Living with Difference

Adapted from the commencement address at Nashotah House, May 16.

By Colin Podmore

When I look at the breadth of those gathered here today, I am impressed. Where else could I find such a range of American Anglicans worshipping together? Back in England we have looked with amazement and dismay at a once great church tearing itself apart. We enjoy ties of friendship and affection with people who have found themselves on both sides of the divides within the Episcopal Church and between it and those faithful Anglicans that it has not succeeded in retaining within its fellowship. Many of us want to remain in good fellowship with all parties to the divorces. The news we received was of litigation and acrimony.

Yet here at Nashotah I found seminarians and priests of the Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church, and indeed other jurisdictions living and worshipping together, and doing so, as far as I could tell, with joy, mutual forbearance and a healthy dose of common sense. And I found female seminarians and seminarians who were unable to endorse women’s ordination living graciously together. Much is said today about the need for “inclusion.” Here, it seemed to me, was real inclusion and, I imagine, really costly inclusion. In this, as in much else, you are a model that the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion would do well to imitate.

Your example inspires me to tell you something of our efforts in England to live with our differences over the ordination of women to the priesthood. The measure (as we call church statutes) enables the laity in a parish to pass legally binding resolutions saying that only men can be the parish priest or exercise priestly ministry in the parish. The revision committee had inserted a “sunset clause” putting a time limit of 20 years on those safeguards.

The turning point came when the Synod removed the time limit. That marked the beginning of a concern to retain comprehensiveness and assure traditional Catholics and conservative evangelicals – especially young ordinands – of a permanent place in our church. It was crucial to our living together: those who feel under notice to quit are not going to engage positively and joyfully with those who intend to evict them. It was probably also crucial in ensuring that the measure passed. After final approval, attention was focused on working out a way of living together that would limit the number who would leave and provide more fully for those who would stay. A start was made by the House of Bishops, meeting in Manchester with the rest of the bishops, in January 1993. When a statement was finally agreed unanimously, many of the bishops were in tears and began singing a hymn. It was one of those moments when there is an almost Pentecostal experience of the Spirit bestowing his gift of unity. The statement offered a wonderful exposition of the Anglican way:

We believe that the Anglican ethos and tradition, which has been developed under God through our experience and history, gives us particular resources for living through our present disagreements and uncertainties, and doing so together. … Although we have different interpretations, views and practices, we maintain a shared commitment to belong together and to serve God together… It is no shame to agree both to differ and to live, sometimes fearfully, together in the service of God. Rather, it is a way of responding to God’s leading into truth, in ways which are not yet clearly perceived by any of us.1

In June 1993 the House went on to approve a document, “Bonds of Peace,” with a draft of what became the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993. (An Act of Synod has no legal force but is morally binding.)2

One important element of the bishops’ agreement wasn’t mentioned in the Act of Synod. The measure allowed diocesan bishops in office when it came into force to prevent women from being ordained as priests or ministering as such in their dioceses. As many as eight dioceses (including London) — one fifth of the total — could have had no women priests at all, in some cases for many years. In the event, those bishops all agreed to permit women to be ordained and to serve as priests. As “Bonds of Peace” put it:

It will be a sign of the continuing communion of bishops and a mark of collegiality when a diocesan bishop, who does not himself accept the ordination of women to the priesthood, … does not prevent a woman being ordained and licensed by another bishop to minister as priest in his diocese.

There was a quid pro quo. “Bonds of Peace” went on:

Similarly, it will be a mark of continuing communion when a diocesan bishop in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood invites a bishop who does not accept it to minister to priests and congregations in his diocese who themselves do not accept it.3

The arrangements for that were set out in the Act of Synod. Those who now call for it to be rescinded and its provisions withdrawn omit to mention that it was one side of a bargain — a compromise, which meant that women priests were introduced in every diocese from the outset. There was no “postcode lottery”; there were no “no-go dioceses.” Living together, rather than just co-existing in an armed standoff, required costly compromise. What is now often forgotten is that it was costly for both sides. Perhaps, when we are thinking of living together in a divided church, we should all reflect first and foremost on what we are prepared to give up, to sacrifice, to concede, in order to stay in fellowship. Too commonly we all major on what we require and not on what we are prepared to give.

