Savi Hensman

Bishops and church collegiality in a postmodern setting

By Savi Hensman
January 25, 2015

As I write, the Church of England will shortly be ordaining a woman as bishop for the first time. This has been widely welcomed. But many were baffled to learn of the novel way in which a male bishop will be ordained not long afterwards. Libby Lane is to become the new Bishop of Stockport in the diocese of Chester. As a suffragan, she will be part of a team led by the diocesan bishop. Archbishop of York John Sentamu, and other bishops will lay hands on her, praying that the Holy Spirit will descend on her, while fellow-clergy and laypeople join in prayer. However when Philip North becomes Bishop of Burnley, a suffragan in the Diocese of Blackburn, the arrangements will be different. A ‘traditionalist’ Anglo-Catholic who opposes women’s ordination, his consecration will be far from traditional. The archbishop will not lay hands on him. Nor will the Bishop of Blackburn, or anyone else who has ordained a woman as a bishop or priest. Another bishop will ordain him and celebrate communion, though Sentamu will preach. There has been much controversy over this development, including what it means. Some regard it as signifying a ‘theology of taint’ linked with women, others as a sign of ‘impaired communion’ or – in Sentamu’s phrase – ‘gracious restraint’. To those who are not Anglicans, it may seem a storm in a teacup. However the furore touches on the broader issue of how Christians relate to others with whom they disagree profoundly. Perhaps a drift towards fragmentation within churches is predictable in a world influenced by postmodernism. Maybe it is time for a return to a more old-fashioned approach, which nevertheless might equip Anglicans to witness to Christ more effectively in today’s world.

Not laying on hands

Over the past century, there have been moves towards greater Christian unity. One aspect has been a growing recognition that baptism is valid, even if by a minister of another denomination. Also more churches let members of other denominations take communion, while Christians are often readier to turn to clergy or elders from other traditions for sacraments or blessing. However, in recent decades in some churches, there has been an opposing trend affecting some individuals and congregations who might previously have tolerated theological difference. These now refuse to give or receive the sacraments even from those of their own denomination with whom they disagree, especially on full inclusion of women or of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people. If someone does not (yet) believe that a woman can validly celebrate communion, it is predictable that he or she may worship in a church where a man presides. But this goes far further. Such actions may be portrayed as a defence of the Bible or tradition, though those in favour of ordaining women and celebrating same-sex partnerships often also appeal to biblical and ‘traditional’ values. Some of those currently unconvinced by the case for full inclusion are sincerely mistaken, keen to minimise hurt to others and open to listening and learning as part of an ongoing journey of faith. Their views are theologically flawed, as pointed out by evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics with a more inclusive stance, along with other Anglicans; but nobody is always right. However a number of objectors are swayed (sometimes unconsciously) by other factors. Some may fear that admitting uncertainty about what they, and those in their circle, had taken for granted may lead to confusion and ultimately undermine faith. Others may crave hierarchy, in which those with different identities may have different places. Yet others may be misogynistic or homophobic, sometimes underscored by visceral feelings of distaste or purity codes. These may be linked with menstruation and childbirth or gay sex, or dubious biblical interpretations, for instance of woman as temptress because Eve gave Adam forbidden fruit. When the news of the plans for North’s ordination became known, there was puzzlement and hurt. Even when bishops uncertain about, or opposed to, women’s ordination had been appointed over the past two decades, there had been no requirement that they be ordained, and hands laid on them, solely by men with the same views. One theory about this novel departure from usual practice was that it reflected a notion of ‘taint’, so that a man who laid hands on a woman might risk invalidating his own ordination and ‘infecting’ others. Unsurprisingly this was seen as offensive. It was also puzzling: the Catholic tradition tends to emphasise the idea ‘Once a priest, always a priest’ if someone is validly ordained. For an alternative explanation, some commentators turned to a February 2014 editorial in New Directions, monthly magazine of ‘conservative’ Anglo-Catholic network Forward in Faith. This stated, “The issue for us has never been about so-called ‘taint’… a bishop, who has in the past ordained women, by that act, created an impairment of communion between him and bishops who did not ordain women. He also created an impairment of communion with some of his priests and his people. If the bishop changes his mind and decides not to ordain women and feels that it is not right for the Church then he returns to being in communion with those who cannot accept the ordination of women.” However it is unclear how someone can serve effectively as a local bishop if he is in impaired communion not only with the women priests in his pastoral care but also most male clergy, the majority of laypeople and his own diocesan bishop and archbishop. In response to a storm of media coverage, Sentamu stated that the ordination arrangements showed “gracious restraint” and were his own idea and not requested by North. It would appear that the gesture has backfired, undermining the new bishop’s ministry before it even begins.

