So I’ve been watching the fallout from the Church of England General Synod’s vote (by a very close margin) not to ordain women to the episcopate with mixed feelings. Chief among is, thank God I’m not an Anglican, but not for the reason that would be expected by the Facebook chatter and the circular email from my (male) college chaplain stating that the decision made him ‘feel ashamed to be a Church of England priest this evening’. To be honest, I don’t really care one way or the other what the Church of England chooses to do about ordaining women. The CoE doesn’t have valid orders anyway – their continued separation from the Universal Church means that their priests and bishops are, from a Catholic perspective, laymen (and -women). I don’t buy the Evangelical Protestant readings of St Paul about women keeping quiet during church or not instructing men as being transcendent apostolic truths for all time; I’m not sure St Paul did himself, given the prominent (though not apostolic) role women played in his ministry, not to mention Christ’s. In that light, the argument that if women can’t be bishops then they are deprived access to the spiritual seats in the House of Lords would seem compelling if the Lords wasn’t already such an emasculated political body that it doesn’t really matter anyway.
The real reason I’m glad to be watching all this from the outside, however, is that I can’t imagine having an ecclesiology that allows the situation to come to such a pass in the first place. Many of my agnostic or atheist friends have railed against the outcome, which seems silly to me, as it’s not like they’d sign up if the CoE suddenly started ordaining women. The only people who really seem to have a right to get directly upset about the whole thing are Anglicans (though I suppose an argument might be made for the English taxpayer, but that is a whole other story; one that again makes me thankful to be in a Church that settled it in the eleventh century with the Investiture Controversy). But this democratic principle itself is what I find hard to swallow. If one believes that the Church is the Bride of Christ, and that the Spirit has led Her into all Truth, what does that say about voting on an aspect of that revealed truth over and over and over again until you get the answer you want? The major thing that seems to have come out of this is the feeling that a mistake was made; because of a cumbersome electoral system, because of bigots in the traditionalist and evangelical camps, because canon law prevents another vote for four or five more years. The Catholic Church of course has it conciliar strand as well, but even œcumenical councils aren’t able to overturn the continuous teaching and practice of the Universal Church. And the dogmatic conclusions of those councils are binding, whether it’s Nicea or Trent or Vatican II. It’s not an evolution, it is a development, as Blessed John Henry wrote; the truths don’t change, our understanding of them simply becomes more clear.
So the Roman Catholic Church will never ordain women because She cannot (‘should’ doesn’t even enter into it, because it is wishful thinking). She cannot say she was wrong, she made a mistake, so let’s start Vatican III and vote until we get the bishops to come round. Christ’s choice, ‘acting in a free and sovereign manner’ (He is God, after all), fell only on his male followers to be apostles, out of a mixed-sex following. That does not mean there is no place for women in the Church, even in positions of authority or teaching, but it does mean they cannot be ordained, and however the members of the Church may feel about it, there is nothing they can do. The development leads only to a clearer understanding of why they cannot be ordained, for instance because of the nuptial symbolism of the Mass, or because the priest serves as an alter Christus in the celebration of the sacraments. Other old arguments based on cultural assumptions, like that women are morally or intellectually weaker or that they are unfit to govern because of Eve’s sin, are discarded as our understanding of the Truth becomes clearer.
This comparative theology and ecclesiology is necessary because it comes to my main concern about the blowback following the decision. Roman Catholics may look at the Church of England with a mixture of envy and bemusement (and if they are historians, perhaps a little bit of resentment), but the reality is that the CoE often serves as a social breakwater: as the dominant and state church in England, all the fury of the progressive reformers is focused primarily (though not exclusively) on her doorstep. In Catholic circles, it is more common to hear debate about whether priests should be allowed to marry or not (not, incidentally, a dogmatic issue) than about whether women can be ordained. I think this is for a number of reasons, not least because of the difference in ecclesiology outlined above. But I think it is also because certain cultural waves are still beating themselves on the CoE: married priests is not an issue for them, so it starts to become one for us; women’s ordination is still an issue for them, so it is not so much for us. When the CoE does ordain women bishops (which they will, as soon as they can challenge the wrong answer from this Synod in another one; and if not then, at the next one, on and on until they get it ‘right’), then I am willing to bet that the tide might begin to rise around the Catholic Church.
Of course, as the Church, she can’t do what will be increasingly demanded of her (what is being increasingly demanded of the Church of England); so she’ll be increasingly penalised legally. The right to grant marriage licences will probably be the first to be revoked, and loss of charitable status will probably follow soon after. That doesn’t sound drastic, especially if one is not a chuchgoer (or if one is French, in relation to the former), but that sidelining, the marginalisation of traditional faith communities only leads to further intolerance of their strange and kooky beliefs. In the end, they’ll either have to tow the dominant cultural line (which they seem to have given up trying to influence or direct) or go underground.
All this is to say that as Catholics watch the Church of England go into her death spasms, they might do well to think about how they intend to survive in the darkening shaft. Getting out isn’t an option, so we’d better start trying to improve the air quality.