The Act of Synod, which is still in force, stipulates that “the integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood should be mutually recognised and respected.” Furthermore, there is to be no discrimination against candidates for ordination or senior appointment on the grounds of their views about this issue. Finally, recognizing that the pastoral relationship and indeed the relationship of communion between clergy who cannot accept the ministry of women priests, and bishops who ordain them, was bound to be impaired, the Act of Synod made provision for appropriate episcopal ministry for those opposed — either by existing bishops or through new Provincial Episcopal Visitors, who would also act as ombudsmen and spokesmen.

The Act of Synod was pragmatic and pastoral, but it rests on a vital ecclesiological premise. The Church of England claims to ordain to a ministry that is universally valid. If that is so, then the ancient canonical maxim applies: quod omnes … tangit, ab omnibus comprobetur — that which affects all must be approved by all. To change unilaterally something that we claim to share with the whole Church challenges the self-understanding, expressed in the Preface to our Declaration of Assent, whereby we are merely part of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. The justification for making such a change anyway, set out in the Act of Synod, was not that we rejoice in our independence of and separation from the rest of the Western Church. Rather, it was that the change we effected would be subject to an “open process” of “discernment in the wider Church of the rightness or otherwise of the Church of England’s decision.” It would remain provisional until such time as it was affirmed or indeed rejected (that’s the force of the word open) not just by a consensus within the Church of England but by the Church Catholic. You might see that as a rather unusual instance of English humility.

The Act of Synod says that its purpose is “to make provision for the continuing diversity of opinion in the Church of England” on the matter. In the final Synod debate Roger Greenacre highlighted that phrase. To make such provision, he argued, “is not a measure of generosity nor a concession but a necessary consequence of [the Church of England’s] … self-understanding.”

In 1998 the Lambeth Conference took up the theme of “reception.” Resolution III.2 called upon the provinces of the Communion “to uphold the principle of ‘Open Reception’ … noting that ‘reception is a long and spiritual process.’” Calls to declare that process at an end not only flout a Lambeth resolution: they also completely misunderstand what a “process of reception” is. We cannot declare the universal Church to have arrived at a consensus in favour of something when it patently hasn’t, just because we’ve got tired of waiting.

That, then, is the basis on which we have been living together in the Church of England. Overall, it has worked. Women ministered as priests in every diocese from the outset. Catholic parishes have been able to continue their life and witness with integrity. I am not aware of anyone being denied ordination for opposing women’s ordination. Twenty years on, God is calling young men of traditional catholic views to the priesthood in increasing numbers. Only the promise of no discrimination in senior appointments has not been honoured. The ministry of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors (“flying bishops”) has seen downs as well as ups, but the best of them have modelled a style of episcopacy that has been widely welcomed.

Yet sadly there has also been an increasing separation and even polarization. Both sides must, I think, share the blame for that. There has been marginalization of those who adhere to traditional views, but also an element of self-marginalization — maybe, to some extent, in response. Those who feel unwanted, excluded and unloved have sometimes not made as much effort as they might to engage and socialize with the rest of the church. But how much effort has been made by those in positions of power — the majority — to encourage them to do so? Marginalization, exclusion, has not brought out the best in people. It rarely does. Some have simply become weary of participating in discussions in which they find themselves having to defend what they had once assumed to be central to Anglicanism and indeed to the Christian faith. That is something that I experienced myself towards the end of my twenty-five years in Church House, Westminster. Others adopted from the outset a combative stance that I find difficult to reconcile with the imitation of Christ to which we are called. In my judgement, such behaviour has proved in any case to be wholly counterproductive.

