‘A Noble Task’
Bishop David Thomas
My brief is to reflect on my experience of ministry as Provincial Assistant Bishop and how this might change if the episcopate in Wales were opened to women. I recall first the invitation to become PAB and the background to this in the legislation and pastoral guidelines of September 1996. Discussion follows of some of the challenges involved, including a couple of common misconceptions. Finally, I discuss the effect I think the opening of the episcopate to women would have on the office of PAB and suggest what I regard as the only realistic way of handling such a situation.
The second lesson at Morning Prayer in the Church in Wales on 17 October 1996 was I Timothy 3: ‘The saying is sure: If any one aspires to the office of bishop, he desires a noble task.’ As it happened, it was on that very morning that I received a letter from Archbishop Alwyn on behalf of the Bench inviting me to consider the possibility of becoming Provincial Assistant Bishop.
By another coincidence, 17 October is the annual commemoration of St. Ignatius of Antioch. Writing early in the second century, Ignatius had plenty to say about the office of bishop. In particular, he lays great emphasis on the role of the bishop as the focus of unity in the local church:
“Shun divisions, as the beginning of evils. All of you follow the bishop, as Jesus Christ followed the Father, and the presbyters as the apostles; respect the deacons as the ordinance of God. Let no one do anything that pertains to the church apart from the bishop.”
I shuddered from head to toe on reading the archbishop’s letter. Yes, of course the work of a bishop is ‘a noble task’, but it was hardly one that I could honestly say I aspired to, far less one I desired. I knew that, if I were to accept, I would not be the first Provincial Assistant Bishop the Church in Wales had ever known, for R.W. Jones had served in this capacity from 1946 until his death in 1953. Fifty years after Bishop Jones’ consecration, however, the title was just about the only the thing that I knew would be the same. Unlike him, I was being asked to consider allowing myself to be ordained as bishop in a situation where, just below the surface, there was a division that I suspected ran deeper than anything the Church in Wales had known since disestablishment. Furthermore, if I were to go ahead, I would be propelled right into the heart of this situation. Indeed, there were more or less bound to be those who, rightly or wrongly, would regard me as the very opposite of the Ignatian model, a focus not of unity but of division. It’s hardly surprising that, for two or three days after receiving Archbishop Alwyn’s letter, I found myself in a state of what can only be called mental and spiritual paralysis.
The background to this vocational crisis was that, on 19 September 1996, the Governing Body had voted for legislation opening the priesthood in the Church in Wales to women. The first two clauses of the bill enacted that day were as follows:
- Henceforth in the Church in Wales women may be ordained as Priests.
- No Bishop shall be obliged to bring proceedings before the Provincial Court under the provision of section 18 (e) (i) or (ii) of Chapter XI of the Constitution in respect of a cleric or other member of the Church in Wales who dissents in conscience from the terms of section (1) hereof.
While clause (2) was obviously an important safeguard for those like myself who were unable to assent with integrity to the change being made, to be told merely that we would not be hauled before the provincial court for our views could hardly be described as great encouragement. In particular, it gave no real assurance about our continued existence within the Church in Wales. That was why, at the Select Committee stage, various people had proposed amendments to the bill with the object of setting up in Wales something along the lines of the system of Provincial Episcopal Visitors that had come into existence in the Church of England in 1994. It is impossible to express with any precision the nuances of opinion in the minds of the various individuals who put forward these amendments. Perhaps the best one can do is to say that the one concern all had in common was whether we who now found ourselves in a position of loyal, conscientious, dissent had any real future in the Church in Wales. (The same question will inevitably be asked with even greater urgency if the episcopate is opened to women. It is important to realize that the vast majority of those who would then be asking it have absolutely no desire to move into the membership of some other part of the Christian Church. Had they harboured such a desire, they would have made the move in or soon after September 1996.)
