Anglican Ordination of Women Bishops Ends Reunion Prospects

It was, of course inevitable, having ordained women to its “priesthood” that the Church of England, mother Church of the Anglican Communion, would in the end ordain women to its “episcopate” (I place the key-words in inverted commas, not to be insulting but to indicate simply that most Anglicans use the words to describe something very different indeed from our notions of priesthood and episcopacy).

The General Synod has now decided on women bishops. All the obstacles are down. The mystery was why it took them so long: in the Catholic understanding, if a person is a priest, he is, if suitable, eligible to be ordained bishop; perhaps the fact that the Anglicans thought that special legislative procedures were necessary to make such a thing possible for women is yet another theological indication of how different our ideas of what is involved in priesthood really are.

What we all, Anglicans and Catholics alike, now need to register clearly is that this brings definitively to an end any last remaining hope of ultimate corporate reunion between us. Even Cardinal Walter Kasper, as President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, some time ago declared that the ordination of women to the episcopate “signified a breaking away from apostolic tradition and a further obstacle for reconciliation between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.” He also pointed to the internal disunity within Anglicanism, describing the protective legislation for those opposed to women’s ordination in the Church of England (“flying bishops” and so on) as the “unspoken institutionalism” of an “existing schism.”

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The possibility that the reunion of Canterbury and Rome might still be possible has of course become ever more and more obviously delusional as the years have gone by. But still it has been fostered not only by Anglican ecumenists (most Anglicans have always thought that our doctrinal objections were preposterous, since they think that doctrine is intrinsically divisive, and best made up as you go along) but also by our own dwindling—but highly placed—band of Catholic ecumenists of the old school.

It was already clear that the whole delusion that unity, however distant, was an ultimate possibility, had collapsed. The great mystery was and remains this: why on earth do our bishops carry on feeding the delusion? They are doing it even now, even in the immediate aftermath of a decision which makes reunion definitively impossible forever. Archbishop Bernard Longley, co-chairman of ARCIC III, has issued a statement on behalf of our Bishops’ conference which ludicrously declares the following: “For the Catholic Church, the goal of ecumenical dialogue continues to be full visible ecclesial communion. Such full ecclesial communion embraces full communion in the episcopal office. The decision of the Church of England to admit women to the episcopate therefore sadly places a further obstacle on the path to this unity between us. Nevertheless we are committed to continuing our ecumenical dialogue….”

But WHY? WHY is it that “the goal of ecumenical dialogue continues to be full visible ecclesial communion” when it cannot now happen, EVER? How can that be the goal? Many of us have been asking the question for some time. “Why,” I asked last June, after the news had been announced that Archbishop Welby of Canterbury was to meet Pope Francis for the first time, “are we still going through the ecumenical motions with the Anglicans, for all the world as though they had (or had some possibility of gaining) the same kind of ecclesial reality as the Orthodox? Why does the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) still meet, as though Anglican ordinations to their episcopate of openly gay men living with their partners, and also of women to their priesthood and episcopate, despite the warnings of successive popes of the fact that these steps would erect insuperable barriers to unity with the Catholic Church, why do we still carry on with the farce of behaving as though these insuperable barriers just did not exist at all?”

The continuing existence of ARCIC is an endless source of misunderstanding: but it is worse than that, for it is a misunderstanding that has already vastly undermined our own teaching on the meaning of priesthood and the Eucharist.

It freezes in stone a theological understanding rooted in the hostility to tradition of the “Spirit of Vatican II.” Take the ARCIC document misleadingly entitled “The Anglican-Roman Catholic Agreed Statement on the Eucharist,” significantly dated 1971, a decade before the JPII/Ratzinger counter-revolution. This is the first sentence of the silkily written section on the Real Presence: “Communion with Christ in the Eucharist presupposes his true presence, effectually signified by the bread and wine which, in this mystery, become his body and blood.*” But what does that mean? Here, that asterisk, leading to a footnote, has to be followed up. This is what the footnote says: “*The word transubstantiation is commonly used in the Roman Catholic Church to indicate that God acting in the Eucharist effects a change in the inner reality of the elements…. In contemporary Roman Catholic theology it is not understood as explaining how the change takes place.” In other words Anglicans can believe what they like and so can Catholics: THAT was the whole basis of this now notorious agreed statement: “contemporary Roman Catholic theology” in 1971 was basically that what we used to believe, we don’t necessarily believe any longer, so we can agree what we like. The CCC, however, on transubstantiation, simply gives the wording of the Council of Trent and reaffirms it.

That is what the Catholic Church has always believed: but not ARCIC. And the fact is that massive damage has been done by the whole ARCIC mentality, which was and remains essentially reductionist. The indifferentism of those dreadful decades did massive damage to the faith of the Catholic man and woman in the pew: and the continuing existence of ARCIC is perpetuating it. I think THAT is almost unforgivable.

ARCIC III is a snare and a delusion, which is now seriously undermining an important part of the legacy of Benedict XVI. For, the fact is that for the many people within the Church of England who long for reunion with the Catholic Church, but who wish that it could happen in a cultural Anglican context, a means already exists for them to have what they long for: I refer, of course, to the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, whose reaction to the decision on women bishops can be found here. THAT is where the true locus of Anglican-Roman Catholic ecumenism is now to be found, not in the derelict and crumbling structures of ARCIC III, which have become positively dangerous and should be demolished immediately in the interests of the health and safety of us all. For now, in the words of Mgr Steven Lopes of the CDF, “The Ordinariate is ecumenism in the front row.”

He told the plenary session for clergy of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, on Thursday June 19, that “the Ordinariate is ecumenism. It has at its heart the fundamental principle for the ecumenical movement: that the unity of faith which is at the heart of the communion of the Church can exist in diversity of expression.”

That was not at any time the fundamental principle of ARCIC, whose time has surely come. I never thought I would end a blog by quoting Oliver Cromwell, but here goes: “You have sat too long for any good you have been doing lately…. Depart, I say; and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!”

Editor’s note: This column first appeared July 17, 2014 in the Catholic Herald of London and is reprinted with permission. (Photo credit: CNA / L’Osservatore Romano.)


  • Dr. William Oddie

    Dr. William Oddie is a leading English Catholic writer and broadcaster. He edited The Catholic Herald from 1998 to 2004 and is the author of The Roman Option and Chesterton and the Romance of Orthodoxy.

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