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There are a number of issues on which there is no common mind in the Church of England. Notable among them are the issues of women’s ordination and same-sex marriage. Why is this?
First, we are not agreed about the theology of sexual differentiation. Its biological significance is clear; human beings have it in common with the rest of the animal kingdom. Sexual differentiation has evolved as an efficient means of securing the continuance of a species, with a capacity to adapt to changing environments. Procreation is, as it were, the engine of evolution. The theological significance in Christianity, however, is less obvious and has not achieved consensus. It certainly has a significance in marriage (St Paul’s remarks about a great mystery, relating to Christ and his Church), although with the current debates about same-sex marriage even this is less clear than it used to be. But beyond this, as regards the relationship of the sexes in general, and in regard to priesthood, the implications are very far from agreed.
Again, we are not agreed about the theology of priesthood, in particular what is called the ministerial priesthood. This is in part because we are not fully agreed about the significance of the Eucharist, how it relates to the Sacrifice of Christ, how it may be termed a sacrifice, what happens to the bread and wine and in what way they become the body of Christ. Not surprisingly, all this has consequences for the theology of priesthood. We use the same words, but mean different things by them. Our different practices manifest these differences of belief. For instance, the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist leads almost inevitably to devotional practices such as genuflection, Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, and so on. To (for instance) a Conservative Evangelical such practices are certainly not a legitimate consequence of their belief, but are actually incompatible and abhorrent. Even the word “priest”, applied to an ordained minister, is suspect. The ordained ministry is not so intimately connected with the Eucharist as it is in Catholic theology.
Thirdly, we are not even agreed on the theological importance and status of these questions. Bishop Tom Wright, in his final Presidential address to the Durham Diocesan Synod, made a very clear explanation of this matter, based on the word “adiaphora” used by St Paul.
“The word adiaphora means, literally, ‘not-different things’, or ‘things that don’t make a difference’. And the question of adiaphora can be posed … like this: granted that there are many differences between us, how can we tell which differences make a difference and which ones don’t? How do you know? Who decides? How can you tell the difference between differences which make a difference and differences which don’t make a difference?”
St Paul was faced with a situation where some Jewish Christians still felt bound by the dietary laws of Judaism, while other Christians were happy to eat meat that had been sacrificed in pagan temples. How could the Church accommodate such a variety of practice? He allowed that some things are adiaphora, but Christians should still respect the different beliefs and practices of others, and be careful not to induce them to act against conscience. But some matters are so central, that if Christians cannot agree they may have to separate, or be excluded from the community. But, Bishop Wright points out, the question of what issues are, or are not, adiaphora cannot itself be adiaphora. And that means it cannot be decided locally, at the risk of creating, perpetuating or increasing division within the wider Church.
Bishop Wright pointed out 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 Wright 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.
The Church of England is making a valiant, well-intentioned, but probably ultimately futile attempt to square the circle by its current legislation for Alternative Episcopal Oversight. But already there are problems, because for many the issue of ordination is bound up with the question of the equality of the sexes, and this too is seen by them as not adiaphora, with room for compromise. No wonder we cannot agree on a common practice!
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