Unity not total agreement

The Church of England emerged out of savage strife between the Roman Catholic Church and an emerging Protestant movement in the sixteenth century. Though declaredly Protestant, it kept some elements of Catholic tradition. This was in part because Elizabeth 1 was smart enough politically to realise that trying to force everyone to think alike on doctrinal matters would alienate many, making peaceful coexistence harder to achieve. While persecution continued for a while, and sometimes bitter rivalry through the centuries, Anglicans managed to stay together through the centuries despite major disagreements. In each diocese, covering a particular geographical area, there was one bishop who oversaw many parishes. While this initially echoed a feudal system, even when bishops were seen less as overlords and more as servants of all, the system continued. The bishop was seen as linking local congregations with one another and a wider church, indeed a universal fellowship of Christians stretching back to the apostles. An ardent evangelical priest might be ordained by, and serve under, a devout Anglo-Catholic, or vice versa. Even if one regarded the other as a superstitious Papist or a sacrilegious ultra-reformer, they were expected to work together. This model, which continues today, has, I think, been easier to maintain because of key beliefs about the unworthiness of clergy and indeed all Christians. Some of the 39 articles of religion adopted by the Church of England when it was newly-formed have stood the test of time better than others. One which I believe has proved very useful is: Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ's, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving of the Sacraments. Neither is the effect of Christ's ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God's gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ's institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men. So, even if a priest is wrong about all kinds of matters or a villain, he or she can still nourish and encourage other Christians in faith. Maybe he or she should be disciplined or even removed, but this does not invalidate his or her ministry. Another longstanding belief that is helpful is that all are unworthy, and receive communion and other benefits because God is loving, not that we are good. Through this generosity, we may indeed be transformed, but this is through grace, not because we have earned it. Some (particularly among ‘liberal’ Christians) reject this view and believe that the essential goodness of people should be affirmed. Admittedly too heavy an emphasis on sinfulness might not work well for those with an exaggerated sense of worthlessness, perhaps because of depression. However others might feel that underlining churchgoers’ virtue is naive, potentially divisive and might deter those acutely aware of their failings as well as of the strength of God’s love. In the ‘prayer of humble access’ in the Book of Common Prayer, it is clear that those who take communion are guests at Christ’s table, rather than hosts deciding who is good enough to eat with us: We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies... There is a more recent alternative, which I think is better still: Most merciful Lord, your love compels us to come in. Our hands were unclean, our hearts were unprepared; we were not fit even to eat the crumbs from under your table. But you, Lord, are the God of our salvation, and share your bread with sinners... Whether or not either prayer is used in worship, they underline the fact that, in Anglican tradition, the sacraments have not been regarded as being only for, or administered by, the most holy.

‘Impaired communion’