In the event, the Bench took the matter into its own hands. The result was the addition at Select Committee stage of a fifth recital to the bill. This stated that the Bench of Bishops is unanimously committed to collegial action in order to secure a continuing place in the life of the Church in Wales for people of differing convictions on this issue, and has published pastoral guidelines to this end.
A document containing the pastoral guidelines referred to in the proposed new recital was duly distributed ‘for information’ at Governing Body before the vote was taken. The document is in four parts.
The first part, the Preamble, refers to the ‘perplexity and pain’ that the passing of the bill would cause to many and makes it clear that the bishops ‘do not seek to minimise the seriousness of the conscientious difficulties expressed.’ It goes on to state that the bishops ‘wish to be faithful to their task of serving and fostering the unity of the Church, even in times of unavoidable conflict, and it is with this in mind that they propose the following guidelines for the implementing of the legislation.’
The third and fourth parts contain assurances about future appointments in the Church in Wales and about appointment to senior positions. For instance,
- An Incumbent with a conscientious objection to the ordination of women to the priesthood would not be placed in a position where he is compelled to accept a woman priest as an assistant curate in his benefice… The views of the parish on women priests, as expressed through the parochial church council, would be taken into account in the appointment of an Incumbent… If the offer of a senior post is made to a cleric opposed to the legislation, it is for him to determine how far he will be able conscientiously to share in the routine work and worship of a church in which women are ordained to the priesthood… Opposition to this legislation would not, of itself, be grounds for exclusion from any office.
The second part is headed ‘Collegiality of the Bishops.’ It runs as follows:
- The Bishops are unanimously committed to securing a continuing place in the life of the Church for those who cannot in conscience accept the new situation created by the ordination of women to the priesthood. They wish to preserve the highest degree of unity possible in the Church in Wales for the foreseeable future. With this in mind, they propose to appoint a bishop who will undertake among other duties the pastoral oversight of those unable to accept women as priests in the Province, and to represent their views in the councils of the Church in Wales. He will be an Assistant Bishop, appointed by one Bishop and authorised by all to minister in their dioceses, and will share collegial responsibilities with the diocesan bishops in the Province.
Several things in these pastoral guidelines are worth commenting on.
Wrestling with my own vocational question, I found myself attaching special importance to the Bench’s unequivocal statement of its commitment to serving and fostering the unity of the Church in Wales and to securing a continuing place in the life of the Church for those who in conscience dissented from the ordination of women as priests. This was what in the end persuaded me to set aside my Ignatian scruples. After all, the situations in the churches of the eastern Mediterranean basin just after A.D. 100 and in Wales in the closing years of the second millennium were not strictly comparable. I reasoned that, paradoxically, the risk of being regarded by some as little better (if at all!) than an ‘anti-bishop’ was worth running if it meant that I could actually help to foster the unity of the Church I love, in which I was baptized and in which I have been formed as a Christian. And so I came reluctantly to the conclusion that the Bench’s invitation contained God’s will for me and I must accept.
I have often thought subsequently of St. Francis de Sales’ immortal comment that he had never wanted to be a bishop, that he had never done or said anything to bring this about and, now that he was a bishop, he knew he’d been right in the first place! His courageous exercise of the episcopal office amidst the religious strife of early seventeenth-century Geneva, his generosity, his gentle strength (or do I mean strong gentleness?) and his sheer goodness have inspired me greatly in recent years. Another of my heroes in the communion of saints is Edward King (Bishop of Lincoln, 1885-1910). Bishop King served at a time when controversies of various kinds were running high in the Church of England: one such controversy caused King himself much suffering and, at one point, deep humiliation. I was not surprised to discover recently that Edward King had chosen St. Francis de Sales as his example and patron when he became a bishop.
Despite what the pastoral guidelines say, I was not in fact appointed by one bishop and then authorised by all to minister in their dioceses. If one diocesan bishop had appointed me, I would have been consecrated as Assistant Bishop of that bishop’s diocese and not as Provincial Assistant Bishop. I mention this simply because it illustrates the speed at which things were happening. There was no blueprint for anyone to follow.
