The earthquake that was female ordination in the Church of England is still producing aftershocks, decades after the first woman was ordained.
While it is settled that women can be ordained as deacons, priests
and bishops, what is now controversial is the appointment of a bishop
who does not believe in the ordination of women.
This is highlighted by
the case of Bishop Philip North, who has been appointed as Bishop of Sheffield, and who does not believe female ordination is possible.
Some people, such as Canon Giles Fraser, are annoyed about this, and want the appointment rescinded.
It is not easy for a Catholic such as myself to grasp what is at
On the face of it, Giles Fraser and those who take his
position are completely correct.
Given that the Church of England has
numerous female priests, how is it possible for Bishop North to preside
over a diocese which has female priests, where he, as bishop, will be
appointing them to parishes, while all the time believing they are in
There is a terrible contradiction here: he will be
sending persons he believes not to be ordained to carry out the function
of the ordained.
This seems not just wrong, but absurd.
However, the absurdity goes even further than this.
The Church of
England ordains women, but at the same time, Bishop North, who does not
recognise female ordination, is not a heretic in the eyes of his own
This is because, when the Church of England decided to ordain
female bishops, certain promises were made to opponents of the move.
There was talk of guaranteed “mutual flourishing” and “two
In other words, it is still possible to have two bishops
in the same church who believe diametrically opposed things about female
ordination. Or so the legislation promised. The trouble with that is,
whatever the legislation may say, it remains a theological
You can have two bishops believing opposite things about
female ordination – but they cannot be in the same church. They are, by
the very fact that they believe such different things, out of communion
with each other.
Still, it is sad for Bishop Philip North.
After all, his position,
not so very long ago, was the position of the whole Church of England.
Now, thanks to the radical break with tradition that female ordination
represents, he finds himself in not just a minority position, but in one
which is deeply antipathetic to the majority.
But the fact of the
matter remains: the Church of England has changed, and Bishop North has
been left behind by change, and those who have embraced the change feel
little sympathy for him. He has failed to keep up with the new doctrine;
and novelty is notoriously intolerant.
But what can anyone expect?
Once you could agree or disagree with
female ordination, as an Anglican. The opposition to Philip North’s
appointment to Sheffield shows that the promised tolerance has worn thin
over the intervening years.
If Philip North’s appointment is blocked,
then it will be a sign that there is no room for those who oppose the
ordination of women in the Anglican Church any more.
Even if it does go
ahead, the signs for the future for opponents of female ordination look
bleak: either this time, or at some future time, it will become a de
facto rule that all new bishops will have to approve of women priests.
That is the way the tide is flowing.
What are the implication for us Catholics?
Let’s not be smug about
this, but rather let us remember that Church unity is of the very
greatest importance, and that de facto schism is the one thing we should
most avoid. Unity, unity, unity!