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Believing in the common good got the Church of England into this mess over women bishops

by Linda Woodhead

The historic churches have come to love the idea of the common good. It's there at the heart  of Catholic social teaching, and it shapes the whole ethos of the Church of England. It seems to have been  the guiding principle of Rowan William's leadership, and it shapes the way decisions are taken  from parishes up to Synod. Unity at all costs.

It's been a disaster. It's a charter for minority views to hold everyone justice.  'Mrs X is not happy, her conscience is troubled' becomes the trump card when you are seeking the common good. The fact that Mrs X may be wrong, or supporting an injustice, become matters of secondary importance.

This goes together with a characteristically Anglican ethic which elevates gentleness and peaceableness  and proscribes any form of anger. You can be saddened, but you can never have a knockabout row.  It's not a good recipe for testing views and arriving at the truth.

You can see how it plays out in the way meetings are run. Taking a vote is seen as divisive, unfraternal. You have to come to a common mind. What this means in practice is that he or she who speaks up - or runs the meeting - often wins the day, regardless of whether anyone agrees. Protest is difficult, for it appears strident and 'selfish'.

You can see the same principle at work it in the way Rowan has considered maintenance of the unity  of the Anglican communion a greater good than support for the cause of women and gay people in the church.  Even the slow death of the church in Europe is considered a price worth paying for the ever-receding goal  of the common good.

The very constitution of synod has been set up according to this principle. Not first past the post  but a 2/3 majority in all houses. This is why 72.6% of synod members can vote for women bishops,  all but two dioceses support it, and 6 lay votes can defeat the measure. Don't complain or celebrate though,  because we should all maintain the image of one happy family.

But isn't 'oneness' Christian? Shouldn't the church be showing the world a higher way? Yes it should.  But it's actually rather hard to find Biblical support for 'Christianity unity' or the common good.  John 17:21 'they all may be one' is made to do an awful lot of work. There's rather a deal more in Jesus' teaching  about hating father and mothers, and setting brother against brother. 'Do not suppose that I have come  to bring peace to the earth. I came to bring not peace but a sword.'

Human society is made up of groups and individuals who pursue their own interests, often selfishly,  and who sometimes act hatefully and abusively. Even when individuals are good, society is likely  to be full of conflict. People will only come to a common mind in the Kingdom of Heaven  or behind the philosophers' fanciful 'veil of ignorance'. This is why argument is necessary,  and why democracy seeks not the common good, but the best and most proportionate compromises  and reconciliations of interests. Contestation, debate and democracy aren't infallible ways to truth,  but they are the best way we have.

Being principled shouldn't consist in imposing your will on everyone else, but in having the humility  to accept what the majority believes to be right - even if they're not. You can campaign to get them  to change their minds, but you can't bind them forever with your own purity of conscience.

This is even more true when you're talking about an established church. If the Church of England  wants to continue to claim a privileged relation to state and society, then it surely has to take seriously  the settled and conscientious views of state and society -- including the view that women are equal to men  and capable of wielding power responsibly.

The longing for unity goes back to the very origins of Anglicanism. It is understandable in the light  of the era of civil conflict and war which it sought to end. But the imposition of uniformity never worked,  and the dream of Christian unity was never realistic.

Clinging to an impossible ideal of unity discounts justice, and paints honest disagreement as dishonourable troublemaking. You can see the fruits of this state of mind in where the Church of England  has ended up in its treatment of women.

Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University. Her main interest is in documenting and analysing  religious change in modern societies, relating it to wider social changes, and thinking through practical  and political implications.

Women bishops and valid sacraments

by Jonathan Clatworthy - see also Women bishops and catholicity

The Church of England's current proposal to permit women bishops raises once again the question of theological objections.

When the ordination of women to the priesthood was discussed in the 1970s and 1980s, theological claims were made on both sides. This time there has been more emphasis on seeking a system which satisfies as many as possible; it is as though nobody any longer expects resolution of the theological disagreements. Opponents of women priests continue to believe their objections have not been met; supporters still find it difficult to understand them.

This article focuses on a central concern of opponents, the conditions for the validity of the sacraments, expressed for example in Simon Killwick's article in the Church Times in July 2010.1 My aim is to undermine this concern by describing the historical origins and theological weaknesses of the idea.

Citing the Thirty-Nine Articles and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, Killwick argues that the Church of England has 'a Catholic doctrine of the sacraments' and that 'We have therefore the assurance that we receive the grace of God in the sacraments, provided that the right conditions are met.'