The defeat of the Women Bishops Measure last November has undoubtedly soured things. The legislation did not fail to secure the necessary two-thirds majority in the House of Laity because of resistance to the introduction of women bishops. It failed because it would have torn up the 1993 settlement, replacing some of its elements with watered-down, insecure provisions and others with no provision at all. It failed because a small number of honourable Synod members, not themselves opposed to women’s ordination, exercised their responsibility to scrutinize the legislation before them and found it to be not fit for purpose.

Using our new Archbishop’s experience of reconciliation, we now need to identify a way forward whereby women bishops will be introduced not as a result of the majority defeating the minority, but instead as part of a no doubt costly compromise that, like the 1993 settlement, will enable us to live together with confidence and integrity. What is needed, it seems to me, is prayer and openness to the Spirit — readiness for another quasi-Pentecostal moment like that of January 1993, when the bishops met in Manchester and, staring the possible disintegration of our church in the face, were blessed with an experience of unity.

The Catholic Group in General Synod is not seeking to stop the ordination of women as bishops; neither am I as Director of Forward in Faith. What I am fighting for is the vision I mentioned before, of a truly inclusive — and therefore authentically Anglican — church: a church which not only rejoices in diversity but, in the words of the Act of Synod, makes provision for its continuance. I am fighting to keep the Church of England broad and tolerant, and in particular to enable those who hold to a traditional understanding of the Church and its ministry and sacraments not just to remain with integrity, but to flourish.

On both sides of the ecclesiological divide people can be quite hostile to those whom they only know from their public utterances and reputation. My earlier work for Christian unity taught me that unity is fostered by personal engagement and relationships, conversation and fellowship. Reaching out to people tends to bring out the best in them. Many people you expect to dislike or disagree with become more likeable and less disagreeable when you spend time working with them. And when they behave badly, as most people do from time to time, one is more inclined to understand and to forgive.

Having been brought up as a Cornish Methodist, I am at heart a simple Bible Christian (well, some of the time, at least!). It seems to me that we need to look no further for guidance on living with difference in the Body of Christ than to the New Testament itself. Here I am reminding us all of what we already know.

Some of what Our Lord says about life in the world is surely equally relevant to life within the Church. “Blessed are the peacemakers,” he says (Matt. 5:9). Does our intervention in disputes tend to bring peace or intensify conflict? “Love your enemies,” he says, “and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Do we love those in the Church with whom we disagree? Do we pray for those who persecute and marginalize and exclude us?

When I listen to those in the Anglican Communion who stand up for what they believe to be “biblical standards,” and also to those who proclaim the “gospel of inclusion” they believe is implicit in the Scriptures, all too often I miss that note of love. For all I know, they may indeed love those whom they are attacking, but they offer me no evidence to support such a supposition. And when I look at some would-be Anglican websites and blogs, conservative and liberal, in this country and in England, the anger, bile and sheer nastiness that I often find there appals me. How those concerned can convince themselves that they write in the service of the Prince of Peace, who taught us to love our enemies, I cannot imagine. I sometimes wonder how recently they have read the Scriptures they purport to defend. And when I hear Christian priests using derogatory language of other ministers of the Gospel, my lay heart grieves.

But it is easy to point the finger. How often has my own anger at unfairness and deviousness led me into uncharitableness? How often have I responded to wickedness in the Church by hating the sinner as well as the sin? If we are to restore Christian charity to the Church, that restoration can only begin with us: charity does — or should — begin at home.

Colin Podmore is Director of Forward in Faith (UK) and a member of the Living Church Foundation.


1Reports by the Ecclesiastical Committee upon the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure and the Ordination of Women (Financial Provisions) Measure (HMSO, 1993), p. 21.

2Ordination of Women to the Priesthood: Pastoral Arrangements – Report by the House of Bishops (GS 1074) (General Synod, 1993). See also “Being in Communion” (GS Misc 418) (General Synod, 1993), which set out the theological rationale that underpinned ”Bonds of Peace.”

3“Bonds of Peace,” para. 5: Ordination of Women to the Priesthood: Pastoral Arrangements, pp. 7-8.


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