Vatican ‘regret’ over women bishops
But cardinals and popes have been expressing their regret since 1532, if not before, and doom merchants have prophesied the imminent demise of the Church of England ever since. Bishop John Jewel was the first to navigate safe passage for the Anglican Settlement after its fragile birth under the young Elizabeth I. A generation later, Richard Hooker feared for the future of the Church of England at the hands of radical reformers within, and helped to secure its future. And in the 19th century, Samuel Coleridge made trial of his age (as Newman put it) and set the Church on a fresh course of intellectual and imaginative renewal at a time when the likes of Thomas Arnold were proclaiming that it was finished.
Theological leadership is raised up in due season. We have no comparable tomes such as Jewel’s Defensio Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae or Hooker’s Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, but the Reformed English Church persists because there is no better expression of English identity: it is the Ecclesia Anglorum. If it is ‘crucified between two thieves’ – the Puritans and the papists - it is because it has tasted the unmerited grace of God in Jesus Christ and maintains continuity with the Church of the Middle Ages and the early Fathers. It is catholic and reformed; moderate and reasonable; rigorous yet pastoral. And these are held in tension, in the brokenness of the cross, and there are undoubted frequent imbalances, in the imperfection of our fallenness. The Ecclesia Angliae has endured through numerous threats – the Roman Catholic Church, the Puritans, the Enlightenment and science, and ecumenism. So Cranmer is sure that it can survive feminism and pluralism.
The decision does, of course, create problems for Christian unity, for the work of ARCIC, and for the Anglican traditionalists. But Cranmer would like to reassure all his readers and communicants that we are not about to witness the end of any. Christian unity is a work of the Holy Spirit. Ut Unum Sint is a much longed-for hope, but that objective is a work of God, not man. Christ calls all his disciples to unity. But this unity must be based on rock, and so doctrinal differences must be resolved, and believers must address the burden of long-standing misgivings, mutual misunderstandings and prejudices. Complacency, indifference and mistrust are multiplied as each side sees the other in a mirror dimly, so the light of truth must illumine the way.
The work of ARCIC has been in suspended animation for over a decade in any case. Ever since the Second Vatican Council in Lumen Gentium used the subtle phrase ‘subsists in’ for the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Christ, there has been hope of a degree of recognition to the Church of England. But recent declarations by Cardinal Ratzinger (and since he became Pope Benedict XVI) have clarified this elusive and nuanced expression. The Church of England is not only partial and incomplete, it is not even a church. Some might even say it is a ‘contagion’.
But Cranmer ne regrette rien.
On women bishops, Cardinal Kasper states: ‘The Catholic position on the issue was clearly expressed by Pope Paul VI and Pope John Paul II. Such a decision signifies a breaking away from the apostolic tradition maintained by all of the Churches since the first millennium, and therefore is a further obstacle for the reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.’
One wonders why there are no eloquent Protestants in the Church of England who are prepared to tell the Cardinal about Rome’s ‘breaking away’ from the pattern set by the Early Church and the ‘obstacles’ that it presents to the process of reconciliation. And he further wonders why the Archbishop of Canterbury has chosen the Cardinal to close the Lambeth Conference and express the ‘Catholic position’ on the conference’s deliberations, and why such a 'summing up' should be necessary at all. It is placing the Church of Rome in judgement upon the Church of England, and one wonders why Dr Williams himself does not issue the concluding comments on behalf of the catholic Church. And if not he, is there no theologian in all the Anglican parishes in all the world who can articulate the catholic position?
As 1,333 clergy prepare to cross the Tiber over this issue, it might be observed that since so many of them are retired, it will hardly matter a jot. Cranmer genuinely wishes them well in their spiritual journey. But there are a few bishops who intend to jump ship, and Cranmer would like to counsel them to wait. All is not lost.
Firstly, it is worth waiting for the ‘code of practice’ that proposes to bridge the gulf between the traditionalists and the liberals, without the 'structural humiliation' (as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it) of those women who are nominated for consecration. If this is a workable ecclesiology it will be an impressive work of religio-political diplomacy, if it can be achieved at all.
Then it must be realised that no women will be consecrated bishop until about 2014, and only then if there emerges a ‘suitable’ candidate.
Defecting today over an issue which is at least six years away is unnecessary and unwise.
And to those bishops who have already taken the first steps to Rome, Cranmer asks them to pause and consider the supreme irony that their decision to find another church in order to sustain a ‘righteous discrimination’ against women will necessitate the resignation of their episcopal orders, for, unlike married priests, married bishops are not permitted in the Roman Catholic Church.
And so those who resign in order to maintain such a ‘righteous discrimination’ against women will find themselves discriminated against for being that most natural of Christian institutions - married.
One wonders which discrimination is the lesser evil.