That phrase 'provided that the right conditions are met' neatly encapsulates the issue as seen by Catholic Anglicans who oppose women priests and bishops. Given that the sacrament achieves something, how do we perform it in such a way that that something does in fact get achieved?

To the contemporary mind the very idea of conditions to ensure the validity of the sacraments, or 'sacramental assurance', seems quite inappropriate. Other Anglicans, let alone non-Christians, find it either absurd or incomprehensible. Perhaps this explains why many Anglicans respond to the current debate not by discussing the theological reasoning of the objectors but by treating them as an unchanging minority who have to be accommodated somehow.

We are in this situation because most people's presuppositions about the nature of reality have no place for the concept of conditions for sacramental validity. It had its home within an earlier worldview, characteristic of the nineteenth century religious revivals. My argument will be that we are right to reject that worldview, and conditions for sacramental validity with it.

Medieval magic and sacrament

The nineteenth century revivals reclaimed medieval concepts of the sacraments, concepts which many today, supporters and opponents alike, often describe as magic.

The word 'magic' derives from ancient Persian priests called magoi. The magoi believed they could influence the natural world through their knowledge of how it works. A recent summary of the difference between magic and prayer is that whereas prayer requires the assent of a god with an independent will who may choose to deny the request, magic can be effective in one of three ways: either by directly manipulating the regularities of nature, or by the strength of the magician's will, or because the magician believes he or she can command the spiritual beings being addressed.2

To us today, these seem radically different activities. The first of them is commonplace: all modern technology is based on understanding the regularities of nature and manipulating them for our purposes, and we do not consider it magic. However, nearly all ancients and medievals (the Hebrew scriptures were an exception) believed that they were surrounded not only by observable physical things but also by a countless array of invisible beings who could affect the physical environment. From their point of view, techniques for controlling demons were conceptually similar to techniques for controlling physical processes; and they were not entirely mistaken, as some of their demons were what we now call germs and viruses.

The understanding of reality in medieval western Europe was much the same. Keith Thomas' Religion and the Decline of Magic describes it. A typical village would have a 'wise woman' who was the local expert on a range of skills which have many parallels in other premodern societies. People would seek their help for healing, love potions, information about distant loved ones and recovering lost or stolen property. Their methods included recipes, herbal remedies, incantations and magical rituals.

Modern westerners, looking back on these practices, often think of them as magic. However this can be misleading. In some ways it would be better to think of them as their equivalent of our science and technology. Their practices presupposed, just as modern science and technology does, that the natural environment contains processes which we can harness to solve our problems. Their healing remedies, whatever we now think of their likely success rates, were their equivalent of our medicines. We today may wonder at their gullibility, but those of us who are not medically trained are in the same position: we are given instructions for which we do not know the reason, so we swallow this tablet every morning and chew that one at night, simply because we trust the doctor. We should not therefore laugh too long at medievals who obeyed instructions to pick a particular herb on a saint's day or recite a particular poem while picking it. It was the knowledge available at the time, in a culture which conceived of the world in their own way. The chief effective difference between these medieval practices and modern technology is that they had no good system for testing which procedures worked.

The sacraments fitted seamlessly into this worldview. Most medievals took it for granted that spiritual forces abounded around them and regularly affected the physical world. There was nothing unusual about the idea that bread and wine, consecrated by a Catholic priest, would be turned into the body and blood of Christ, or that a person who ate the consecrated bread would receive spiritual power. The problem facing church leaders was the opposite one: not to convince people that the sacraments worked, but to distinguish between Christian sacraments and pagan equivalents. The medieval church never established a satisfactory distinction. If an ordained priest recited the Prayer of Consecration over some bread and thereby turned it into the body of Christ, wise women could argue that their practices did much the same kinds of things.

Within this worldview a rich array of benefits could easily be attributed to the sacraments: physical health, warding off demonic influence, preparing for the afterlife. There were conditions: Catholic priests would warn that sacraments administered by heretics would not have the same effects. If we ask how the conditions of validity affected the outcome, two types of explanation were available, both of which are familiar to us from other contexts. We might describe one as the 'insurance policy' explanation. Insurance policies list conditions; if one is broken the contract is invalidated and the insurer is under no obligation to pay. In the same way ancient Roman emperors before Constantine offered sacrifices to the gods, expecting the gods to protect the city in return; but they took great care to get the words and actions just right, in case the gods should consider themselves exonerated. After all, there had been times when Rome had not been protected, and failure to offer proper sacrifices was, to them, a credible explanation.