The notion of impaired communion began to come into common use in the late twentieth century, I think. At first it referred to the fact that, within the family of churches which make up the Anglican Communion, some ordained women while others did not. So, for instance, an Anglican on holiday overseas might feel reluctant to share in bread and wine blessed by a priest who was a woman, if this did not happen in their own church. However it took on a new meaning. To get agreement to women priests past opponents in church and state, and perhaps also because of instinctive sympathy with those who felt that their security or privilege was threatened, Church of England leaders departed from usual Anglican practice in the early 1990s. Ordinarily, whenever a member church in a particular part of the world felt called by the Holy Spirit to ordain women, witnessing to the belief that “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female” (Galatians 3.28), ministry would be opened up accordingly. Concessions might be made to those who had misgivings, but structures did not alter radically. In England, a more complicated arrangement was developed. Parishes and priests who felt unwilling or unable to accept women as priests were allowed to choose that only men could carry out priestly functions in their local church. In addition, more remarkably, they were offered support from ‘provincial episcopal visitors’, who became known as ‘flying bishops’. These carried out tasks which a diocesan or suffragan bishop would usually conduct, such as confirmations. However there was no such support for women clergy, or laypeople who agreed with inclusion but whose parish priest did not. The idea of ‘two integrities’ also gained ground. This may have made opponents of women’s ordination more comfortable. But it could give the impression that both views were equally valid, leaving some women feeling uncertain as to whether they really were regarded as priests, or imply that truth was purely subjective. The concessions made to accommodate an increasingly small minority of church members led to a sense of a ‘church within a church’. Some opponents were ‘conservative’ Anglo-Catholics who believed that women were incapable of being true priests, because this was ‘traditional’, Jesus chose only male apostles and/or Rome did not ordain women. Others were ‘conservative’ evangelicals who believed that the Bible taught that men should exercise headship in the family and church. Within the wider church, there was a generous wish not to alienate those who felt excluded by others’ full inclusion. Some also responded with generosity of spirit, trying hard to be welcoming to, and supportive of, women clergy. Others did not, and efforts to accommodate them led them to demand even more as their due. The notion increasingly took hold that those with misgivings about inclusion of women or LGBT people should have the right to be ministered to only by a bishop who shared their views, or even break fellowship with those with different views. For instance in 1997, a group of breakaway members of the Episcopal Church declared that they endorsed a recently-adopted Kuala Lumpur statement on sexuality and intended, in the words of a resolution by the Province of South East Asia, to "be in communion with that part of the Anglican Communion which accepts and endorses the principles aforesaid and not otherwise." They also cited “the mandatory and coercive enforcement of the ordination of women” as an example of their fellow-Episcopalians’ “departure from apostolic truth”. In 2002 an opponent of women’s ordination in the Episcopal Church, Christopher Cantrell, wrote that this “innovation” meant that “the Anglican Communion was faced with coming to terms with the notion of ‘impaired communion’”. In 2003, when a gay and partnered but celibate priest, Jeffrey John, was invited to become Bishop of Reading, leaders from inside and beyond the Church of England met in Oxford. “We believe that if he is consecrated, the unity of the Church of England and Anglican Communion will be disrupted," they warned. Though he stuck to the Church of England’s rules, he had not ‘repented’ of sexual intimacy within a faithful loving relationship, since he shared the view of most UK Anglicans that this was not necessarily wrong. He ended up being forced to withdraw. The same year, the Episcopal Church did not back down after electing a gay bishop in a committed relationship. “A state of impaired communion now exists,” declared a ‘Global South’ grouping of church leaders. When there have been shifts towards greater inclusion, for instance the agreement to ordain women as bishops, some opponents have become more entrenched. Admittedly some in favour are also less willing to remain in fellowship despite disagreement, in part because of the hurt of exclusion they or others feel but also impatience with those who do not adopt a supposedly obviously correct view.

Discipline of fellowship

Postmodernism is sometimes associated with playfulness and irony, which may seem distant from the earnestness and sometimes acrimony of disagreements within churches. But other aspects – fragmentation of social life, choice from a seemingly endless menu of possibilities – fit a model of church life characterised by creating little huddles of like-minded people, instead of seeking to maintain fellowship while wrestling with difficult issues. Making long-term relationships (of any kind) work, despite difference and disagreement, involves dealing constructively with conflict. It can be difficult and painful. But it can also offer fertile ground for spiritual growth, especially if love is at the heart of the good news of Christ. This does not mean making repeated concessions to those who threaten to walk away if they do not get what they want, especially if this perpetuates privilege and exclusion. But it may involve not being too quick to label someone as hopelessly prejudiced. Dialogue and challenge can sometimes be more effective than condemnation. There may be occasions when it is right to leave a local church or whole denomination or initiate a split. However it is important to keep a sense of proportion, not getting fixated on gender or sexuality for example while underplaying other ethical or doctrinal concerns. Being practical is important too. For instance, various commentators have pointed out the possibility of ever-multiplying sub-sets in the Church of England. There could be separate arrangements for those who ordain women and partnered gays, or neither, or women only, or gays only, who might then be subdivided further based on their attitudes to war, wealth, the nature of salvation and so forth. The arrangements for ordaining the new Bishop of Burnley may be ill-advised. But it would be unfair to take out frustration about these on Philip North, who did not seek them and is said to be supportive of women’s ministry despite his own convictions. Nor should the row overshadow joy at the ordination of Libby Lane, as greater diversity among senior clergy encourages more Christians to embody the priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2.5,9). The Church of England has been able to hold together through the centuries despite serious internal differences, and is now in communion with several other churches as well as the rest of the Anglican Communion in all its theological diversity. As with other churches, disagreement need not necessarily lead to ‘impaired communion’ or division, if those involved are willing to try to see themselves and one another as fallible but beloved children of God.


© Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on politics, welfare, religion and more. An Ekklesia associate, she works in the equalities and care sector. See her latest research paper, Better understanding of international church conflicts over sexuality, 20 December 2014:

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