‘If in doubt refer to the liturgy.’ This point was stressed time and again by my liturgy tutor at theological college. My tutor was also took every conceivable opportunity to remind his students that for the Church of England ‘liturgy is doctrine in action.’
So, in the light of the ‘Sheffield debacle’ how can the liturgy of ordination help us, in the Church of England, to understand ordination into the episcopacy? How can it help us understand how the process of ‘nominating’ (as distinct from appointing) candidates may be reflected on to ensure that the opportunity for ‘debacle’ is minimized? I ask this question because it appears to me that the findings of Sir Philip Mawer’s report are geared towards the avoidance of future debacle.
I welcome the emphasis Sir Philip has placed on education and increased transparency in the work of the Crown Nominations Committee and hope that these will mitigate against ‘debacle,’ however, I also worry with Canon Jeremy Worthen that ‘it is no longer possible to talk in a straightforward way about the Church of England holding full sacramental communion within its own life, or with other churches.’ Hopefully a rubicon hasn’t already been crossed, but I fear it may have been.
Anyway returning to the liturgy:
The last question before the Archbishop celebrates the act of ordination, through which the candidate’s status is changed from ordinand, or nominee, to bishop is: ‘Brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge that N is ready to undertake, and you have heard his declarations. Is it now your will that he should be ordained?’ (the ‘final question’ was taken from the Common Worship web site for the ordination and Consecration of Bishops, surely the exclusive use of the masculine form needs updating? The language for the ordination of deacons and priests is gender neutral using the phrase ‘these ordinands’).
The final act of verification is therefore given, liturgically and doctrinally, by the ‘People of God’, lay and ordained, the ‘brothers and sisters.’ It is only through their assent that the ordinand’s status can be changed from nominee to appointee. The Church of England’s liturgy in this respect is different from the Roman Catholic ordinal. In the Roman Catholic Church candidates are presented and the ‘People of God,’ are asked to affirm their new ministry with a straightforward ‘amen.’
In the Church of England candidates for each of the three orders of ministry are not appointed, they are instead nominated, received and only then ordained. This, I think, is a significant point because it implies that the most important role of those charged with identifying and selecting candidates is to ensure that they may be received with the ‘goodwill’ of all who have a stake in their ministry, at least to the extent to which it is clear that goodwill is the dominant and guiding virtue. The baptism liturgy includes the beautiful line that ‘today the Church receives with joy…’ Perhaps the essence of this line could be captured in ordination services the next time that the liturgy is revised for, surely, the guarantee of joyful and gracious receipt should be the primary aim of every nomination process? What is good enough for baptism ought to be good enough for ordination; after all both express a theology of (gracious) receipt?
As Sir Philip Mawer has suggested what I describe as a theology of gracious receipt becomes possible only when the needs of the diocese, and other stakeholders, are fully understood and this means asking the right questions at the beginning of the process. It seems bizarre given that gracious receipt is central to the liturgy, and therefore doctrine, of ordination that the question of whether the ‘diocese would accept a diocesan bishop, who did not ordain women as priests,’ was omitted (Paul Handley, Church Times, 22nd September). My lingering concern is whether the Crown Nominations Committee had lost sight of their mandate to nominate for gracious receipt, instead thinking that their remit was to appoint? I also worry whether the Church of England, for all its good intentions, remains unaware of a deeply entrenched patriarchal mindset?
If the nominations process can be regarded as being geared towards helping the ‘brothers and sisters in Christ,’ affirm their desire that the nominated candidate should indeed be ordained with the goodwill of all (if this is possible) where might this leave the Five Guiding Principles and, the notion that those outside the Church of England have a legitimate stake in the nomination of a diocesan bishop?
Let’s deal with the second question first. Some inside the Church of England criticized politicians for objecting to the nomination of Philip North. This objection strikes me as odd given that Bishops are nominated through the Prime Minister’s (political) office. Some may not like it but senior nominations in the established church are, by their very nature, also political nominations. Politicians and civic leaders therefore have a right to comment on those appointments which will have a significant bearing on the life of the diocese. Bishops do after all sit in the legislature. on the benches of the House of Lord’s. Bishops also have the opportunity, through their very office, of shaping civic life and culture.
1 Timothy 3, 7 stresses that potential bishops ‘must be well thought of by outsiders.’ So, when assessing whether the diocese is content to accept or otherwise a ‘non ordaining’ bishop the views of civic leaders should carry significant (not necessarily decisive but significant) weight.
As an aside the notion that a ministry should only ever be affirmed when the candidate is received with the goodwill of both the ‘brothers and sisters in Christ’ and ‘outsiders’ representing the local community is beautifully dramatized in the liturgy for inducting and licensing parish priests when the candidate is specifically invited to ‘come among us’ by representatives of the church and also cordially welcomed by representatives from civic society.
The Church of England, as the Established Church, has to be aware of social mores in its appointment process. Every bishop is also a potential archbishop. Could we really foresee a situation in which an archbishop was consecrated who couldn’t on grounds of theological conscience ordain women to the priesthood? I would suggest not for the Church of England would surely lose the goodwill of the majority of the population (or at least those who care) and, if this is true for archbishops, then why not also for diocesan bishops?
What of the Five Guiding Principles? Well, in some ways I think they are a bit of a red herring. Or at least they are if it is accepted that the remit of the Crown Nominations Committee is simply to nominate candidates for gracious receipt in the diocese on the basis of goodwill. A diocese, put simply, either will or will not be happy to receive a non ordaining candidate. The Five Guiding Principles whether they stand or come to be revised following a process of episcopal theological reflection may continue to make it possible for a traditionalist to be nominated, but the testing ground should always be the diocese and other interested stakeholders.
The Church of England, General Synod, and the Crown Nominations Committee do not have a mandate, right or responsibility to ensure that ‘a priest who publicly espouses the traditional catholic position on holy orders’ (Forward in Faith) will be appointed. It currently has a mandate to inquire into whether such a priest might be nominated, but that is a very different thing. The only promise that General Synod and the Crown Nominations Committee can make to those who would like to see traditionalists nominated is to ensure that the architecture is in place to test whether such appointments may be welcomed.
In the Church of England our hope must be that when the question ‘brothers and sisters, you have heard how great is the charge that N is ready to undertake, and you have heard his ‘ her declarations. Is it now your will that he / she should be ordained’ the answer is a resounding, confident and joyful ‘it is.’ The ‘it is’ must be said with integrity and without reservation.
Perhaps one of lessons the Church of England needs to re-learn is simply this: that our theology of ordination into all three orders of ministry is based not on appointment but on nomination and gracious receipt. Whatever the bishops and synod decide, however the Five Guiding Principles are tweaked, modified or even radically amended the testing ground for whether a nominee can be ordained can only ever be the diocese. Any shaping or re-shaping of the episcopacy should therefore in many ways be a bottom up process and the process starts with asking the right questions. The work of identifying and nominating candidates is, of course, delegated to the Crown Nominations Committee but the validation of candidates can only ever be done at the local, diocesan, level. The nominations process is not, and should never be designed as, a mechanism for ensuring representation for a given group in the episcopacy.
In the Church of England we don’t appoint, we nominate, affirm, hopefully gratefully and graciously receive, and only then ordain.
How do I know this? Because, the liturgy tells me so.