Woman bishop challenges future of Anglican-Catholic dialogue

30 January 2015 • Persistent link: iarccum.org/?p=1558

While the consecration of the Church of England’s first woman bishop presents significant challenges in bringing Catholics and Anglicans into “closer communion,” ecumenical leaders say the door to dialogue remains open.

The consecration of Libby Lane as an Anglican bishop earlier this month creates a “further challenge to a hope of organic reunion”, said David Moxon, another Anglican bishop, in a Jan. 29 interview with CNA, reiterating concerns expressed by Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham.

Moxon and Archbishop Longley are co-chairs of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), which aims to advance ecumenical relations between the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion.

In a Jan. 27 interview with Vatican Radio, Archbishop Longley, acknowledging the challenges presented by Lane’s Anglican episcopal consecration, stressed that it “shouldn’t affect the way in which the dialogue is continued.”

The Birmingham archbishop’s confidence that dialogue will go on despite this latest development is “very important to us”, Moxon said.

On Jan. 26, Lane was consecrated in York Minster as the Anglican Bishop of Stockport. She is the first woman to be consecrated a bishop for the Church of England, after its general synod in Nov. 2014 voted to allow for women bishops.

However, Moxon acknowledged that not everyone in the Church of England is on board, with some people unable to recognize the authority of a woman bishop. In response, the Church of England general synod made provisions for those in this category, allowing them to operate under the authority of what is sometimes referred to as a “flying bishop”.

“People who don’t agree with the ordination of a woman as a bishop don’t have to come under her authority,” he said, nor do they “have to be licensed to the bishop who will ordain women to be bishop or to be priests.”

While Lane represents the first bishop consecrated for the Church of England, Moxon stressed that the existence of women priests and bishops within the Anglican Communion is not a new challenge in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church.

As ARCIC prepares for its upcoming meeting in Rome in May, he said the decision to consecrate Lane as bishop will be on the agenda, “but, it won’t be seen as a crisis. It will be seen as a challenge which we knew was already there.”

Over the last four decades, some of the 38 Anglican provinces have been electing to allow for the ordination of women and bishops. Included among them is Linda Nicholls, Anglican Bishop of Toronto and ARCIC member.

“The ordination itself is one step in a long process that began nearly forty years ago,” said Bishop Brian Farrell, L.C., secretary for the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, in a Jan. 29 email interview with CNA.

He said ARCIC “has continued in spite of this development, and has taken account of the challenge this new situation represents to our growing into closer communion.”

Members of the ecumenical organization “will have to face the whole question of our disagreement on the implications of the sacramental nature of ordained ministry”, he added.

“Nobody on either side underestimates the difficulties involved.”

The bishop went on to cite the Second Vatican Council’s recognition of the affinity between the Church and the Anglican Communion, noting their “many common traditions and structures.”

However, while “some parts” of the “shared Christian life and patrimony” between Anglicans and Catholics have grown stronger through dialogue, others have weakened.

This weakening, he explained, is largely due “to an acceptance by some parts of the Anglican Communion of the idea that important aspects of the Christian message and Christian living can change as a result of changed cultural attitudes”.

Bishop Farrell added that this challenge is also felt among some Catholics.

“Where we differ is in the way the Churches reach authoritative decisions about these matters. This is precisely the issue that ARCIC is discussing in the present phase of dialogue.”

One of the central aspects of the challenge presented by this latest development in dialogue lies in the fact that the Catholic Church is unable to change its teaching on the ordination of women as priests, much less as bishops.

In the 1994 apostolic letter Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, St. John Paul II wrote that “in order that all doubt may be removed regarding a matter of great importance, a matter which pertains to the Church’s divine constitution itself, in virtue of my ministry of confirming the brethren I declare that the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women and that this judgment is to be definitively held by all the Church’s faithful.”

Nonetheless, while Pope Francis and his predecessors have lauded the essential role of women in the Church, the debate among Catholics in certain circles over ordination of women continues to thrive.

“There is vast space in the Catholic Church for women to take on a greater leadership role,” Bishop Farrell said.

He went on to clarify that “specific debate about women’s ordination is based on a mistaken concept of ministry as ‘power’ in the Church.”

This errant understanding stems from the way “our whole tradition has tended to reinforce that idea in the way the priesthood has been presented and exercised,” he added.

“A truly profound conversion and reform in the way we think about the priestly ministry is needed.”