One thing that was unclear in many people’s minds to begin with was how my task as Provincial Assistant Bishop (PAB) might compare with that of a Provincial Episcopal Visitor (PEV) in England. I was intrigued to notice, for instance, that the entry for 21 December 1996 in the published diary of one of my consecrators from England was ‘Consecration of Welsh PEV’. As far as I am aware, PEVs are not constitutionally possible anywhere in the Anglican Communion except England where, for historical reasons, the diocesan bishops are technically all suffragans of the metropolitan of the province. This means that, because he is consecrated as a suffragan in the diocese of either Canterbury or York, a PEV represents the archbishop of the province. While he must cooperate with the diocesan bishop, the PEV is the diocesan’s representative only in those dioceses (by no means all) where he has been appointed as an assistant bishop. As the title PAB makes clear, my situation is the other way round. I am an assistant bishop in each of the six Welsh dioceses. I function as the archbishop’s representative only in his capacity as a diocesan bishop.
Tied up with the PEV/PAB distinction is the fact that in Wales there is nothing exactly resembling the so-called ‘Resolution C’ arrangement under which parishes in the Church of England may petition for extended episcopal ministry. In a letter dated 29 November 1996 and sent to all incumbents and clerics-in-charge, the Bench stated that the PAB would be ‘commissioned by all the diocesan bishops to act on their behalf where the need arises and his sacramental ministry will be made available under the direction of the diocesan.’ Another phrase in the letter clarifies the nature of the need referred to: the appointment of the PAB is ‘intended to provide a focus of pastoral and sacramental ministry’ for those ‘who are not in conscience able to accept the ordination of women to the priesthood.’
The November 1996 letter was accompanied by a further set of guidelines setting out the procedure to be followed in applying for the sacramental ministry of the PAB. The third and fourth of these guidelines state that, if there is disagreement on this matter in a parish, or if the parish desires the sacramental ministry of the PAB but the incumbent has not requested it, the bishop must nominate a person to chair a meeting with members of the PCC to seek resolution of the difficulty and report to the bishop. The phrase ‘disagreement on this matter in a parish’ seems to me to beg questions. Does it mean that the PCC must vote unanimously before I can be invited to take a confirmation, or that the whole parish (congregation?) must agree? I think ‘serious disagreement’ would have been a happier phrase, though I suppose that only begs the question of when differences of opinion become serious disagreements! Likewise, does the failure of the incumbent to request my pastoral ministry mean that the incumbent did not put the matter on the PCC agenda when that was the wish of the members, or that he failed to pass on to the diocesan bishop the PCC’s request for my sacramental ministry? Fortunately, problems associated with these guidelines have been rare in practice. Nevertheless, the opacity of nos. 3 and 4 may be one reason why just occasionally, admittedly in my bleaker moments, I have felt a bit like a caged lion!
The statement in the pastoral guidelines that the PAB ‘will share collegial responsibilities with the diocesan bishops’ is tremendously important. Being a bishop inevitably brings with it a degree of isolation. While I cannot comment on how this works out in the life of a diocesan bishop, I suspect that the nature of my task makes the risk particularly great for me. I realized at the outset that, while my ministry must be distinctive, it would be no less essential for me to avoid the danger of living in a sort of ghetto. That would have been disastrous not just for myself but also for those for whom I have a particular responsibility and, indeed, for the Church itself. For this reason, it matters greatly that, like any other bishop, I have my own more general responsibilities in the life of the province at large. While not a member of the Bench, I attend and take a full part in all its meetings; for the whole of my time as a bishop so far, I have had overall responsibility for liturgical revision and liturgical publications; I am a member of the Governing Body and its Standing Committee, and was a member of the Representative Body until its recent reorganization. In addition, I have borne responsibility at various times in the education sector and as chairman of the Steering Committee of the Jubilee Fund. The liturgical and educational responsibilities have meant working with several women priests, and I have valued this enormously. Similarly, though this has not happened with any great frequency, I have been perfectly happy to visit parishes where women priests were serving: mutual goodwill and sensitivity have spared the women priests involved and myself from any sort of embarrassment or dishonest compromise on such occasions.
