The ordination of women priests in the Anglican Church of Canada was one of the reasons that Rev. Robert Warren left the country three years ago and moved to England. Complaining about a hostile reaction that he received for opposing women priests, Warren resigned as rector of St. Barnabas Church in New Westminster, B.C., and went to Birmingham, where he became rector at St. Laurence Anglican church. Last week, Warren, 54, found himself in the minority once again, following the decision by the Church of England, on Nov. 11, to ordain women as priests. Warren says that he now fears that what happened to him in Canada could happen to British priests who dislike the idea of women being ordained. Opposing female priests, he explained, left him isolated. “In Canada, they set you up on a fence and pick you off like crows,” said Warren, referring to the hostility he felt from church authorities. Now, he cautioned, the Church of England, “has bitten off more than it can chew.” And indeed, there were signs last week that the controversial decision, which only barely achieved the necessary support, might cause a damaging split within England’s official church.
Like hundreds of other parishes across England, St. Laurence has a divided congregation
as a result of the vote. While two sectors of the church—the bishops and clergy—passed the measure with more than the two-thirds majority necessary to change the rules of the Church of England, the third sector, the laity, gave it only three votes more than it needed (169-82). The balloting at London's historic Church House followed a bitter fight within the church, and many observers said that the decision represented the most important shift in Anglican doctrine since the English church split from Roman Catholicism 458 years ago over King Henry Vlll’s refusal to accept Rome’s ban on divorce.
This month’s decision pleased those who waged a long campaign in support of ordaining women, but it outraged traditionalists—as it did in Canada, the United States and other countries when similar measures took effect during the 1970s. Ann Widdicombe, a junior minister in Prime Minister John Major’s Conservative government, for one, announced that she would leave the church because she cannot accept the decision to allow women to be priests. She lashed out at the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rt. Rev. George Carey, who supports the ordination of women and who once suggested that any other view was heretical. Declared Widdicombe: “I do not see that it is
possible to co-exist in a church whose head considers a large portion of us to be heretics.”
Some traditionalist Anglican priests also threatened to break with their church. Immediate talk of a split in the clergy appeared to quiet after Carey appealed last week for deep prayer for “all those to whom the vote had brought dismay, doubt and anguish.” But they resurfaced quickly when the former bishop of London, Graham Leonard, told the London-based Catholic Herald last week that he planned to lead a breakaway group of hundreds of priests into the Roman Catholic Church.
The new look of the church will not be apparent for some time. Because the Church of England is the nation’s official state church, the measure must be passed by Parliament and receive royal assent from the Queen. Political observers said that the measure is unlikely to encounter strong opposition in the House of Commons and should be ready for royal assent sometime late next summer. After that, there will be a further 12-month delay required by church law before the new rules go into force. As a result, it will be at least 18 months before the first of Britain’s 1,300 women deacons can be ordained as fully fledged priests, entitled to perform all the functions now carried out by men, including giving communion and performing marriages.
For his part, Carey promised that there would be no discrimination in the church against those who remain opposed to women being ordained. And the regulations bringing about the change offer traditionalist bishops, priests and laymen ways of staying comfortably within the church. Bishops currently in office will be able to refuse to ordain women or have them ordained in their diocese, and parish councils will have the right to reject a woman as their priest.
StiÜ giving women the traditionally male privileges of absolving sins, administering the blessing of God and presiding over communion—the church’s central rite—has seriously threatened an initiative that many Church of England traditionalists have supported, eventual reconciliation with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, both of which oppose the ordination of women. Just hours after the Anglican Church’s vote, the Vatican issued a statement saying that the decision posed “a new and grave obstacle to unity.”
The Catholic position was underscored by a new Roman Catholic catechism unveiled last week in France that, among other things, reaffirmed the church’s opposition to the ordination of women (page 42). Said B. Robert Bâter, a professor of New Testament religion and culture at Queen’s Theological College in
Kingston, Ont.: “The real message of John Paul II is hold the line, and most of all in relation to women in the church. There’s no hint of a willingness to move there.” But in the United States, a majority of American Roman Catholic bishops meeting in Washington took the unusual step of refusing to adopt a proposed pastoral letter dealing with women, because they said that it was likely to alienate women. The pastoral letter, which was intended to be read in churches, generally affirmed women's rights. But some bishops objected to the tone of the letter, which, among other things, held women partly to blame for sexism. Observers said that even though many of the bishops regarded the proposed letter as showing insensitivity to women, few of them supported the idea of women being ordained as priests.
But while the Anglican Church in England still struggles to come to terms with ordaining women, that is no longer an issue in many of its offshoots in other countries. In Canada and the United States, women have been ordained in the Anglican and Episcopalian churches, respectively, since the mid-1970s. Now, about 10 per cent of the clergy in both churches are women. That caused some Canadian Anglicans to break with the church. Members of the Ottawa-based Anglican Catholic Church of Canada, which has attracted several hundred members since its formation in 1977, say that besides opposing the ordination of women, they also disliked the Anglican Church’s 1976 decision to use contemporary English in its prayer book, and other modernizing trends within the church.
In England, for all the defections and emo-
tional talk of a schism, some clergymen who opposed the ordination of women appeared to be coming to terms with the idea. Rev. Patrick Hobson, rector at the parish of Waltham Abbey, 20 km east of London, said that he turned to the Bible to help him accept the decision as “fulfilling the will of God.” Added Hobson: “I
find myself not actually wanting to engage in the debate any longer.”
While Anglican traditionalists generally argue that the church should not ordain women because Jesus himself chose only men as his 12 apostles, supporters of women’s ordination
counter that the debate is really about outdated male-oriented views on the role of women. Indeed, critics of the Church of England’s position note that it is one of the few institutions exempt from Britain's equal opportunities legislation. “I think people can see that one of the last bastions of discrimination of women was coming down,” said Rev. David Driscoll, vicar of St. Mary’s Theydon Bois Anglican church northeast of London and a founding member of a 3,900-member group called Priests for Women’s Ordination.
At the same time, some Anglicans expressed hope that bitterness over the issue would subside so that the church could address other more important issues. Although the Anglican Church has the nominal support of about 60 per cent of the country’s population, its congregations are dwindling. Indeed, only about four per cent of Britons who say they are Christians attend church on Sundays. There are about 1.14 million active Anglicans in England, about 9 per cent fewer than a decade ago. At the same time, smaller, independent churches have increased their membership by 42 per cent. According to Oxford University theologian Keith Ward, the issue of women priests is unlikely to receive much attention for long from those considering the larger issues facing the church. “It is like abolishing slavery,” said Ward. “Once you’ve made the move, you wonder why it wasn’t made a thousand years ago.” Still, it may be several years before Anglicans know exactly what the full cost of the church’s decision will be.
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