The other type of explanation is naturalistic. It applies in a great many contexts. The medicines we take will only work if the right ingredients have been added in the right proportions. The computer program will only work if all the bugs have been corrected. The vegetables will only grow if they have good soil, sunshine and rain. These conditions of success are not negotiations with free agents, but manipulations of nature's regularities.

In the medieval worldview both types of explanation were common. There were plenty of angels and demons to negotiate with, but there were also natural regularities to exploit. Much of the time there was no need to distinguish which was which. In both cases, failure to achieve the desired result could be explained as failure to perform the actions correctly. To explain how the sacraments worked, and what effects we should expect from them, was not the problem it was later to become.

Modern science

The rise of modern science was not possible until this worldview changed. Science depends on two presuppositions: that the world operates according to regularities, and that these regularities can be observed by the human mind. Philosophically, physical effects of unpredictable invisible agents had to be decreed impossible. This was best expressed by Descartes' account of reality as two distinct spheres, one physical and observable and the other spiritual and unobservable. Methodologically, Bacon established the idea of extensive accumulation of observed data, from which the laws of nature could be deduced.

This early Enlightenment view split apart magic, science and sacrament. The sacraments became a legitimate part of the spiritual realm outside the remit of science. Science and technology were based on observed physical data. The other medieval practices, invoking the idea that invisible agents could influence physical things, were dismissed as magic, the occult or superstition. Thus the word 'magic' was in effect narrowed. From then on it excluded what we now count as science and techology.

A century later the radical Enlightenment, impressed by the advances of science, treated its methods as the only means  to knowledge. On this basis they challenged the very existence of the spiritual realm. From the end of the eighteenth century to the 1960s many educated Europeans believed that science would prove, or had already proved, that there is no God. Everything in reality, including us and our minds, would be shown to be nothing but atoms pushing each other in accordance with eternal, impersonal and automatic laws of nature. All value, purpose, freedom and morality would be shown to be nothing but the fantasies of the human mind. If the workings of the sacraments could not be explained scientifically, they did not work at all.

The nineteenth century revivals of sacramentalism

This was the context of the nineteenth century religious revivals. The main threat to Christianity was the atheism of the educated classes. Churches were therefore in a defensive mood, anxious to establish the existence of spiritual phenomena outside the scope of science. More people reported miracles, ghosts and visions of the saints and the Virgin Mary. Modern spiritualism began, with its clairvoyance and clairaudience. As meaning, value and purpose were increasingly expelled from the physical world, church leaders were determined to give them a new home in a distinct spiritual realm with a rich array of ideas and experiences. The revival of sacramentalism was part of this movement. There was a renewed conviction that the priest really does have powers unavailable to lay people, that the Prayer of Consecration, uttered by a priest, really can turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and that the consecrated sacrament really can affect the spiritual condition of the Christian communicant.

This sacramentalism is in a sense a revival of medieval magic. There is the same affirmation that if the right person performs the right act, the expected result will happen. In another sense it is not. For the medievals, the bread and wine were consecrated in a world conceived as full of spiritual forces performing unobserved acts, and the priest's actions were part of that picture. For nineteenth century sacramentalists, on the other hand, the very idea of changing the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ was a defiance of contemporary views of reality, a determination to insist on an alternative world beyond the reach of science. To this extent they were returning not to the holistic, enchanted world of the Middle Ages but to early Enlightenment dualism, according to which radically different processes took place in a radically different spiritual realm. It was within that world - of spiritual phenomena which science cannot explain - that nineteenth century catholics sought to establish a complete and coherent system for the workings of the sacraments, to set against the materialist paradigm of modern society.

This fitted the modern, narrower understanding of magic better than its medieval ancestor had done. Magic tends to be more formulaic than prayer because, whether it seeks divine intervention or manipulation of occult natural processes, the emphasis is on precise actions rather than personal relationship with a divinity. Furthermore the conditions of validity took on a new role. In an ordinary medieval village there was never a hard and fast theoretical distinction between what the priest meant when he said that by eating the consecrated bread you were strengthened against the Devil, and what the wise woman meant when she said that by eating blackcurrants you were strengthened against catching a cold. Perhaps the cold was a demon, perhaps not, but blackcurrants seemed to work. Today the judgement would be made on the basis of incomparably greater quantities of evidence, but even then it was possible to believe that evidence was available. Sacraments, by contrast, have gone in the other direction. Because the whole point of the nineteenth century revival was to establish the reality of the spiritual realm on its own terms, without subordinating it to scientific examination, they avoided resorting to measurable physical evidence.