Pastoral guideline 3 states that an incumbent with a conscientious objection to the ordination of women to the priesthood will not be compelled to accept a woman priest as assistant curate in his benefice. Obviously, I can have no quibble at all with this. At the same time, (though I realize that this was not intended by whoever wrote the guideline), it reminds me indirectly of the assumption, commonly made in some quarters, that continued opposition to the priesting of women is mainly a clerical phenomenon. I have heard this expressed several times in terms that suggest that, in many (most?) parishes where women priests do not celebrate the Eucharist, the laypeople would be happy for them to do so, if only their clergy would allow it. My own experience makes me sure that the reality is a lot more complicated. While there are unlikely to be many parishes where everyone thinks the same about this (or any other) issue, there are plenty where opposition is very widespread among the laity, including several where the incumbent has no reservations about women in the priesthood but many or most of the laity do. Nor can I forget those faithful laypeople whose hesitations in this matter have made it necessary for them to find places other than their parish churches in which to attend the Eucharist. In large towns, this may not be too difficult, though the decision to ‘move church’ is usually painful. In country areas, it is often another matter entirely: very long journeys to church, deep insecurity and a sense of isolation are among the predictable and regrettable results.
Another dangerous misconception concerns the nature of the objection to the ordination of women as priests. People sometimes assume that the real problem has to do with the ministry of women in the Church. This is not the case. The assumption arises from a failure to differentiate clearly between ministry in general and ordained ministry in particular. Perhaps I can illustrate the point from my liturgical responsibilities. Sometimes, for instance when a document is being prepared for Governing Body, I have to spend hours poring over the minutiae of a revised liturgical text. This was how I spotted that, in the ‘gold book’ Eucharist, the heading of Preface 23 (for use at ordinations, institutions, etc.) was ‘Ministry’. The heading has been corrected in the 2004 equivalent (no. 30) to ‘Ordained Ministry’. This contemporary, very common, tendency unconsciously to allow ordained ministry to get submerged in the much wider concept of ministry, leads to all sorts of mistaken perceptions. All I can say by way of comment is that the wisest (and toughest!) spiritual adviser I’ve ever had so far was a woman; I benefited enormously from working in my last parish alongside a woman deacon; I made it my business to increase the number of female eucharistic assistants in my last parish, and I worked very happily there with a quite outstanding woman churchwarden – added to which, I am well aware that there are some situations, perhaps many, where a woman will be better qualified to give pastoral care than any man. I have very good reasons for accepting, affirming, valuing and rejoicing in the ministry of women in the Church. The difficulty for me, as for others including many women, has to do with that distinctive aspect of presbyteral ministry which we call eucharistic presidency.
The pastoral guidelines, and indeed the legislation, of September 1996 get it absolutely right when they speak throughout of ‘conscientious objection’. The problems are nothing to do with prejudice, still less with the ‘hang-ups’, immaturity and chauvinism of which people like me are sometimes accused. They have to do with very serious questions about the continuity of the ordained ministry from the earliest times, about the rightness or otherwise of unilateral, unprecedented, action by one Church or part of a Church in connection with something whch is shared with others (other Anglican provinces, for instance, where women are not ordained as priests, to say nothing of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches), and about the complex relationship between symbolism and sacramentality.
The nature of the objection means that it is not easy to live together in one Church. Nevertheless, thanks to the bishops’ intervention in September 1996, the determination of so many on both sides of the debate to make the 1996 arrangements work and a lot of genuine goodwill, it has so far proved possible. How would this situation be changed if the episcopate in the Church in Wales were to be opened to women?
