(This story was first published in the September 1979 issue of the Canadian Churchman.)
The Church of England’s refusal to allow visiting women priests to officiate threatens to throw that church into ecclesiastical anarchy. It also raises the question of whether a church which so condones discrimination on the grounds of sex has the right any longer to be regarded as head of the Anglican Communion.
When General Synod this summer discussed the status of visiting women priests it was offered seven possible responses by the committee reporting to it. The vote was actually taken on the seventh option which would have allowed women to officiate occasionally, in limited and strictly controlled circumstances. The option was to be a temporary measure with a non-renewable life of from five to seven years.
There would also be safeguards: applications would require approval by one of the church’s two archbishops, by the diocesan bishop and by the parish priest, before a woman could officiate.
Despite the warnings of some synod members – notably the Bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury – that to reject the option would be to invite disorder and lawlessness, the clergy did just that.
The fruits of that action are already to be seen and feelings within the Church of England are strongly reminiscent of those in the American Episcopal Church at the time of the irregular Philadelphia ordinations of women in 1974.
Many of those who have been counseling patience are now talking about confrontation. There is increasing activism in the pro-ordination movements, a growing feeling of despair and of an injustice being done. The calls to lawlessness have begun, and the rebels are not the young, but are men and women of advanced years and experience.
In a letter to the Church of England newspaper, Church Times, one prominent clergyman says synod’s decision has polarized the situation. “There is now nothing for it but resistance against the law…” writes Canon David Paton. “Now confrontation is forced upon us…”
Two Church of England bishops and others have written a letter to each of the 250 women priests in the Anglican Communion and to their presiding bishops, which reads, at best, ambiguously. It asks women priests visiting England to contact the signatories or the groups they represent “so that we can make you feel welcome and be encouraged and strengthened by your presence.”
The Church Times itself, a respected publication, has editorially condemned the vote, calling it a blow to the unity of the Anglican Communion and the ecumenical movement. The editorial concludes: “…we share the expectation that some parochial church councils will feel driven in conscience to invite women priests from overseas, whatever the House of Clergy may say. We condemned such lawlessness before, but would now find it much harder to do so.”
And now the church has to contend with the first example of such “lawlessness.” Rev. Joyce Bennet, a woman in her mid-50s and principal of a Hong Kong girls’ school – a most unlikely candidate for radicalism – concelebrated the eucharist with a Church of England clergyman during an ecumenical conference at Oxford.
The church’s attitude towards overseas women priests is rooted in sexual discrimination. All priests, by virtue of their ordination, have the right to officiate at the eucharist – it is the foremost of the priestly functions.
Overseas male priests wishing to officiate in the Church of England are granted virtually automatic permission by the Archbishop of Canterbury or York. Even if synod has passed Option Seven, women priests would be much more stringently controlled than their male counterparts, simply because of their sex.
It should be remembered that the Church of England accepts women priests in principle; its synod has agreed to that and so have 30 of its 43 dioceses. All it has said is that the time is not yet right for the principle to be extended into practice.
But this latest synod action makes no acknowledgement of this stand: it more truly reflects the attitude of a church which believes women cannot be priests.
It should also be remembered that the Church of England is not just a national church. It claims to be, and others look towards it as, the mother church of 650,000,000 Anglicans around the world.
As such it should recognize that it does have obligations to Anglican churches overseas. One of these obligations is to respect the decision of those churches which have accorded women equal status with men as priests, and to confer on those women the same courtesies – and they are no more than that – as are now extended to visiting male priests.
Instead of that, we se the mother church shutting herself off from those churches who practise a principle to which she herself adheres. We see a church which is so insecure that it recoils from contact with the manifestation of that principle. We see a church which is fearful, insular and inward-looking.
During the synod debate one speaker said he doubted that the ban on overseas women priests would affect the Church of England’s position as head of the Anglican Communion.
If the mother church of the Anglican Communion is able to welcome visiting priests only if they are the right sex, then it no longer deserves to be accorded that title or any of the loyalties the position implies.