The belief that the sacrament, to be valid, must be consecrated by a validly ordained priest therefore became purely a matter of dogma, disconnected from any practical experience. The disconnection was accentuated by the fact that it applied all the way along the line: that there are sacraments at all, that they have any effect at all, that they have conditions, that there is any difference between valid and invalid sacraments - all was dogma, in principle disconnected from observable evidence. The conditions of validity ceased to be a way of explaining failures, and became instead the only way of knowing that a sacramental act had been successfully performed. It was at this stage, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that the most precise instructions for administering sacraments were laid down: the priest must hold his hands just so, and recite exactly the words in the book.

Thus the nineteenth century theories produced a network of mutually supporting but evidence-free claims about who can be a priest, what constitutes a valid mass, which ingredients are essential to consecratable bread and wine, who can receive it and what effect it can have. What made these ideas popular a hundred years ago was precisely what makes them unconvincing today: that they offered a separate world, a radical alternative to the world being described by scientists.

The limits of science

The conviction that science would produce complete and certain knowledge unravelled during the twentieth century. The universe has proved far more complex. The human mind cannot know all about it, or indeed know anything about it with absolute certainty. It has many physical features which are unobservable, and established laws of nature are only ever approximations to the exact truth. There will always be processes which science has not yet observed, and others which it has observed but not explained. Science cannot disprove the existence of God. There is no longer any need to separate the physical from the spiritual. Both belong in the same world, and perhaps can after all influence each other. This is the worldview which characterises the more educated segments of western society today.

From this more modest scientific perspective, is it once again possible that consecrated bread and wine can have an observable beneficial effect on the communicant? Yes, but it means something different. I have described two ways in which the idea of conditional validity can be explained. In one, the performance of a sacramental act is part of a contract with God: we do our bit, God does God's bit. God will withhold the benefits Holy Communion from a congregation whenever any one condition of validity fails. This idea made sense to ancient and medieval pagans because gods and humans were on a more even footing. Both wanted something from the other, and the contract only worked if both sides delivered. In the context of the omnipotent and benign Christian God, however, it makes no sense at all. God does not need our ritual actions. What we receive from God has been given to us, not sold. In all the traditional Christian theologies of God, there is no doctrine which would naturally lead us to expect that God offers us particular blessings through the sacraments but chooses to withhold them if the performer is a woman or the correct words are not said.

The other explanation of conditional validity is the naturalistic one. On this account we would have to believe that God has so created the world that validly performed sacraments automatically produce their benefits, just as sunshine produces warmth. Here the problem is that, being naturalistic, it is a proper subject for scientific examination. We observe the effects, conduct experiments to work out exactly when the effects are produced and when they are not, and when we have built up a large quantity of data we then develop hypotheses about the process and its conditions. Yet we have not begun this process. We do not have observed effects of valid sacraments which can be distinguished from observed effects of invalid sacraments.

Within today's worldview, neither of these theories is necessary. The nineteenth-century idea of a self-contained spiritual world with its own self-justifying processes seems pointless. We have no more reason to believe in it than to believe in unicorns. The idea of conditions for sacramental assurance disappears with it.

Sacraments persist, but conceived differently. Because we now have permission to think of a holistic world where the spiritual, mental and physical once again affect each other, it comes easily to us to imagine the sacraments being effective in a variety of different ways. This is not the place to develop an account of sacraments which fits the current worldview, but a few illustrations will indicate what I mean. By coming together to remember Jesus and partake in his meal, we strengthen our mutual commitment to him. By performing meaningful liturgical acts we express our relationship with God and each other. By sharing a meal we partake in a universally recognised act of hospitality, a giving and receiving which strengthens our roles as receivers of God's gifts and givers to those in need.

