‘What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for?’

In 1991 Peter Selby, then the Bishop of Kingston, posed the following questions to ‘traditionalists’ who opposed the ordination of women to the priesthood:

What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for, and for which the Church is a preparation? How would a Church that excluded women from certain aspects of its life be offering anything that might be called good news for women?’

He also invited traditionalists to reflect on the nature of calling, asking them to answer how they could refuse women who believe themselves to be called to the priesthood, the rite of ordination (subject to their sense of calling be discerned by the church).

Over the last twenty five years things have changed and women, like men, may now be ordained into all three areas orders of ministry, And,…….

And yet, a significant minority within the Church of England, whilst not seeking to deny the rite to ordination, of both men and women alike, continue to locate themselves within quasi ecclesiological structures which represent their theologies and provide a mechanism for ensuring they both provide and receive male only priestly and episcopal ministry. No longer do we have a situation where women are excluded from ‘certain aspects’ of the ecclesial life but we do have a situation where the ministry of women is restricted to those who are willing to accept their ministry. Thankfully the majority of Church of England parishioners and priests are happy to both receive and endorse women’s ministry. Sometimes their endorsement is based on theological and ontological grounds but usually because they have been direct beneficiaries of women’s ministry. Experience frequently helps shape doctrine in ‘real life.’ Yet, all too often experience and tradition are placed in different theological compartments. How much better if they were asked to travel together so that the tradition stands the chance of becoming a living, breathing, expanding, tradition?

For the majority of the time the fracture between experience and tradition causes no particular problem. Most parishes rub along doing what they do in their own contexts, possibly slightly aware of what they regard as the eccentricities, or traditions, of nearby parishes, but without paying too much attention to notions such as the Five Guiding Principles. Just occasionally though something happens in the life of the Church which brings the fragility of the supposed settlement to the attention of the wider church and society at large. Such a something was the ‘Sheffield Débâcle.’

On Saturday I attended a colloquium on the Five Guiding Principles. I must admit to feeling ever so slightly apprehensive and, to be honest, male (I am also aware of the irony of the male me writing this reflection on an issue which at face value mostly impacts on women, however, I also believe, as a fairly basic theological point, that if one part of the body is impacted so must be the entirety of the body.) My biggest worry concerned the mood of the meeting. Was I about to enter into a seething pit of anger and resentment, or a trough of woe mes?

This thought piece reflects my understanding of some of the issues raised at the colloquium. All of those present were asked whether they were content for me to write a reflection under Chatham House Rules. Permission was given. Any misunderstandings and under or over statements presented in this article are mine alone. Whilst this is my reflection, I hope that I have managed to capture the essence of the meeting both in terms of the discussions held and, just as importantly, its tone and culture.

To my relief, despite the fact that a number of the attendees had been personally hurt by the events surrounding Bishop North’s nomination, the overriding feelings were ones of lament and quizzical frustration. To my male mind there was a somewhat strange lack of anger, and there was certainly no vitriol. But, neither was there was a feeling of resigned passivity or Godly stoicism; there was too much love for the Church of England and a determination that for the sake of her mission things have to change for these emotions to hold sway. There was too much longing for a Godly community in which all, female and male, stand side by side on equal terms, to allow passivity and stoicism to win through.

So what, apart from the somewhat obvious fact that women are still not regarded, by some, as rightfully and ritefully (ritefully refers to the liturgical ‘rites’ through which the Church of England confirms and commissions candidates into various states in the life of the church) equal in the ordering of ministry, were the main areas for lament?

Starting with the obvious there was a sense of lament that, despite their best intentions, the Five Guiding Principles legitimize the notion, based on gender, of no go areas within the Church of England. The Five Guiding Principles, paradoxically given their commitment to ‘mutual flourishing,’ also help create the conditions for sectarianism. Sectarianism and mutual flourishing are not natural cohabitants of the same ecclesial family (denomination), even in a famously broad church. It is, and remains, a fact that even where the ordination of women is ritefully accepted women continue to be excluded from full and equal participation in certain aspects of Church life. How we might ask, can this be? Does this, can this, as Peter Selby asked all those years ago accurately depict the ideal of a Christian community we might long for and ‘for which the Church is preparation?’

Part of the group’s lament was that in striving to arrive at pragmatic and theo-political settlements it might just have been the case that the Church of England took its eye off that most cherished of all images: the church perfect. When we are able to see, even through a ‘glass dimly,’ an image of the ‘Church Perfect’ then we are better positioned to help shape the ‘Church Militant,’ or temporal.

