Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Today's Gospel, the Church of England, and the women bishops legislation

Today’s gospel reading (John 17:11-19) begins with what has become in our time the best-known petition of Jesus’ High Priestly prayer: 

“Holy Father, keep them in thy name, which thou hast given me, that they may be one, even as we are one.” 

The frailty of the little band of disciples was obvious, and so was the fact that they would survive and flourish only by the grace of God. 

The Lord always intended the unity – communion, shared life, koinonia – of the Godhead to be sacramentally shown forth in the life of the Church for the sake of the world. Indeed, verse 21 (just after the ending of today’s Gospel passage) emphasises that this unity is not a kind of “added extra” to the Gospel message; it is a crucial feature of the message itself. There Jesus prays for all who would believe in him through the word of the apostles, “that they may all be one; even as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.” 

It is sad but true that right from the beginning of the Church’s story, maintaining the unity of those who believe has been hard work. Separations – small and large – have occurred throughout Church history, wounding the Body of Christ, impairing communion between Christians, and undermining the credibility of the Gospel message. 

In the twentieth century, Christians of all persuasions came to believe that God was inspiring the different churches and traditions to work and pray for unity. This was, for us, no mere jurisdictional tinkering; it was a sacred work of the Holy Spirit moving in the hearts of Christians, motivating us to try and see how Jesus is present in the range of church and ecclesial communities in spite of our difficult histories and theological disagreements. 

In those days it was said to be a process of “converging toward Christ”, of being “converted” again, of going back to the language of the Scriptures and ancient Fathers so as to express our faith in words not reminiscent of more recent polemical struggles. The aim, of course, was not to deny the insights of any tradition, but to anchor them in the broader context of the whole and in the era to which all look as foundational. 

Welcoming each other into this process has been for many of us a pilgrimage of love, and a journey along the pathway of God’s truth. This is as we would expect, for overcoming division is as much about love – real love and real people – as it is about truth. The two go together. 

The particular struggles and disintegration in the Anglican world relate very much to these things. In contrast to some traditions, the Church of England and the churches descended from it claimed to maintain the “catholic essentials” in terms of the Word of God, the Sacraments and the Ministry. That historic claim, together with our embarking on the road to unity – initially with the churches with whom we have most in common – should have been enough even for those theologically disposed to the ordination of women to exercise “gracious restraint”, allowing the Churches of East and West to discern together which developments in the area of Holy Order might be a legitimate widening of the Tradition, and which ones are not. 

Over the last twenty-four hours a handful of really angry voices have been raised against the Church of England’s House of Bishops for what really is the smallest conceivable adjustment to the women bishops legislation that might make it possible for those women and men to remain who believe that in matters of this kind we cannot go ahead of the discernment of the whole Church without undermining our claims to be part of the one, holy Catholic and apostolic Church. 

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who favours the ordination of women to the three orders of deacon, priest and bishop, indicated at the February 2006 General Synod that although he doesn’t “wholly share” this view, he understands it. He said: 

“People have talked at times about differences of opinion and how the Church can live with differences of opinion. I think that the problem is, for those who are not content with the idea that we should go forward along the line of ordaining women as bishops, the problem is not one of opinion, it’s rather one of obedience. It’s one of obedience to Scripture, or obedience to the consensus of the Church Catholic. And, while that’s not a view I wholly share, I think we ought to recognise that that’s where it comes from, those who hold to it are not just thinking ‘this is a matter of opinion’. And therefore it is rightly and understandably a lot harder to deal with dissent if you are talking about what fundamentally comes down to a question of whether you obey God or human authority. That’s why it’s serious. That’s why it’s difficult. More than ‘opinion’.” 

There is, in fact, a growing number of voices – even among women clergy – who have become sympathetic to traditionally catholic and evangelical women and men in the Church of England who think in the way the Archbishop articulated (many of them young people) and don’t want them to be “unchurched” by the women bishops’ legislation. I, for one, am praying that their moderation wins the day, as I have always believed that the “open process of reception” supposedly undergirding the development of women’s ordination in Anglican provinces obliges the Church to provide for BOTH streams of sacramental life, because until the “whole Church” accepts this “development” in the sacrament of Order even the protagonists cannot say with complete confidence that the development is right. Obviously, for mainstream Catholic Anglicans this provisionality is itself a sacramental problem. 

As we grieve the continuing – and new – divisions in the Church of God, let us embrace that pain and sorrow and offer it to the Father in union with the Sacrifice and High Priestly Prayer of Jesus as intercession for the Church’s unity, that the world may believe.


Paul Miller said...

Thanks and greetings.

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