To generalise from these examples, sacraments as understood within the current worldview are not magic: they are neither a contract with God nor occult technology. They are an ordinary part of the way the world works. They have effects, and we know what effects to expect. We can observe for ourselves the occasions on which the effects are achieved well, or not so well. We can therefore work out the conditions for successful sacraments in our local communities as we try different approaches. Such conditions abound: a room with a visual focus and a minimum of distractions, making sure everyone can see and hear clearly, suitable music at the right moments, giving the children an activity while the adults are listening to the sermon. To some, of course, to describe such banalities as conditions for valid sacraments is to miss the point; but these are the matters on which clergy expend effort when preparing services, and they do so because in their experience these are the things which make them work well. Whatever they may say about their beliefs, the way they prepare and conduct services in practice indicates that the overwhelming majority of clergy are taking for granted the current worldview.

The striking thing about these generalisations is that every one of them presents the current understanding of sacraments as similar to the medieval understanding, but quite different from the nineteenth century understanding. Why? Because once again, after many centuries of religious stress, our host society has a worldview in which Christianity can sit comfortably. No longer do we need to defy the latest scientific ideas. We do not even need to demand special dispensation for religious belief. The sacraments change us, but in ordinary ways which make sense to ordinary people.

From this perspective there is no place for a sharp dividing line between valid and invalid sacraments. Instead there are shades of grey: they work better in some circumstances than others and some people are better than others at performing them. There are conditions, but they are conditions of best practice rather than essential to having a sacrament at all, and they can be worked out as we go along. Among such conditions, one we will not find - except among those determined to put it there - is that the priest and bishop must be male.

Postmodern incommensurability

Defenders of nineteenth century dogmatic versions of Christianity often appeal to postmodernism, especially its theory of incommensurability. The idea is that there is no single universal system of rationality. Instead, different traditions have different systems of rationality and reach different conclusions about the nature of reality. There is no neutral vantage point from which to measure one against another and judge which is the better. Therefore we each opt for our own system of rationality and accept that our picture of reality is incommensurable with alternatives.

This theory has been used by Radical Orthodox and Barthian theologians to reject the dominant worldview of their host society and insist instead on their own, while refusing to defend their choices rationally. Recently religious leaders have also appealed to the idea: UK church leaders, for example, have sought and gained exemption from equal opportunities legislation, not by convincing the Government of flaws in the legislation, but by claiming that religious traditions have their own distinctive systems of belief.

To claim that Anglican Catholics have their own distinctive rationality, with its own account of sacramental validity, would be entirely in keeping with this theory. The logical implication, however, would be that their beliefs are incommensurable with the beliefs of other Anglicans. In that case the only realistic solution would be to have their own church with its own rules, and abandon the attempt to explain their position to the rest of us. So far most opponents of women's ministry have not gone this far, as they seek to remain within the church.


When opponents of women's ministry claim that it does not, or may not, meet the conditions of valid sacraments, they presuppose an understanding of what sacraments are, and how they work, which was developed in the nineteenth century and which most people no longer share. To say that an otherwise valid sacrament is invalidated by the female gender of the performer is to make a hard and fast distinction between valid and invalid sacraments, and postulate a benefit which only occurs when all the conditions of validity are met. This objection to women as priests and bishops has its place within a larger set of conditions: consecration of Holy Communion will also be invalidated if red wine is not used, or if a valid Prayer of Consecration is not said, and ordination will also be invalidated if the bishop is not in direct line of apostolic succession.

As the Church of England discusses, in its various synods and committees, whether and how to consecrate women bishops, most of us do not share that view of sacramental validity. The temptation is to leave it alone, as it is, and seek organisational ways to allow for it instead of engaging with it theologically.

I do not think we should leave it alone theologically. There are major theological issues, and the two sides cannot both be right. We need to challenge them to justify their concept of conditions for sacramental validity. If they do so successfully, we will become better informed; at the very least we shall be better placed to understand what the conditions are, and why. If, on the other hand, they cannot justify it, then General Synod would be well advised to treat it as a relic of a bygone age.

To ask them to justify it is to ask four questions.

Question 1. How did you find out what the conditions for sacramental validity are? Killwick's article cites the Thirty-Nine Articles and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; but these were written long before the nineteenth century revivals, and show no interest in conditions for sacramental validity. They do lay down conditions for administering the sacraments, but for reasons of discipline and decency, not validity. The same is true of Canon Law.

Question 2. What are the conditions of validity? This should be an easier question. The priest must be a validly ordained male, the Prayer of Consecration must incude an anamnesis and epiclesis, and so on. For those of us who do not share that nineteenth century sacramentalism, the main problem is that because we have not received a convincing answer to Question 1, the list of conditions seems to us entirely arbitrary; as far as we can see, Anglo-Catholics have over time promoted their normal practices to the rank of validity conditions without any theological justification.

