Author(s)Lee Gatiss
Date 2 April 2015
Categories Church of England and Ministry

Our bishops have recently decided to add to The Thirty-nine Articles. Well, not in so many words. What they have done (without much in the way of due legal process, unfortunately) is to add to the number of official documents to which ordinands and ministers are required to give assent. From now on, it will be necessary for everyone entering ministry, or moving church jobs, to give their assent to the bishops’ ‘Five Guiding Principles’.

This is a controversial step. It has been hotly debated within theological colleges, not least amongst those who are about to be ordained. It has come as something of a surprise to learn about another hurdle they must clear. And so it should.

Five guiding principles

The Bishops’ Five Principles spring from the recent compromise on the women bishops issue. They appeared as part of the renewed negotiations after the clear ‘No’ vote in November 2012. Though they were never formally agreed to by participants in those discussions, they were described by Archbishop Justin as an ‘electrified ringfence’ around the issue. They have now become an electrified hoop through which every prospective minister needs to jump.

What are these ‘principles’? First, it must be said that despite alarm in some quarters, they do not say that everyone ‘must agree with women bishops’. It is vital to note that we are told in the preamble that these principles ‘need to be read one with the other and held together in tension, rather than being applied selectively’. Number 1 cannot force agreement with something Number 4 allows us to disagree about, for example. Since the Principles cannot be separated, then, let’s examine them together as an entity:

1. Now that legislation has been passed to enable women to become bishops, the Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender, and holds that those whom it has duly ordained and appointed to office are the true and lawful holders of the office which they occupy and thus deserve due respect and canonical obedience;

2. Anyone who ministers within the Church of England must be prepared to acknowledge that the Church of England has reached a clear decision on the matter;

3. Since it continues to share the historic episcopate with other Churches, including the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church and those provinces of the Anglican Communion which continue to ordain only men as priests or bishops, the Church of England acknowledges that its own clear decision on ministry and gender is set within a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God;

4. Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures; and

5. Pastoral and sacramental provision for the minority within the Church of England will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that maintains the highest possible degree of communion and contributes to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.
(Source: GS Misc 1076)

It can be quickly seen that these are not really five ‘principles’, but a jumble of factual statements and carefully worded aspirations. Number 1, for example, is a basic summary of the new situation legally. It accurately states what has been passed by General Synod. But it does not commit any individual to agreeing with what Synod has done corporately. Reading it honestly ‘in tension’ with, or alongside, Principles 4 and 5 makes that point. We are not meant to tick the ‘principles’ off one-by-one, as things we agree with individually in themselves.

We must acknowledge that a clear decision has been made on the subject. Though it must also be confessed that it was contested, controversial and, in many eyes still, misconceived. For as long as we are synodically governed, it is as open to future legislative change one day as the clear vote in November 2012 was. Synod may err (see Article XXI).

It is indeed acknowledged in statement number 3 that the majority of Christians around the world remain in churches that are against women’s consecration. The Church of England knows it is now in a global and historical minority. It acknowledges that there is a ‘broader process of discernment’ – which could be read as a humble admission that it may be wrong.

Principle 4 contains two very positive statements for those against women’s ordination. First, it states that this historic, classically Anglican, biblical position is ‘within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion’. It remains a genuine, recognised Anglican theological position to be complementarian. This doesn’t contradict Principle 1; it acknowledges the continued legitimacy of a minority dissenting view.

Second, the guidance commits the Church of England to the continued flourishing of complementarians within the life and structures of the Church. They will be positively encouraged to prosper and grow, not just die out. It is acceptable not to agree with women bishops. We may recognise that they fill certain offices legally, but still not accept their ministry spiritually.

It is now a positive policy of the Church to encourage those who are complementarian by theological conviction to thrive – not just stay in their own churches but actually expand into the structures of the church (such as in synods, in theological colleges, and in the college of bishops). We should take that out for a spin and see where it can realistically take us.

Principle 5 says that provision for the complementarian minority in England will be made ‘without specifying a limit of time’. Sadly, it does not say there will be no limit of time, only that it is not going to be specified up front – a loophole which perhaps enables those who seek to eradicate the conservative position from the Church altogether still technically to sign up.

The Ministry Division declares that those enforcing these principles must be satisfied that people will live ‘contentedly’ with the diversity referred to. We must pray that this is not used as a way of ultimately excluding those who are unhappy with the decision of Synod, or preventing them from sincerely living out their beliefs in practice within our Church. They must not be denied resources, vocations, preferment, or representation because of their minority status.

Giving assent

One does not have to read a document like this in a tightly legalistic way. In broad terms, it seems to ensure that no-one will be ‘kicked out’ over this issue (to quote Archbishop Justin again). Yet the wording is disappointingly slippery at times, encouraging different sides to read things their own way. And it is being imposed seemingly as a new formulary of the faith, which gives it a quasi-legal status that demands attention to detail.

Ministers are asked at ordination whether they assent to the doctrine of the Church of England, as contained in, e.g. The Thirty-nine Articles. Often this too comes as something of a surprise, since their training has never mentioned those Articles, or has done so in a perfunctory way. Yet they are required to affirm publicly that those time-honoured formularies are their ‘inspiration and guidance’ for ministry, so that their congregations can trust their teaching. We can only wish that more attention was paid to these far more significant first principles than to newer, less coherent statements.

It is perfectly possible to assent to the new ‘guidance’ as a whole with a clear conscience, with the understanding I have outlined here. Some can’t – and their consciences must be respected – but many who still regard women’s ordination to the priesthood as contrary to God’s Word written (Article XX) have done so. In essence that says, ‘I understand a messy accommodation has been achieved on this subject, and that I am still welcome here.’ Vocations can still be positively encouraged.

I do wonder if a rather worrying precedent has been set by the form and enforcement of this somewhat confusing compromise. There is a need for caution and vigilance – this kind of ‘agree to disagree’ solution will not and cannot work on the sexuality issue. Yet, the fact that all are now asked in some way to affirm the flourishing of complementarians as authentic Anglicans gives cause for great optimism.