Wednesday, November 22, 2017

That Pesky Women's Ordination Issue

From its inception in 2009, the Anglican Church in North America has included individuals on both sides of the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood.  Some observers, including those who did not wish the newly-formed entity well, predicted that the ACNA would eventually split over the issue.  Nevertheless, nearly nine years later, the ACNA remains as one Church, sometimes ignoring and sometimes bumping into what could rightly be called, "the elephant in the room."

Those who would like to go on ignoring the elephant will have a much harder time doing so now that the Bishop of Fort Worth, the Rt. Rev. Jack L. Iker, has declared that a state of "impaired communion" exists in the ACNA over the issue.  In his address to the Diocese of Fort Worth convention last weekend, Bishop Iker commented on the ACNA's current dilemma:
So where are we?  Most ACNA bishops and dioceses are opposed to women priests, but as it presently stands, the ACNA Constitution says each diocese can decide if it will ordain women priests or not.  We now need to work with other dioceses to amend the Constitution to remove this provision.  As you know, women bishops are not permitted in any diocese, and no bishop wants to change that prohibition.
Earlier in his address, Bishop Iker had observed:
...when Archbishop Robert Duncan appointed the Task Force [in 2012], he charged them with doing a study of the issue of women in holy orders, but instructed them not to come to a conclusion or to make any recommendation as to how to resolve the debate.  The report simply summarizes the arguments for and against.  This is in stark contrast to a similar study done by the Anglican Mission in America several years ago, known as the Rodgers Report, which concluded that women cannot be ordained bishops or priests, while leaving open the door to the possibility of women deacons.  Those of us who agreed to the formation of the ACNA in 2009 did so with the clear understanding that a serious theological study would be done and that a decision would be made at that time.
I made the observation at the time the Task Force was appointed that the composition of this group seemed to be designed to arrive at a stalemate and, consequently to preserve the status quo of dioceses each following their own chosen position.  To some extent, that design was understandable: the last thing this newly-formed alliance of orthodox Anglicans from a variety of backgrounds needed was to have a potentially fatal schism so early in its life.

The problem is that this status quo is only tenable as long as: (1) Dioceses go about their business and ignore what is going on in other dioceses in terms of ordination; and (2) Dioceses continue to exist on the basis of affinity, allowing congregations to affiliate with a diocese not based on their geographical location, but on allegiance to a particular bishop, a particular style of churchmanship, and a particular position on the issue of the ordination of women.  For instance, the parish where I am rector is in Colorado but has, since before the formation of the ACNA, belonged to the Diocese of Quincy, based in Illinois.  The Diocese of Quincy ordains women to the diaconate but not the priesthood and includes congregations from Florida to Hawaii and from Wisconsin to Texas.  (And let me say, parenthetically, it is a good and wonderful diocese.)

On the other hand, there is the Diocese of Pittsburgh, which also includes parishes outside its former geographical boundaries and has, since before the formation of the ACNA, described itself as a diocese that embraces both positions on the ordination of women.  I have argued for years that, strictly speaking, this is not accurate.  The Diocese of Pittsburgh is a diocese that has an ordination process and a bishop that ordains women to the priesthood.  It merely includes some congregations that disagree with that position and will continue to do so until those congregations come to accept the prevailing position of the Diocese.  Don't misunderstand me, the Diocese of Pittsburgh is an amicable diocese, but once the diocesan processes and the Bishop are oriented toward the ordination of women to the priesthood, the atmosphere of the diocese puts an irresistible, if unintentional, pressure on those congregations that do not accept women priests; and it really can't be described as a diocese that embraces both positions.

The ACNA's problem is this: How can a Church that is divided over the definition of what it is to be a priest consider itself to be in unity?  And, in particular, what does it mean for a woman who is considered to be a priest in one part of the Church, but whose ministry is not recognized in another?  Those of us who spent years in the Episcopal Church are used to things being messier than this, which is perhaps why we have been able to live with the dissonance for so long.  But for a Church seeking to be faithful to the teachings of Christ, the implications of this disunity for the Church as a whole and for the women who have been ordained are huge.

So what is the ACNA to do?  First, from one end to the other, in every congregation, the ACNA needs to commit itself to a season of prayer and seek God's will regarding this issue.  People need to set aside their preconceived notions, however firmly held, and simply seek God's will for the good of the Church.  I say this so that we do not end up praying for our position to be victorious or "praying against" each other.  We are committing ourselves to seek God's will and nothing else.  This will require extreme humility and self-denial.  It will be especially hard for women who have already been ordained to the priesthood and have perhaps spent a significant part of their lives in this ministry.  We need to recognize this fact and maintain the highest possible respect for our sisters in Christ as we work through this issue.

