In its remarkably unhelpful article on the Church of England's belated decision to move for female bishops, Catholic Online (15/7/14) makes one of those knee-jerk denominational reactions which do little credit to the wisdom of its own tradition, never mind the complex truth and relationships of ecumenical life. As a leading Roman Catholic communication channel, it is a disappointing response and one which must, at the very least, make many Catholics cringe. Whilst the article rightly raises the ecumenical challenge contained in the emergence of female bishops in the Anglican Communion, it vastly overstates the continuing divisions, ignores the nuances and other positive dynamics of Roman Catholic ecumenism, and, above all, fails to understand that the journey of Christian unity is not a one-way street. Perhaps, like other instinctive Christian reactionaries, the author feels a sense of betrayal as the Church of England stumblingly implements a very Catholic principle of doctrinal development to help ensure historic Christianity remains credible and alive in the changed context of the contemporary world...
Catholic Online makes a series of polemical statements which show little awareness of the complex and subtle complexity of its own Church's ecumenical development. Indeed, ironically, it quotes the statement of the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, which, whilst indicating regret at Anglican actions, explicitly states that:
The Catholic Church remains fully committed to its dialogue with the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. For the Catholic Church, the goal of ecumenical dialogue continues to be full visible ecclesial communion. (my emphasis)
Catholic Online is of course right that the concept of Anglican female bishops is problematic for authority in the Church of Rome. This point is also made by the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales, in saying that:
Such full ecclesial communion embraces full communion in the episcopal office. The decision of the Church of England to admit women to the episcopate therefore sadly places a further obstacle on the path to this unity between us.
Yet, despite Catholic Online's dramatic posturing, this is hardly new. Its claim that the Church of England's decision 'removes any real hopes for institutional and structural reunion of the Catholic, Orthodox and what is now called the Anglican and Episcopal Church' is a rhetorical untruth. It is indeed highly unlikely that such reunion will happen anytime in the foreseeable future. The Church in its many manifestations is in many ways enduring 'an ecumenical winter'. Yet the Roman and Orthodox Churches have not stopped talking and praying with Anglicans in other parts of the world where we already have female bishops. We continue to explore ministry and ecclesiology at all levels and the Roman Catholic Church's full participation in WCC Faith and Order and other international and national dialogues is manifest to this continuing, if contested, commitment.
Catholic Online's assertion that 'the vote rejected the Catholic and Orthodox theology of Apostolic succession, the nature of the priesthood and the of sacraments (sic)' is similarly highly misleading. The Church of England has made some significant changes to such central aspects of its own Catholic order but they were made long ago at the time of the English Reformation. All that is now changing is the gender exclusivity remaining in Roman Catholic and Orthodox positions. Roman Catholic and Orthodox views are also not entirely congruent, not least in the matter of married priests, which Anglicans might argue is a lesser order issue, akin to that of gender.
Catholic Online's title for its article - 'Church of England rejects Christian tradition' - is perhaps the most rhetorical and unhelpful aspect of its claims. Which 'Christian tradition' are we speaking about? Yes, we may be talking about the received and currently affirmed positions of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions. Christian tradition however surely includes the experience of many others, including the many Protestant traditions which have long since valued female leadership in word and sacrament. For its own part, the Church of England has followed other Anglicans in authentically developing its own Christian tradition. For many Catholics, and some Orthodox, this is also theologically valid and something they would warmly welcome within their own Churches. At the core of this is how we approach the journey of Christian Unity. Is it a genuine open and prayerful search for God's truth, humbly seeking the integrity of all? Or is it simply a pathway extended from a fixed fortress of inherited belief and practice and only designed to haul others within? Catholic Online's article is not a surprise as an expression of some wounded Catholics, troubled internally by gender and feminist considerations which will simply not go away. Yet it is not true to Catholics engaged in the adventure of Christian Unity, especially those who have encouraged all traditions to practice 'receptive ecumenism': seeking to emphasise what we may receive from others rather than mainly offering what we feel others need to receive from ourselves. Anglican espousal of female equality in ministry may in this way turn out to be a real blessing for others too. For ecumenism is not a one-way street between static ecclesiastical foundations but an ever deeper journey of movement together into the very heart of God.
Jo Inkpin an Anglican priest, trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.