Not what you do, but how you do it
An Anglican bishop who supports women’s ministry argues that the disagreement between Rome and the Church of England on the matter is connected with their different ways of thinking rather than the substance of what they believe.

Should the gender of a person determine whether they may be ordained into priestly and episcopal orders, any more than it should determine whether they may be baptised? The Church of England is wrestling to get to the truth of the matter.

The Roman Catholic Church says that to ordain women at all is a “crime against a sacrament” (and said so somewhat provocatively in the same statement as it deplored the sexual abuse of minors). In a letter to The Times on 16 July, Fr Timothy Radcliffe glossed this, saying: “The priest presides at Holy Communion, the sacrament of our unity in the Church, and so an ordination that is pro- ductive of division would be a contradiction in terms.”

Fr Radcliffe continued: “Many Catholics believe that women should not be excluded from ordination, but this will only be possible with the consensus of the communion of the Church.” So how do we get to that point of consensus? Do we all wait for each other?

My own view is that we not only can ordain women, but that we should. As I understand it, the doctrine of Creation, with its understanding that men and women are equally made in the image and likeness of God, is foundational. The priesthood is sign and sacrament of the new creation and not only may but must include both men and women if it is to be truly representative of the whole Christ, not just the Jesus of the Last Supper.

I am increasingly convinced that we need a better developed theological anthropology as well as a less mechanistic or transactional theology of the sacraments. What do we really mean when we say that the human person is created in the image of God? How are we all theotokoi, and what does that imply for a sacramental understanding of who we should ordain?

So how can two ecclesial bodies, standing in the Western tradition, come to such very different conclusions? What divides us, I suggest, is the way in which we have come to do our theology rather than the substance of what we believe. My contention is that we differ not so much in what we believe, but rather in having come to think differently in the way that we believe.

How can we describe this difference? Let me begin with an image. A large ship has an anchor, and what secures it when anchored is a great chain, forged of unbreakable links. But if just one link rusts through, the chain breaks and the anchor is lost for ever. Contrast that with the hawser that is used by the tug to tow this ocean-going liner out of port. The hawser is made up of innumerable strands of grass, none longer than a few feet, yet twisted together in such a way that even when many strands are frayed, the hawser will hold. It may not look so neat, but it can take the strain. We are the inheritors of two ways of thinking, caricatured by these images: one, a precise, linear, engineering type of language stresses the chain (note the word) of cause and effect. Medieval Latin is precise in its tenses and became the language of the law; it is what enables us to enjoy brain-teasing detective stories. Another strand, owing more to Eastern thinking and to the Greek and Russian languages is less precise about tenses: you can use a present tense to describe what happened in the past if it seems very vivid to you, so it’s good for vivid poetry, or different forms of the past tense, depending on whether what you are describing has been completely finished. More significantly, “how” an action or event happened – the quality of what was done – is as significant as the time when it took place or what caused it. When you think in this way, it’s the adverbs that become all important.

I recount this because the Church of England inherits both these ways of thinking. Which we instinctively prefer depends, I suspect, on the way of thinking we’re most comfortable with in terms of our personality. Some prefer a more tightly propositional logical chain-style theology of the Church and its ministry, with each development linked clearly and logically to what is already established; others think more laterally, warming to the more fluid and organic models of the Church that value the continuing identity of the body. We know that every cell in a human body is replaced every seven years, yet the genetic imprint survives: we are still ourselves. This is a more holistic or organic model.

Think of the day of Pentecost. The multiplicity of languages described in Acts 2 is exactly the same phenomenon as is reported in Genesis 11 at the Tower of Babel: in one case, different languages are seen as evidence of the breakdown of a single monolithic unity; in the other, just the same phenomenon is hailed as a sign of the unity of the Church. At Babel, the lack of uniformity is seen as a threat; on the day of Pentecost that very diversity is seen to contribute to a richer, deeper and more inclusive unity.

While there are those who are looking for structural signs of unity – or is it uniformity? – in our ecclesiology, there are others who see it differently, and are looking for a unity – a communion? – that depends less on the clarity of structural links and more on the model of a rich and colourful tapestry, where diversity, is seen to be the model of a true and inclusive unity. Isn’t a rich harmony the model of heaven, rather than a flat unison?

This is why I think that the General Synod of the Church of England has done a good job. It has followed the Revision Committee in grasping that the way forward is not to find a perfect structural solution to how those in favour of ordaining women and those opposed can both inhabit the same Church where women are bishops – which is a goal that our archbishops were still trying to invent as desirable, even if it were possible – but to concentrate rather on exploring the ways in which the relationship of the part to the whole, of men to women, of the ordained to the baptised, is to be valued as a sacramental expression of the new creation.

The deep reason why I opposed the ceding by a diocesan bishop to a suitable male bishop of pastoral as well as sacramental care in clause 2(1)b of the Draft Measure is that it proposes to give away the very thing that stresses the importance of how we behave together. Abandoning pastoral oversight means abdicating just that quality of episcopal – and of priestly and diaconal – ministry that means you are committed to acting always with the best for the other in mind. This is where, if you ever needed it, the proof of the way – the “how” – you do it trumps the “what” you do, and that’s just what bishops are about.

Jurisdiction is about the “what”, and is the lawyers’ device for separating us: this is the language of control, of divorce, of absolute clarity. Pastoral oversight is about hanging on to how people relate, how they belong, how they enjoy the communion that God alone can give. We sometimes treat communion as if it were our possession, that we could exclude or welcome. But it’s not. I’m only in communion with you because God invites me and you and the poorest of the poor in Sudan and the Bishop of Rome to the same heavenly table. Communion is not ours to give or withhold, it is God’s.

That is why I applaud what the General Synod has done: it has moved away from an obsession with what we can get to a challenge to what we have to give, and away from structure and towards relationships. What is good is that it demands of us trust; and again, it is by how we all behave that we will be found to be, seen to be and known to be trustworthy. Much now depends on the compilation of a code of conduct.

The synod’s proposal is a catholic and an Anglican position, where the relational rather than the propositional elements of our common life are to the fore; and while I acknowledge that temperamentally people prefer one way of thinking to the other, I believe that this decision does offer us a more excellent way.

The Rt Revd Dr David Stancliffe is Bishop of Salisbury.

This article was first published in The Tablet, the Catholic weekly. It is reproduced here with the editor's permission.