A Noble Task – Bishop David Thomas

‘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:

  1. Henceforth in the Church in Wales women may be ordained as Priests.
  2. 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:

  1. What  are the differences between the ministry of a bishop and that of a priest?
  2. 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?
  3. What  would be the ecumenical consequences of the ordination of women as bishops? How  should these consequences be assessed?
  4. 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?
  5. 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?