Speaking the truth in love and certainly not intending to give offence, I have to say that, for those who have remained conscientiously unable to accept the sacramental ministrations of women priests, the question at stake has always been about the theological propriety, and therefore very possibly the validity, of priestly orders conferred on women. Since the bishop is the source of sacramental ministry in the diocese, the difficulties attendant upon the election or appointment of a woman bishop would be much more acute than is the case with women priests. The bishop does not only celebrate sacraments, but empowers others to do so. At the moment, the doubt in opponents’ minds concerns the orders of women priests. If women were to be ordained as bishops, episcopal orders would also be in question, as would the priestly or diaconal orders of anyone (male or female) ordained by a woman bishop.
David Houlding expands this point in his submission to the Rochester working group on women in the episcopate: ‘If dubiety exists in the priesthood, the certainty of the sacraments, which are so celebrated, is also called into question. You cannot … ‘try out’ sacraments. They are not experimental! It is of their very nature that they are trustworthy and authoritative… Bishop Kenneth Kirk enunciated the principle in a paper for the Church Assembly in 1947 which stated that “where sacraments are concerned the church is always obliged to take the least doubtful course.” Through the ordination of women as bishops, the level of confusion is increased by the possibility that the orders conferred on men as well as women would also now be in doubt. That in turn, as time goes on, would be a situation that could only increase and not be lessened. Communion, koinonia, is impossible – division would be inevitable at all levels of the Church’s life.’ (Rochester Report, p. 146.)
Since some people in her diocese would be conscientiously unable to accept either her sacramental ministry or that of those ordained by her, would it any longer be honest to regard the bishop as the sign and focus of the local church’s unity? Similarly, what would become of the bishop’s crucial role in the two-way relationship between the local church and the universal? What is the effect on the worldwide Anglican Communion of a situation where some of its bishops have doubts about the orders of others? Houlding asks pointedly, ‘Can the Church exist when its episcopal orders are no longer interchangeable?’ (Rochester Report, p.147.) A further question concerns institutions, licensings, etc., carried out by a woman bishop. It can be argued perfectly properly that, having been elected and consecrated in accordance with the Constitution, she would have every right, and indeed the duty, to perform these actions. On the other hand, the question has to be asked whether it is desirable, or even in the end possible, to separate the juridical from the sacramental aspect of a bishop’s ministry in this way. Would it be honest, for instance, for a priest or deacon who had doubts about his bishop’s orders to promise canonical obedience to her? Would churchwardens who harboured such doubts be able in good conscience to make the necessary declaration on admission to office? People sometimes ask me how I imagine my ministry as PAB might change in the event of women being admitted to the episcopate in the Church in Wales. The only honest answer I can give is that it would not change; it would be over. I say this because I do not see how I could function as the assistant of someone about whose episcopal orders I was unsure. In theory, I suppose it might be possible for someone who did not share these uncertainties to be appointed as PAB in my place. Such a solution would hardly be practicable, however, since such a PAB would have very little credibility among those for whom he had special responsibility. (I cannot imagine how I would have managed to exercise this difficult and demanding ministry for almost ten years now if secretly I had been in disagreement with those for whom I have been largely responsible.)
For this reason, I believe that the only way in which it might be possible for so-called traditionalists (how I loathe that misleading word!) to remain in the Church in Wales would be if the PAB were to be replaced by a bishop or bishops who had jurisdiction over those in his or their pastoral and sacramental care. In saying this, I am not necessarily suggesting the creation of a seventh ‘non-geographical’ diocese. I can see no reason why such a jurisdiction should not remain within the existing diocesan and provincial structures in all matters to do with buildings, finance, schools, etc. It would be necessary, however, for such a bishop to be able to receive in his own right the customary declarations of canonical obedience made by clergy, churchwardens and others on admission to office and to issue licences, dispensations and whatever other legally binding documents are required for the day-to-day running of the Church. Likewise, such a bishop would need to have final authority in all matters to do with the selection, training, ordination, deployment and discipline of those clergy in his care.