Second, the Anglican Church in North America needs to come to a uniform understanding of what it means to be a catholic church.  We aren't making up church as we go along.  We are heirs of the Church Jesus founded on the apostles; we are compelled to stand in and conform ourselves to that tradition.  We need to come to an authentic Anglican understanding of the use of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.

As I said in my essay, A Stool or a Tower, You Decide, I believe we need "to view Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as three ascending levels of a tower.  Scripture is the foundation.  Tradition rests on Scripture and is built upon it but cannot go where there is no foundation.  Reason rests on Scripture and Tradition and builds upon it but, again, cannot go where there is no supporting foundation."
Thus, Scripture provides the matter upon which our faith is based.  Tradition is the guide to our interpretation of Scripture.  It makes certain that our understanding of Scripture is not a matter of private interpretation but is, as in the canon laid down by Vincent of Lerins, in line with that which has been believed “everywhere, always, and by all”—the test of true catholicity.

Reason is the guide to our contemporary application of Scripture and Tradition.  This is a significant point: Reason is not an independent source of authority that is the arbiter of truth, it is the tool and the method by which we apply the truth (based in Scripture and interpreted by Tradition) to our contemporary experience.
Why is this important?  Because it is not the Church's business to make things up as we go along.  We are either the Church Jesus founded or we aren't.  As the 19th century Anglican theologian Charles Gore, by no means a conservative in matters of theology, pointed out:
First, let it be clear that the Church’s function is not to reveal truth.  The revelation given once for all to the Apostles cannot be either diminished or added to.  It is a faith “once for all delivered,” and the New Testament emphasizes the Church’s duty as simply that of “holding fast” and teaching what she has “received.”  The apostle St. Paul claims that his converts should repudiate even him—should treat him as anathema—if he were to teach anything else than what he taught at first.  It is thus of the very essence of the Christian revelation that, as originally given, it is final.  Whatever is new to Christian theology in substance, is by that very fact, proved not to be of the faith….
Gore then goes on to cite a number of patristic sources and then concludes:
It is not then a matter which needs proving, that novelty in revelation is equivalent to error, according to the fathers.  But this evident proposition leads to an important conclusion.  It follows that the authority of the Church is of a more secondary character than is sometimes supposed.  She is not a perpetual oracle of divine truth, an open organ of continuous revelation: she is not so much a “living voice” as a living witness to a “once-spoken voice.”
Gore made these comments in his book, Roman Catholic Claims (pp. 38-40) in which he argues that, in contrast with the Roman Catholic Church, which had departed from the faith and invented many dogmas, it is the Anglican Church that is truly biblical, apostolic, and catholic—believing that which the Church founded by Christ had believed from the beginning.

Third, the ACNA needs to undertake a new study of the ordination of women, with a task force of disinterested (not uninterested, but impartial) parties who, like the task force that undertook the study for the Anglican Mission in America in 2002, are prepared to look objectively at arguments from Scripture, Tradition, and Reason regarding the role of women in ministry.

Fourth, the ACNA needs to commit itself to live according to the results of this study.  And if, ultimately, that is not possible, then the ACNA needs to divide into two entities that remain under the Anglican umbrella, in much the same way as the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA) and the Reformed Episcopal Church (REC) live under the ACNA umbrella now.  Their bishops would meet in two separate colleges (as well as together as they see fit).  They would acknowledge that a state of impaired communion exists, as Bishop Iker has indicated; and perhaps this separation will compel them to seek the unity they have been unable to find thus far.

Finally, It is imperative that, if it comes to it, that the two entities remain in relationship with each other to the greatest extent possible.  A schism in the ACNA could be fatal for the burgeoning movement, with disastrous effects on orthodox Anglicanism around the globe.  There are some expressions within the ACNA that, without the influence of the whole, could forget what it is to be Anglican.  Then there are other expressions within the ACNA that could, left to their own, become just another continuing Anglican Church only using a newer Prayer Book.  It must not come to this.  Jesus expects better of us.  We are the Church that has Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as our guide.  We are the Church that has the Sacraments our Lord gave us.  We are the Body of Christ that has the Holy Spirit indwelling us and leading us.  We can and we must do better, for the glory of Christ's Name.

I offer these observations with fervent prayer for the welfare of orthodox Anglicanism and the unity of the Church for which Jesus prayed (John 17).

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