Question 3. What are the effects of valid sacraments? What real difference is there between the effect of a valid sacrament and an invalid one? If I receive Communion from an invalid eucharist, and you from a valid one, what will happen to you which does not happen to me? When a woman priest pronounces an absolution, does God withhold forgiveness? If so, why does God so act? If not, what real difference is there between valid and invalid?

Question 4. How were the conditions of validity established? Are they imposed by God - in which case, what theology of God do we have which would explain why God is so picky? Alternatively, are they imposed by the created order of nature - in which case, what is the evidence for them? A third possibility, which Killwick also affirms in his article, is that they are established by 'the universal church' of Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Anglican churches in concert. I have discussed this theory elsewhere; it is so difficult to reconcile with the very notion of sacramental validity that it deserves separate treatment.

Our minds are fuzzy about what sacraments are, what conditions are needed to make them work, what effects they have, and how we would know whether the effects have been achieved. A century ago these questions were coherently answered within a worldview which few today accept. Today we live in a society with a very different worldview. From the perspective of Christianity it is the best one western society has produced for many centuries. We do not know how long it will last, but why not make the most of it?

We no longer need the strained, counter-cultural special pleading which we once needed to defend our faith. Life is full of sacramental processes. We can afford to spend less time defining them, more celebrating them.


  1. Church Times 30 July 2010 quoted in full on this blog.
  2. Magic (Paranormal) Wikipedia entry (23 August 2010).

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and (at the time of writing) was Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.

Women bishops and catholicity

by Jonathan Clatworthy - see also Women bishops and valid sacraments

As the Church of England considers the case for women bishops, one of the issues raised by opponents is catholicity.

The various accounts differ in details but the basic objection is well known: as other parts of the universal Christian Church do not have women priests and bishops, for the Church of England to introduce them is to set us at odds with them so that we cease to be part of the universal Church.

This article aims to clarify the claims being made. What is the universal Church? In what sense does the Church of England belong to it? How, if at all, does the universal Church make or allow changes? What stops women priests and bishops being one of the changes?

What is the 'true Church'?

Of the production of theories about the Church there is no end. For some there is a single 'true Church' validated by the mind of God and qualitatively different from alternatives; others believe that the title of 'true Church' is relative, depending on what each denomination is, does and teaches. Among those who believe there is a distinct 'true Church', some believe it correlates with an established Christian denomination while others, following some of the Reformers, believe it is known only to the mind of God.

Anglo-Catholic opponents of women priests and bishops appeal to a visible 'universal Church'.  As Simon Killwick puts it,1

The problem for traditional Catholics in the Church of England is that  we do not believe that in ordaining women, the C of E is continuing the orders of bishops and priests as the Church has received them. By "Church" here, we mean the un­divided Church of the past, together with the present-day Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, and a number of other Anglican provinces.

This position is characteristic of Anglo-Catholicism. Parts of it are ancient, parts are inventions of the 1830s.

Some of the New Testament epistles express a late first century movement  which scholars describe as 'early Catholicism'. The Greek term for 'universal'  is 'kath holos', and our word 'catholic' is derived from it. Right from the start Christianity was a diverse movement, and the early Catholics saw a need to distinguish specific local theories from basic universal Christianity. There were too many dubious stories of Jesus, especially of the post-resurrection Jesus. Some are recorded in the apocryphal gospels. In Matthew's gospel the risen Jesus told his disciples that 'I am with you always', and Paul claimed not only to have seen the risen Jesus but to have been given instruction by him. Others seem to have been keen to emulate him. The overall effect was unconvincing: the risen Jesus seemed to have given too many contradictory messages to different visionaries. The early Catholics therefore drew the line at the teachings of the physical Jesus and the original apostles, and closed the canon of the New Testament accordingly.

From the fourth century onwards Roman emperors, beginning with Constantine, aimed to unify the empire with Christianity as its faith. They summoned a series of councils where bishops formally voted on propositions of Christian doctrine. One effect was to give Christianity a formal hierarchy with power to define doctrines. This development was accentuated by the eleventh century Great Schism between the eastern and western parts of Christendom. The 'filioque' clause was an extra word in the Nicene Creed stating that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father. It was a western innovation, and to justify it the Western Church claimed that God had given the pope authority to declare Christian doctrine. The Eastern Church retained the earlier principle that the Creed can only be changed by a council of all the churches. East and west accused each other of heresy and reserved for itself the title of true Church. In this way both sides tended to subordinate doctrine to formal structure; it was the structure of the true Church which established doctrine, rather than the other way round.

