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Things that make a difference, and things that don’t.
June 10, 2014, 8:38 pm
Filed under: Opinion

Every so often, it is good to remind ourselves of the basis for the Catholic position regarding women and the priesthood, that it is not just a “knee-jerk reaction to something new.”

I will start with some principles put forward by Bishop Tom Wright in his final Presidential address to the Durham Diocesan Synod. He took as his text words of St Paul in Romans 14 on adiaphora or “things that don’t make a difference”. On what issues may Christians disagree, or adopt different practices, without impairing their fundamental unity? What differences, for instance, might impede our sharing in the Eucharist together?

Bishop Tom pointed out that the English Reformers understood very well that there were issues on which Christians may accept differences in practice and understanding, and issues on which no compromise was possible, principles for which they were prepared to die if necessary. He went on, “The principle of adiaphora was itself, in fact, a matter of life and death. The doctrine that some things are adiaphora, and some aren’t, is not itself adiaphora. The decision as to which things make a difference and which do not is itself a decision which makes a huge difference.”

Bishop Tom said that this principle, the discernment of what is and what is not adiaphora, applies very obviously to two contentious issues in the Church of England, that of Holy Orders and that of Matrimony. It has been consistently held in the Church until modern times that both these institutions (sacraments, I would prefer to say) are “gender-specific”. A priest or bishop must be male, matrimony must be between a man and a woman. It is now maintained that one or both of these views are adiaphora, and that the former practice may, and even should, be changed.

And here is the rub. Who decides? It is clearly not the universal, or even morally universal, view that the gender-neutrality of Orders or Matrimony is right. On the contrary, the majority view is that it is not right. To my mind, the moment at which the General Synod went astray was not in 1992, but much earlier, when it decided that the issue of women and the priesthood was a matter of discipline rather than doctrine. As Bishop Tom makes clear, such a question must itself be a matter of doctrine, not discipline. As such, the General Synod was not qualified to make it, both because it is only a local, national body, and also because its own constitution precludes it from making changes in doctrine. Having taken this one wrong step, the rest followed.

For Catholics (including Anglo-Catholics) and Orthodox Christians, not only has the Universal Church not agreed to treat Orders and Matrimony as gender-neutral, but it is arguable that it has already decided definitively the other way. The constant practice of the Church over two millennia is in itself an argument that this is so. That is how the Spirit has guided the Church. This is what we have received, and are required to pass on.

The Church of England, it is said, has no doctrine other than that of the Universal Church, no Orders other than those of the Universal Church. The doctrine of the Church of England, it must be admitted, is much more clearly expressed in the Prayer Book in relation to Matrimony than it is in the case of Holy Orders. Nevertheless, the Preface to the Ordinal clearly refers to the continuance of the Apostolic Ministry, not of instituting anything new. The very fact that the ancient Churches of both East and West refuse to admit that the innovation of a gender-neutral priesthood and episcopate is adiaphora is sufficient to condemn it.

Bishop Tom laments the fact that, so often nowadays, “instead of real debate we have the exchange of prejudice, and instead of speaking of evidence, arguments and conclusions we speak of attitudes, feelings and aspirations.” This, he says, generates “a culture of victimhood where squeals of pain do duty for patient and reasoned discourse.” The Church is supposed to base its belief on Scripture, Tradition and Reason, but these are not three independent and unrelated sources. Holy Scripture is God’s Word, but we receive it only within the living Tradition of the Church; and it is upon this datum that our Reason has to work in order to understand more fully what has been given.

Although I disagree with Bishop Tom in his application of the principle of adiaphora to the question of Orders, what he says in relation to marriage and sexuality makes very clear what that principle is all about. “The church as a whole… has solidly and consistently reaffirmed the clear and unambiguous teaching of the New Testament. But the substantive issue isn’t the point here. The point is that the Church as a whole has never declared these matters to be adiaphora. This isn’t something a Bishop, a parish, a diocese or a province can declare on its own authority. You can’t simply say that you have decided that this is something we can all agree to differ on. Nobody can just ‘declare’ that. The step from mandatory to optional can never itself be a local option.”

The Church of England is not, and even the Anglican Communion is not, “the Church as a whole”, the Church kath’ holon. For better or for worse, however, the Church of England has created for itself a new category of minister, the status of which is not agreed even among its own members. It cannot or will not impose acceptance of this new category as a test of Church membership, and so must acquiesce in division, a self-inflicted wound to its own unity, let alone to its prospects of unity with the greater part of Christendom. How sad this is.

 

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