A further characteristic of the sense of lament was the perception that the nominations process, and in particular the configuration of the Crown Nominations Committee, makes it far harder for a woman to be nominated, elected and appointed to an episcopal see. The nomination process, in other words, far from embedding the principle of mutual flourishing actively mitigates against it. Hopefully through Professor O’Donovan’s review of the work of the Crown Nominations Committee this structural deficit will be rectified and both women and men will have a genuinely equal opportunity of nomination to the episcopacy.

Whilst recognizing the gravity of the task set before Sir Philip Mawer there was a sense of sorrow that the report was in many ways sub optimal. It was not, for instance, an independent review but more of an internal audit of shortcomings in the nominations process and the subsequent reaction to Bishop North’s nomination. In asking Sir Philip Mawer to investigate what came to be termed as the Sheffield Débâcle the institution was playing it safe. Theological and ecclesiological questions were very much out of scope and off agenda. The report’s concerns were instead political and pragmatic. This I believe can only be to the detriment of the church. The Sheffield Débâcle was an ecclesiological and theological crisis and not a theo-political failure.

Could more have been achieved through an externally commissioned report? Was it sensible for the Archbishops to ask for the report to be authored by just one person? Would a better more rounded and nuanced report have been produced if a woman had been asked to be the co (and equal) author? Would the report have been more fruitful if a theologian had been asked to contribute; someone who recognized that good theological discourse speaks to many publics, including the public? These are some of the very real questions that it is fair and appropriate to ask. Is it unreasonable to suggest that these are in fact preliminary questions, ones which should have been asked up front?

It shouldn’t be forgotten that the Sheffield Débâcle was played out in public and was as such a missional disaster. The potential for our Church of England angst to be played out in public, and critiqued by agents of the state, is part of the turf on which we stand as a national and established church. Church affairs, for us Anglicans, can never be simply church affairs. As an established church we should expect to be interrogated when a decision we make stands contrary to cultural norms, such as gender equality. This does not mean that the Church of England should always seek to affirm cultural norms but it does mean that where we depart from them it must be for the most noble of reasons.

The group were particularly concerned about some of the use of language in the report suggesting that it revealed an implicit bias towards maleness. The example was given that when Philip North answered various questions, questions that made him feel uncomfortable, he did so ‘robustly.’ By contrast the asking of difficult questions, by women, was described as ‘savaging.’

I was left wondering whether, despite all our protestations, we (the Church of England) still simply don’t understand that making the step change from regarding certain classes of people, women and members of the LGBTI community for example, as issues and problems to be solved means including them ‘at all times and in all places,’ at the top table and allowing them to help not only shape but take a leadership position in our most difficult discussions.

This point leads to the final area of lament, fear; the fear of inclusion, the fear of giving people their voice, of, if you like, the fear of genuinely ‘setting God’s people free,’ and the fear of tackling the difficult issues directly and, theologically.

The spirit of quizzical frustration was animated through perspectives suggestive of the idea that the Church of England has relinquished all serious attempts to understand itself ecclesiologically (and I would add liturgically). The question was repeatedly asked: ‘who is doing the work of theology and ecclesiology?’ (At times I wanted to shout ‘we are,’ – but that’s not the main point).

The bishops, to be sure, came in for a certain amount of criticism. They were criticized for enabling the conditions for the creation and sustenance of a theological and ecclesiological vacuum. They were also criticized for colluding in the maintenance of a sub optimal ecclesiology which seeks to honour all theologies in the belief that they should be afforded equal merit. It may well be right, in fact it is right to protect minorities within the church, but, does this mean that it is also right to nominate and seek to impose those who adhere to a minority position on the majority, asking them to set aside their own theologies in the name of ‘mutual flourishing?’ Surely as the Sheffield Débâcle shows to do so is to court rejection and rebellion?

Anecdotal evidence was offered of various bishops agreeing that appointing a ‘traditionalist’ to a see is problematic but that in the pursuit of unity it is also better not to speak out or ask the difficult questions. And, haven’t we seen unity confused with collegiality and uniformity in other spheres of ecclesial debate? Did all of the bishops who voted to take note of their (in) famous report on sexuality really believe that it was a cracking piece of work? The answer is surely ‘no.’ So what dynamics are at work in the College and House of Bishops that seeks to prize uniformity (for it surely isn’t unity) over the rough and tumble work of ecclesiology and theology? Do the bishops operate within a closed system of inquiry, challenge and debate? These are questions deserving of an answer.