At the Reformation Protestants revived the idea that the true Church is wherever true doctrine is taught. They could no longer appeal to direct knowledge of what the Apostles taught, and instead treated the Bible as the supreme criterion of true doctrine. Competing accounts of true doctrine produced competing claims to be the true Church. Some Reformers argued that the true Church is known to God but does not correlate with any known Christian denomination. Later, liberal Protestants relativised the idea: given the wide array of denominations it made sense to believe that true doctrine came in shades of grey - in which case perhaps the status of 'true Church' did too. Catholics on the other hand insisted that the true church must be 'visible' - identified with a clearly defined ecclesiastical institution.

The Church of England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries claimed visibility but also claimed to be based on true doctrine. Article 19 of the Thirty-Nine Articles states:

The visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments duly ministered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith.

At this stage the Church of England's understanding of authority was Erastian. Catholics claimed that God had appointed the Pope as supreme authority and that bishops and priests had delegated authority under him. The English claimed that headship of their church had been transferred from the Pope to the divinely appointed monarch, but apart from this change the authority of bishops and priests remained the same, still under God via the supreme head of the Church. The English were expected to obey their bishop in the same way as they were expected to obey all the God-given laws of the state. Archbishop Whitgift argued that 'the Archbishop doth exercise his jurisdiction under the prince and by the prince's authority. For, the prince having the supreme government of the realm, in all causes and over all persons, as she doth exercise the one by the lord chancellor, so doth she the other by the archbishops.'2

Anglo-Catholicism and the visible Church

When opponents of women bishops argue that we should not innovate without the agreement of the 'universal Church', they are appealing to the 'visible Church' theory. However, in order to make sense of it within this context, they make two major adaptations to it. Both were original inventions of the Oxford Movement in the 1830s and remain distinctive features of Anglo-Catholic theology today. The first is apostolic succession, the second sacramental validity.

Apostolic succession

The immediate cause of the Oxford Movement was the Government's declining support for the Church's privileges. Keble's Assize Sermon, from which it is usually dated, attacked the Government's intention to reduce the number of Irish bishops. The central concern was: if the authority of bishops and priests was no longer to be guaranteed by the Government, how could it be justified? In the very first of the Tracts for the Times, in 1833, Newman wrote:

Should the government and country so far forget their God as to cast off the church, to deprive it of its temporal honours and substance,  on what will you rest the claim of respect and attention which you make upon your flocks?

The real ground upon which our authority is built, he answered, is 'our apostolical descent'. By this he meant:

The Lord Jesus Christ gave His Spirit to His Apostles; they in turn laid their hands on those who would succeed them; and these again on others and these again on others; and so the sacred gift has been handed down to our present Bishops, who have appointed us as their assistants, and in some sense representatives.

From this he concluded that 'We must necessarily consider none to be ordained who have not been thus ordained'.

Thus the Tractarians could see that the decline of Erastianism would leave a hole  in the Church's justification of its authority, and they filled the hole with apostolic succession. It would be apostolical succession which established that the Church of England is the true Church. This meant that the authority of bishops still came from God, but mediated through continual succession instead of through pope or monarch. In this way they could present the Church of England as a continuation of the pre-Reformation church, align it with the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches, and distinguish it from the other Protestant churches. In the fourth of the Tracts for the Times John Keble claimed that the Church of England was 'the only church in this realm which has a right to be quite sure that she has the Lord's Body to give to his people'.

This was an innovation. Mark Chapman writes:

With few exceptions, most writers sympathetic to bishops before the English Civil war period based their arguments on decency and order rather than on apostolic succession. Very few - and that even included such figures as William Laud - were willing to see bishops as necessary for the constitution of the church. On the whole they accepted the ministry and sacraments of the continental protestant churches as expressions of the true church relative to their particular contexts.3

To the Tractarians it was essential to insist both that there is a visible true Church and that the Church of England is part of it. Apostolic succession was the argument they used; it became the criterion distinguishing the true Church from other churches. They therefore argued that the true Church consists of churches with apostolical succession, namely the Orthodox, Roman and Anglican ones. As though to prove the point, when in 1845 Newman ceased to believe it he became a Roman Catholic.

