of course, the Anzacs could be represented in the film by women as well as men by the argument that it enlarges the humanity of the original soldiers at Gallipoli but it would then point only to an abstract Australian heroism and it cannot be denied that such a version would have lost some of its authenticity.

Modern experimental theatre allows the exchanging of roles in some cases, with men acting women's roles and vice versa, and audiences do not necessarily object to it, or find that it interferes with their ability to appreciate a drama. But, for traditional theatre, actors portraying men and actresses portraying women is still the general norm. Would viewers of the Australian television mini dramas Home and Away or Redfern Now appreciate a gender reversal for their actors? This suggests that many people regard the fulfillment of certain minimal standards necessary if a performance is to have credibility, one of which is the taking of male roles by male persons, and female roles by female persons.

For the Eucharist or Holy Communion to relate fully to the Last Supper, certain minimal standards have to be fulfilled. The elements used must be bread and wine to match the elements of the Last Supper. In the past, the Catholic and Orthodox Churches have not felt that serving biscuits, or coffee and tea, are adequate substitutes for bread and wine. It may be argued that the maleness of the person celebrating the Eucharist belongs in the same category.

Instead of Anglicanism's being a "bridge church", Rome and Orthodoxy will continue to regard the Anglican Church as belonging simply to the Reformation. In 2008 Cardinal Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said that the ordination of women to the episcopate "effectively and definitively blocks a possible recognition of Anglican orders by the Catholic Church". The Anglican Church will remain, as the Orthodox and Roman Catholics have traditionally regarded it, a Protestant faith, haunted by its Catholic past.

This is the abridged text of a longer study of the state of contemporary Australian Anglicanism. Dr David Wetherell is Honorary Fellow in History in the Faculty of Arts and Education at Deakin University in Victoria. His major work is Reluctant Mission: The Anglican Church in Papua New Guinea , 1891-1942 . (UQP 1977). The full text of Dr Wetherell's paper with references is available on request.

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