Clean Hands and Murky Language

Now that the Church of England has cleared the last hurdles toward the consecration of women to the episcopacy, and the first woman has been appointed to be a bishop, new weirdness arises. Although, to be honest, I don’t (even as an American) think that for the Church of England, this is particularly weird. Indeed, it seems to me the creation of a problem that might not have existed, had a simple switch of calendar dates allowed Phillip North to be consecrated prior to the ceremony in which Libby Lane will become a bishop.  North would have been able to be made a bishop in a ceremony in which no other Church of England bishop had participated in making a woman into a bishop, and Lane’s consecration would have proceeded without much hoopla.

But it is the nature of the Church of England to create problems, solve them with spit and duct tape, and then wonder why the fix hasn’t worked all that well. And if it’s a problem now, when the woman being consecrated as a bishop will not be a diocesan, but rather a suffragan, it will get worse when the first female diocesan is appointed.

It seems that North wishes for no bishop to lay hands on him (the point in the service where the candidate moves from priest to bishop) who has participated in the consecration of a woman to the episcopate (so far, none have, but that changes on 26 January; his consecration is 2 February).  He also wishes no bishop to participate in this moment of the ceremony who has ordained a woman to the priesthood–both Archbishops have done so (I may be wrong, but I believe all currently living Archbishops have), as have most diocesan bishops. This leaves a small (and more than likely, shrinking) coterie of male suffragan bishops who have never ordained a woman as priest in the Church of England.

Why does this matter?  There are traditionalist claims that, as Jesus had no male bishops (of course he didn’t–he had no bishops), a woman cannot be a bishop. Women can also not be priests, in this line of thinking.  Whether it is possible or not to ordain a woman as a priest, and what the implications of that might be, are explored very well in a blog post by Jonathan Clatworthy (who turns up periodically in my Facebook “people you may know” thing). If it is impossible for a woman to be a priest (or bishop), then really, it should not matter–a bishop who has officiated at such a service has done the impossible (I would want that bishop with such super-powers to ordain me, were I to seek ordination), and therefore the act is null and meaningless.

On the other hand, Clatworthy notes, there might be the possibility that the ordination or consecration of a woman is such a serious break with church teaching (and even divine intention) that it compromises the validity of any subsequent sacramental actions performed by that bishop.  This is where it matters that North not be consecrated by anyone who has participated in the ordination of a woman to the priesthood, or laid episcopal hands on a woman to welcome her into the college of bishops–there is the possibility that his own consecration might be of questionable integrity.  And thus, the request that no bishop who has ordained a woman to the priesthood or episcopate should lay hands on him.

One problem with the conservative view–and this is a conservative view within the church–is that although it carefully avoids using the word “taint” (claiming that the group WATCH coined it), it is exactly what they are talking about.  When you use words like communion to support your view, you at least imply that those who would do something with which you do not agree are going to impair the communion.  If you use the language of safety, you imply that the opposite is a danger (as Clatworthy points out).  If you speak of apostolic succession, you imply that those whose view of apostolicity is other than yours are heretics.  And when you make claims that your view is the true and pure one, you immediately put the “other” in the position of being false.  And tainted.

So, let’s stop being so twee about the language of “taint”.  Because, frankly, there are bigger issues that haven’t been solved.

The first, perhaps, is that North has twice declared his assent to the 39 Articles of Religion. To require that certain bishops can be part of his consecration and others may not, is likely a violation of Article XXVI, “Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacraments.”  The article in question reads as follows:

Although in the visible Church the evil be ever mingled with the good, and sometimes the evil have chief authority in the Ministration of the Word and Sacraments, yet forasmuch as they do not the same in their own name, but in Christ’s, and do minister by his commission and authority, we may use their Ministry, both in hearing the Word of God, and in receiving the Sacraments.  Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them; which be effectual, because of Christ’s institution and promise, although they be ministered by evil men.

Nevertheless, it appertaineth to the discipline of the Church, that inquiry be made of evil Ministers, and that they be accused by those that have knowledge of their offences; and finally, being found guilty, by just judgment be deposed.

It seems that North, not yet himself a bishop, has decided who is worthy and who is not, when it comes to his consecrators–he has judged who is fit to administer a sacramental rite which he himself is not yet authorized to perform.  That seems to me an expression of arrogance, a disobedience to the good order of the church (he does not want either his diocesan nor his provincial to participate in his consecration,) as well as a lack of faith in the efficacy of Christ’s work in the sacraments, and a lack of trust in Christ’s “institution and promise.”  And therefore, a breach of his own ordination vows–which he has made publicly not once, but twice already.  This breach places him among the “evil ministers”, and inquiry ought to be made before 2 February.

The larger issue is that of the deputization of a worthy bishop to perform the rite and celebrate the Eucharist.  This would be on behalf, and under the authority, of the Archbishop of York (who, apparently, along with the non-consecrating diocesan under whom North will serve). Neither of these bishops are appropriate to perform the rite because they have ordained women as priests (and only a week earlier, at least the Arch will have consecrated a woman as a bishop). It has been pointed out to me that any bishop may preside–that an Archbishop is not a separate order with special powers.  However, it must be noted that Archbishops have been entrusted specially with oversight of their fellow bishops, and an Archbishop is generally in authority over the bishops in his (and eventually, her) province.  There is an obvious circumvention of church order here–even prior to the consecration.

So, in this case, the Archbishop of York will deputize an acceptable bishop to perform the ceremony.  That itself is not problematic–a deputy acts in the place of, and with the full authority, of the person who has deputized him (or her).  S/he in some way becomes the person for whom they act, limited by time and scope for that action alone.

We do not have an adequate theology of deputization that creates an acceptable bishop to perform North’s consecration. The Archbishop of York is still the consecrating bishop–he is simply using someone else’s mouth to do the talking and hands to lay on the candidate’s head. It is still his action.

So, there are no clean hands in this.  And the language will be murky, and the ceremony will look weird. There will be bishops present who cannot take part in the consecration because they are acting in obedience to their provincial and exercising “gracious restraint.” All of the clergy of the diocese will not be welcome to vest and process for the celebration, because their underpants have the wrong contents. It will be an awkward festival of exclusion.

I can think of no worse way to begin an episcopal ministry. Philip North needs the prayers of the church, but not for the reasons he thinks.

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7 thoughts on “Clean Hands and Murky Language

  1. Kinda hard to argue with this logic, Wendy 😀
    I’m not publicly entering the lists on this as I have very little stamina, but I’m with you (and Laura Sykes) all the way on this.

  2. It will become even more of a problem once women are diocesans–they have to allow the PEVs to function in their diocese, ordain priests, and almost certainly consecrate future boys-club bishops. Is that a deputization, where the purely male consecrator acts in the stead of–for all practical purposes, BECOMES–a female bishop?

  3. It’s so weird to be an outsider in all this church stuff and then read things like this. I didn’t know Jesus personally, but from what I’ve read, he never objected when women touched him (or ministered to him or others). I thought his actions were supposed to be the example. This makes me glad to be an outsider.

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