I recently heard the news that a friend of mine had been accepted for ordination within the Church of England. This would normally be good news but I have not been able to shake the sense of conflict I experienced over the decision. The reason why? To be honest, its because she is a woman. This was uncomfortable to me because pretty much my entire life I’ve been affirming of women’s leadership in whatever capacity. In fact, I’ve argued for it repeatedly in the past. My line manager at work is a woman, and so is hers and I have no issue or disquiet about any of that. In any other context, it’s not even something worth commenting on. Yet I realise I’m beginning to wonder if there’s something different about ordination. Something in my mind linked increasingly with communion. In my mind, it is like I am driving on a foggy night and I see a shape in the road. It could be nothing but I’m going to take measures to avoid it in the event that not doing so might cause some damage to myself and the passengers with me.
More recently there is news that in Sheffield a Bishop has been appointed who doesn’t condone women’s ordination. This has been seen as problematic in that it’s stated that nearly one-third of those ordained in Sheffield are women. One of the arguments against his appointment is his belief that the sacrament administered at the hands of a female priest is not valid and will not receive it from a woman. This amongst other things gave me pause because it perhaps highlights my ignorance of Anglican theology over what constitutes a valid administration in the event that it is purely a memorial or ritual. In fact in my mind, if the sacrament is a memorial the ordination and criteria of those who administer it is arguably inconsequential. If it is not, if there is something more significant taking place then are we saying that both the Roman and Orthodox church are wrong in their decision not to follow suit in opening the criteria for ordination? So much so that we are willing to damage the relationship and limited unity we shared with other Christians around the world? Are we saying that the historical position of the church in all forms for most of human history got this wrong? One of the foundational tenets of Anglicanism is ‘scripture, tradition and reason’. Do we dispense with the tradition (of scriptural interpretation and practice) in this instance? Or as Chesterton described it in his book ‘Orthodoxy’…
Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.
This isn’t a conscious shift on my part which what makes it so alarming to me. In fact witnessing the outcry from some areas at the appointment of this Bishop in Sheffield made me wonder if the opposite objection is also true. What of those ordained who do not condone women’s appointment to formal ministry? How can they in good conscious serve in a church that has departed from what could arguably be called historical orthodoxy on this matter? How can these two camps endure over time? If such objection will be raised to the appointment of such non-conforming bishops surely this is a form of argument for segregation? Or worse for the marginalisation of the non-conforming ordained?
The increasing trend within Anglicanism of unity at any cost is particularly highlighted I think during the season of Lent. I was listening to an Orthodox believer speak on the practice within their church of encouraging a specified fast throughout the whole church. This is different to anything I experienced in which you fast as much or as little as your conscience dictates. It is individualistic and that was fine for me because it was largely about my personal relationship with God. Yet when I heard this man speak of the fast as a corporate act, that it is an extension of the belief that all things in creation are to come together through the ministry of the church that totally made sense. In this light, the Anglican attitude of unity at any cost is actually the opposite of all things coming together in the church. Are all things coming apart in the Anglican church?
To be honest I increasingly struggle to confidently share my faith with others. What I’ve mentioned above is increasingly giving me pause. Why would I invite someone into a church so divided? One where I am increasingly unable to explore or voice my thoughts and prayers to even my minister because I am so unsure as to what they even believe. There’s great pressure to ‘get with the programme’ and go along with the inertia of the environment you find yourself immediately in. To be honest that’s what I find myself doing. When a brother struggles I hesitate to offer my input because I’m struggling too. It’s a different kind of struggle than that which church is eager to talk about. I love my community but I struggle with the environment we find ourselves in. Not Orthodox enough for the Orthodox church, not Roman enough for the Roman church and not Protestant enough for a Protestant church. That should make me an Anglican, but the difference between principle and practice I guess is more significant than I realised.
Lord If I am wrong in any of this please forgive and correct me.