This rough outline raises all kinds of questions. Presumably, parishes would need to opt into such a jurisdiction. In which case, how might this best be done? What would be the relationship between such a jurisdiction and the Governing Body? Should the bishop or bishops concerned be appointed or elected, and by whom? Who should be the consecrators of such a bishop or bishops? While the day might conceivably come when all six diocesans were women, essential questions of collegiality would arise at the outset.
While much hard thinking, careful planning and, above all, generosity would be needed from all concerned, I am not convinced that a development along the lines I’ve sketched out would be beyond the bounds of possibility. Various forms of non-territorial episcopal jurisdiction exist already in the Anglican churches in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA. Similarly, overlapping episcopal jurisdictions appear to coexist quite happily in the Roman Catholic Church: one thinks, for instance, of the various uniate groups, each with its own bishop, and of the provision in its 1983 Code of Canon Law for personal prelatures.
The appointment of a PAB reflected the scale of the problem in 1996: the suggestion that the PAB would need to be replaced by a bishop with jurisdiction simply reflects the scale of the problem that would arise if women were admitted to the episcopate. The fifth recital of the 1996 bill made reference to the pastoral guidelines, and the guidelines were distributed at Governing Body before the vote. Being no lawyer, I therefore assumed that the arrangements contained in the guidelines were constitutionally guaranteed. Several months later, I discovered that this was not so. I mention this because any arrangements of the kind outlined above would need to be enshrined in legislation. A new episcopal jurisdiction is, by definition, not the kind of thing that can be brought into being simply on the basis of goodwill and mutual agreement to disagree, essential though those things would undoubtedly be. I would argue further that the necessary legislation should be part of any bill, or possibly a schedule to any bill, opening the episcopate to women. To fail to do this would create untold confusion and anxiety. It might also lead to a situation where the election or appointment of a woman bishop meant that appropriate legislation had to be prepared in a great hurry. That would be most undesirable from all points of view, including, one suspects, that of the bishop-elect or -designate herself.
For reasons that should by now be obvious, I do not favour the introduction into the Governing Body of any bill opening the episcopate in the Church in Wales to women; if, however, such a bill is introduced, I am convinced that it must contain the sort of provision I have outlined above for those with conscientious objections. There are sure to be those who will advocate so-called one-clause legislation. In my opinion, this would drive many, perhaps most, people with conscientious difficulties out of the Church in Wales: Tacitus’ famous phrase about creating a wilderness and calling it peace springs immediately to mind. One-clause legislation would also fly in the face of Resolution III.2(c) of Lambeth 1998 which called on the provinces of the Anglican Communion to affirm that ‘those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans.’
I was very struck by the first lesson at Evensong on the day of my ordination as bishop. It came from Sirach 2: ‘My son, if you come forward to serve the Lord, prepare yourself for temptation…’ Presently, the gloomy realism of the opening verses leads into a magnificent exhortation to faith in God: ‘You who fear the Lord, trust in him, and your reward will not fail; you who fear the Lord, hope for good things, for everlasting joy and mercy… Who ever trusted in the Lord and was put to shame? Or who ever persevered in the fear of the Lord and was forsaken? Or who ever called upon him and was overlooked?’ Our discussions of the women bishops question are bound to be difficult. As we embark on them, I therefore pray that each and all of us will receive the gift of a deeper, livelier, faith in the true and living God, ‘for as his majesty is, so also is his mercy’.
Questions for discussion:
- What are the differences between the ministry of a bishop and that of a priest?
- What effect would the ordination of women as bishops in Wales have on our understanding of the unity of the episcopate in both time and place?
- What would be the ecumenical consequences of the ordination of women as bishops? How should these consequences be assessed?
- What issues of canonical obedience and mutual recognition of orders would the ordination of women as bishops raise for those who cannot accept it on theological grounds?
- What sort of provision would be needed for those members of the Church in Wales, both lay and ordained, who cannot in good conscience accept the ordination of women to the episcopate?