The other question that the bishops must ask of themselves, or perhaps the Archbishops must ask of the college and house, is whether they have sufficient theological fire power to identify and address the tough questions. Surely the Church of England, if it is to make ecclesiological, theological, and missional headway needs a better balanced episcopacy and that this must include a cadre of bishop-theologians? If such theologians can’t be appointed to a see why not, as I have suggested before, create an order of bishop-theologians, or Lambeth Theologians? I would argue that an episcopally led church must include theologians among her bishops. For the health and welfare of the church and her publics we cannot, must not, create the conditions where theology is left to the academe alone. Over the last few years we have seen the perils of such an approach. The Church of England, must have her own ecclesiologists and theologians, for the sake of our identity and mission. At the colloquium we were privileged to listen to a Roman Catholic church historian of renown. His major point was that during the Vatican ii process the Roman Catholic bishops were repeatedly challenged by a group of Roman Catholic theologians. The theologians shaped the debate and informed the bishops thinking. Does the Church of England need its own equivalent of Vatican ii? Maybe.

So what are the questions that a cadre of ecclesiologists and theologians might be asked to address on behalf of the Church of England?

I would suggest that the group that met on Saturday might raise two:

What does it mean to have the highest possible degree of communion?’


Has the Church of England already gone beyond the limits of diversity but is too polite to discuss it?’

Successfully answering the first question may, in fact, be the best way to answer the second. The term ‘highest possible’ is in itself interesting for it implies a level of communion that is at best impaired and falls short of the objective standard of full and absolute communion, which for a sacramental church must be the goal, or in Peter Selby’s terms, the longed for community of women and men for which the church is a preparation.

Are we a communion of brothers and sisters through baptism? Well, clearly we are, up to a point. This definition would seem to me to work reasonably well ecumenically but not denominationally, because the point is the sacrament of the Eucharist. Surely, in the Church of England and Anglican Communion, the only way we can say that we are ‘in communion’ is by literally, unequivocally, being in (Eucharistic) communion? As the liturgy stresses ‘we are one body because we all share in one bread.’ Is the liturgy wrong? I would suggest that the liturgy gives the correct and definitive answer. And, lest we forget, priests are ordained to share in the sacramental ministry of the bishop, this being foundational to any ‘catholic’ understanding of ministry.

Are there ways of being in lesser, ‘highest possible,’ degrees of communion, or are these meaningless terms? Is being in the ‘highest possible degree of communion,’ a realistic possibility, or is it like being a bit pregnant? If it is possible for the relationship between bishop and priest to meet a ‘highest possible’ standard, which falls short of full of sacramental communion, what would be the implications of this? Is it something to be lived with? Can such as situation be legitimized as a ‘bearable anomaly?’ And, if the answer is yes, is it just that one group of people, women, are asked to bear the full weight of the anomaly? Is it acceptable to ask ordinands to assent to the Five Guiding Principles as a condition of ordination? For the sake of women and LGBTI Christians (and in fact non Christians) these questions need to be both asked and answered. Finally, if ‘no’ is the answer to these questions what would the implications be for traditionalists?

These are the questions that must be answered by ecclesiologists and theologians; they are not questions for managers, politicians or even pastors. When we, the Church of England, understand the answers to these questions, then and only then, can we start to understand whether the nomination of a non ordaining bishop goes beyond the limits of diversity.

As things stand we don’t have a robust ecclesiology and theology, we have a theo-politicallly enabled vacuum; the task of the ecclesiologist is to fill the vacuum and in the process help shape the community of men and women for which the Church is an earthly preparation.


3 thoughts on “‘What is the shape of the community of women and men that you long for?’

  1. Very interesting and well-done article. Theologically spot on when you say that we are in communion because ‘we are one body because we all share in one bread.’ Because we share in the one bread, not because we agree to tolerate discrimination against women, LGBTQI people, etc.

    And about the Mawer report, this says it all “The example was given that when Philip North answered various questions, questions that made him feel uncomfortable, he did so ‘robustly.’ By contrast the asking of difficult questions, by women, was described as ‘savaging.’

    That one sentence totally captures the inadequacies of the Mawer Report. Under the best of circumstances, it would be difficult for one person to get it right, but equality 101 required that women have an equal voice and equal representation in the report (women were rarely named and only quoted a handful of times, in total contrast to the overwhelming male point-of-view). And it requires that their representation and voices be respected.

    I hope that CoE does aim to be more theologically robust.

  2. Excellent article.Yes a theological/ ecclesiological void…despite 50 yrs of ecumenical dialogue which helped articulate something of an Anglican position.Not that they have formed many clergy…my POT group were 90% ignorant of the existence of ARCIC.
    Karl Barth asked Abp Fisher”What part does theology play in your Church…….”

  3. Pingback: Living stones 8 Solomon’s temple and the ecclesia today – Belgian Ecclesia Brussel – Leuven

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