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Aidan Nichols,OP: Shadow Theology
titusonenine ^ | 8/30/2005 | Aidan Nichols

Posted on 08/30/2005 4:07:34 PM PDT by sionnsar

In July 2000, the General Synod of the Church of England voted in favour of a private member’s motion to study the possible opening of the episcopate to women, whereupon the House of Bishops established an Official Working Party on the matter with the Bishop of Rochester, an Evangelical of Pakistani origin, as Chair. The leadership of Forward in Faith, supported by the Provincial Episcopal Visitors, sought and gained from the then Archbishop of Canterbury recognition of a Shadow Working Party of their own on the same subject, the mandate of which was not to adjudicate the issues in a neutral spirit but to prepare the best possible theological statement of the case for the traditional position.

Administrative functions

In the course of my membership of this commission, whose work came to an end last year, I certainly learned a great deal about the episcopate if not necessarily about women! I also learned a lot about how these classical Anglo-Catholics (two bishops, three priests, one layman and one laywoman) saw the situation. It transpired that there is little, if anything, that can be called official teaching on the nature of the episcopate in the Anglican formularies.

The best that can be found is some material in the Canons of the Church of England, especially Canon C 18, which affirms that the bishop is the principal minister in pastoring and teaching, but is otherwise chiefly concerned with his administrative functions. Though this legislation in a number of respects continues the medieval canons that governed the matter, it also reflects, as one of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors rather brutally put it, the origins of the Anglican episcopate in the Tudor and Stuart civil service.

Like all Anglo-Catholics, the members of the Working Party wanted to affirm a richer and more sacerdotal concept of the bishop’s role as high priest and bridegroom of the local church, type and sacrament of Jesus Christ, the whole Church’s high priest and spouse.

The knowledge that a vociferous minority in the Synod wished to end the extended episcopal care of parishes and effectively eject those who dissented did not help, nor did the awareness that ‘tricksy’ solutions were being mooted by the Rochester Commission, such as team episcopacy and parallel episcopal jurisdictions, which would include women.


One clerical member, contrasting such solutions with the ancient Christian notion that the single bishop as the ministerial principle – in Greek, archê – of sacramental life in each local church signifies obedience to the one divine FatherGod, went so far as to say in a written submission that ‘A plurality of bishops and thus a plurality of archai (polyarchy!) in a Church would make its episcopal ministry an efficacious sign of plurality in the monarchical fatherhood of the first Person of the Holy and Undivided Trinity: in effect, we would be committed to polytheism.’

Subsequently, a published survey from an independent monitoring agency which showed that women priests were more likely to be unorthodox on the Incarnation than were male priests seemed to vindicate the Working Party’s stand that the issues of gender, priesthood and Christology belong together, in a delicate balance that cannot be upset.

Some members were chiefly concerned about the provisionality built into the reform by its recognition of its own experimental character. This meant, they argued, the deliberate institution of avowedly dubious sacraments.

Alternative provision

Ideas of ‘reception’ much trumpeted in the debates in Synod and the House of Bishops were lambasted. Realistically, the members of the Working Party knew that few people in the Church beyond were likely to change their minds, so their efforts were directed to leaving behind as impressive a theological document on the subject as they could manage, and, more especially, looking ahead to a new settlement in the form of a free province.

I have little doubt that for the leadership of Forward in Faith and the Provincial Episcopal Visitors, at any rate in the southern province, the ordination of women into the episcopate is the hurdle they cannot jump.

The key arguments run as follows. When the bishop has ordained women to the presbyterate, unity may be impaired, but the very impairment illustrates that unity is the norm that could be restored if the error were removed. If, however, one were to be ordained bishop who could not possess the character of a bishop, then the element of unity would be entirely missing and an essential note of the Church would be absent. There would be no local church.

Furthermore, irregularly ordained bishops, in conferring their own irregular orders not only on other women but also on men, would disrupt the male priesthood and diaconate, creating doubt and uncertainty of a kind in practical terms impossible to resolve about the wider sacrament of Order. Such bishops, once welcomed into the provincial college of bishops, would place its competence in doubt, not least in the matter of its commissioning any future Episcopal Visitors for traditionalist groups.

Separated doctors

Invited to address the Forward in Faith National Assembly in London in 2002, I included the following passage: ‘The unity of Catholic Christendom is the unity of a face. In a face no one feature can be changed without altering the cast of all the rest. Contemporary orthodox-minded Roman Catholics look with admiration at those Anglican divines who, in various historical periods, sought to restore the authentic portrait of the Church and the faith of the Church. One thinks for example of Thomas Ken and John Keble as well as, closer to our own day, Gregory Dix and Eric Mascall.

‘These are separated doctors in whom the Church of Rome can recognise the overwhelming preponderance of the apostolic patrimony she has received. Your task is now not only the negative one of defending their work but the positive one of completing it.’

–From New Directions, August 2005

TOPICS: Mainline Protestant

1 posted on 08/30/2005 4:07:34 PM PDT by sionnsar
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