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Canon David Sharp - EDP Viewpoint

This ‘middle way’ is a minefield



Who can fail to feel sympathy for Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, in a predicament not of his own making? He struggles to keep the fragmenting Lambeth s327222748c30e1ffe60mhow on the road this summer, with many conservative bishops boycotting it because of the acceptance by the American church in particular of homosexuality among the clergy.

Meanwhile gay bishop Gene Robinson, who was not invited, is determined to force his attendance, hot from his "wedding", complaining about "adolescent bullying" over the consec-ration of female and gay bishops in the Anglican Communion.

Now the Archbishop is faced with another hornets' nest in the publication last week of the Bishop of Manchester's report to Synod on how to proceed with admitting women to the episcopate which, remember, was agreed by significant majorities in all three houses by bishops, clergy and laity.

This sets out three options for the Church - the second, the "middle way", having four possible variations! Yes, it is a very Anglican report.

We Anglicans have "middle way" built into our genes.

So usually we end up pleasing nobody, and only agree to hold together by the grace of God and the skin of our teeth.

But this time even this may not be possible, however daintily we cherry-pick the Manchester report. Let me explain.

In 1994, women were first admitted to the priesthood. Some 470 male clergy left in protest, many going over to Rome, though 58 later returned. In 2005 it was agreed in principle to remove the barriers to women becoming bishops. There are now 1,507 fulltime paid female priests, and 7,109 male. (The figures including unpaid and part-time, are 3,119 and 8,785.)

At present about half those in training for the priesthood are women, so this ratio is fast closing. And women priests have in the past 15 years become increasingly appreciated and valued in the mainstream Church. It is no longer an issue for most.

When women priests were admitted, parishes and clergy who could not accept them were allowed to opt out, and offered episcopal ministry by "flying (extra-diocesan, male) bishops", their own bishops being seen as "tainted" if they had ordained women.

There are some 900 such parishes (7pc of the total), a small but significant proportion. There is so far no sign of those opting out diminishing in numbers, as expected after 15 years, and indeed this wing of the church is steadily producing its own ordinands. So it is a problem that does not go away.

But with women now to be admitted as bishops, the problems will be compounded for those opposed, as women bishops will themselves be ordaining male and female priests, none of whom, not even the male priests, will be accepted as valid.

Female priests have felt keenly this part-rejection in a Church supposedly committed to the ordination of women: now men ordained by women bishops will feel it too.

Some of the alternatives in the Manchester Report would involve even more intricate contortions to continue providing for the minority to remain within the Church "untainted" by women priests and bishops. These have already been described as "gender havens", which will leave the established Church resembling a "Gruyère cheese" with holes left in dioceses if opposing clergy and parishes are able either to opt out completely into a separate non-territorial diocese or province, or at least to be under the care of a "complementary bishop", untouched by female priests and bishops.

If the church was a secular democracy, the answer would be easy. A large majority voted for women bishops: that is what will happen, and those opposed must live with it, or leave.

Indeed Manchester's Option 1 is virtually this: open the episcopate to women, but make no further provision for those opposed. It would make clear that the CofE is now fully committed to opening all orders of ministry to men and women equally.

Personally, I am drawn to this option. A Church either ordains women or it does not.

In this case, as the report says, "many priests and congregations would undoubtedly leave", but maybe not as many as feared once the chips are down. There would, of course, be property and financial wrangles to be faced, and those who accepted in good faith that the Church wished to keep an honoured place for them would feel let down.

But the Church is not a secular democracy, and in offering "middle way" alternatives, the Manchester Report says the CofE's model of holding together within one Church people who differ profoundly on a major theological issue was "not something lightly to be set aside". My guess, I am afraid, is that we are destined to try out one of these routes and further confuse the issue.

Either way the poor Archbishop is likely to have a rocky time ahead of him. Academia must begin to look attractive.

By courtesy of the EDP24 website