The 2014 settlement regarding the role of women as bishops and priests in the Church of England created the ‘Five Guiding Principles’ and a commitment to ‘mutual flourishing.’ At that point, various discussions started about what they actually meant. How would the 'tension' in the principles work? What does 'mutual flourishing' mean? (See Lee Gatiss's discussion of that, here.)
For complementarians (both traditional Anglo-Catholic and conservative Evangelical) in the Church of England, there was concern that this simply meant that they would be tolerated and contained. There is, for example, at least one diocese which will not appoint complementarian incumbents, unless the parish specifically requests it. All this came to a head in 2017 with the appointment, and subsequent withdrawal, of the Right Reverend Philip North to the See of Sheffield. What place do complementarians have in the Church of England?
The Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England have now published The Five Guiding Principles: A Resource for Study in order to give some theological commentary to the principles. There are many positives in this document.
First, there is clarity as to what is expected of all those who either have, or will be, ordained. So, for example, a bishop is a bishop and clergy must make the oath of 'canonical obedience' to their bishop, and the gender of the bishop " is no grounds for refusing the oath or for limiting its scope" (p19).
Second, the commitment to mutual flourish is defined, and spelled out:
“To ‘flourish’ has connotations of to prosper, to thrive, to grow – not to shrink out and die. It means prayerfully encouraging all within the Church of England, that they might prove fruitful in proclaiming the kingdom of God, not wanting any to dwindle or fail. It means not corralling some within the boundaries of their own parishes or networks, but providing space generously for all to flourish in its common life and in structures shared by all. ‘Equal treatment, for example in relation to resource issues and the discerning of vocations to the ordained ministry, is essential irrespective of convictions in relation to gender and ministry.’” (p29)
“Crucially, [Guiding Principle 5] will not seek to bring about greater agreement by penalising or restricting those who do not share the majority view on this matter” (p32)
Simply put, for complementarians to ‘flourish’ in the Church of England they should be allowed to grow, and not be restricted to a subset of parishes or groupings. The wider church should not be treating the minority less favourably, in order to change their view. When thinking about the majority/minority identification, the document says:
“The reference to ‘the minority’ in the fifth Guiding Principle is worth reflecting on in this context. Who is in the minority regarding acceptance of female clergy rather depends on whom we are counting in the first place” (p41).
There is much in this document that the ‘minority’ can take hope in: a commitment to encouraging their growth, and a promise of equal access to resources. There is, also, in here a challenge to resist the call of separation and isolation.
The document is, however, not entirely positive. The language and tone of the text particularly stands out. Despite the promise of the content, the tone is one of waiting for the minority to catch up with the rest. This is particularly true of the commentary on third and fourth Guiding Principles. Complementarians are those who “dissent for theological reasons from the ‘clear decision’ of the Church of England” (p29), The direction of travel is assumed: discernment will only result in the wider church fully embracing the ordination and consecration of women as deacons, priests, and bishops.
A final concern with the document is the 'what next' question. Will this lead to a call for 'mutual flourishing' for other doctrinal changes, e.g. same-sex marriage? Is there any point at which a discernment process has ever concluded with 'no change needed,’ and been allowed to stay there?
This document promises much and, if it delivers, the future for complementarians in the Church of England should be bright. The 'flourishing' envisaged could even give rise to the 'minority' becoming the ‘majority'. Ultimately, the Five Guiding Principles need to be credible. There need to be actions, as well as words, if the Church of England’s commitment to ‘flourishing’ is to bear any fruit. Clarity of intent needs to give rise to definite action. Two areas where this would be obvious are the appointment of complementarians (including conservative evangelicals) as suffragan and diocesan bishops, and a clear statement from all dioceses that complementarians will be considered for all advertised posts.
We are committed to the Church of England. Is the Church of England committed to us?