In this way the Tractarians enhanced the spiritual significance of bishops far beyond what had previously been the case. Brilioth wrote of them: 'One must ask whether at any time in the history of the church the office of bishop has been so immediately exalted to the clouds as in these early tracts'.[4] This exaltation of bishops has remained a central feature of Anglo-Catholicism since then. In 1888 Charles Gore argued that Christ fully intended to found the Church as a visible human society to be his Body. To this end he directly commissioned the Apostles and empowered them to appoint and ordain successors. Christ, in Gore's view, even went so far as to specify 'in germ' that bishops were to be responsible for governance, to guard doctrine and discipline and to ordain, confirm and baptise, in perpetuity. Christ did all this, Gore tells us, because the Church is not held together by ethnicity or language. As a visible historical society it needs some other connecting link to hold it together through different times and places. Christ determined that that connecting link  was to be the bishops. Bishops were to be the ones who passed on spiritual empowerment, creating apostolic successions of episcopally ordained ministry. In this way, Gore believed, Christ intended episcopacy to be essential to the Church. Anglicans therefore could not and should not recognise the ministry of those who were not ordained by bishops.5

It is this concept of the three-denomination 'universal Church' which informs Anglo-Catholic opponents of women priests and bishops today. The argument runs that the Church of England is not the whole of the universal Church, but only part of it. The priests and bishops of the universal Church ought, on theological principle, to be mutually recognised. Therefore we should not have women priests and bishops unless Orthodoxy and Rome agree. If they were to agree, their agreement would be equivalent to a decision of an Ecumenical Council; but until they do, we have no business making the change on our own. Simon Killwick defends the argument:

The ordination of women to the priesthood therefore initiated a process of reception in the Church of England and the wider Church. Reception is not a new concept in the history of the Church: it refers to the reception of the decisions of Councils of the Church by the whole people of the Church, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Because the C of E claims that her orders are those of the whole or universal Church (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican), the new development in the ordination of women must be subject to reception by the whole Church. Otherwise, our Church's claim about her orders would be in jeopardy.6

It is hardly surprising that the Church of England as a whole has not been persuaded by this argument. Firstly, it completely ignores the churches which do not have bishops in apostolic succession. All such churches are lost from view. Secondly, this 'visible Church' is not visible in the sense of being an established Christian denomination. It is a list of three denominations. The list only looks like a single entity to those who classify Christian denominations according to apostolic succession. To those who do not it remains a list of denominations, not a visible church. Other parts of Anglicanism have never treated apostolic succession as the distinguishing feature of the true Church, and therefore have no cause to define the true Church as a combination of Orthodoxy, Rome and Anglicanism. Neither do Orthodoxy or Rome: apostolic succession has never been so important to them. Orthodoxy, for example, responded to the 'filioque' clause and the claims for papal supremacy by treating Rome as heretical because of its doctrinal innovations, without disputing its claim to apostolic succession. Rome, meanwhile, resolutely refuses to acknowledge Anglican orders; to most Anglicans the continued appeal to the 'universal Church' sounds like the unhappy state of a deserted lover who years after the separation still refuses to do anything of which the beloved would have disapproved.

The 'visibility' of this three-denomination 'universal Church' is therefore highly suspect. Our suspicions are accentuated by the fact that New Testament scholars, far from supporting Gore's claims, find precious little evidence that Christ showed an interest in founding a church at all, and insufficient evidence that there is a continuous line of succession from the Apostles to the bishops of today.

Thirdly, it is far from evident that the theory can produce the results Anglo-Catholics claim. If it is true that Anglicanism should not innovate without the agreement of Orthodoxy and Rome, then Orthodoxy and Rome should not innovate without the agreement of each other and of Anglicanism. Yet there is no correlative expectation that either Orthodoxy or Rome would see fit to consult Anglicanism before making changes of its own.

If they did, there would have to be agreement about which issues required consultation across the three denominations. If the appointments of the first woman priest and the first woman bishop require 'universal Church' agreement, what else needs it? At the very least, what about other firsts? As well as a first woman priest and bishop there was a first priest and bishop who, contrary to the Council resolution of Acts 15, ate meat with blood in it. There was a first priest and bishop who was not a circumcised Jew. More recently there was a first priest and bishop who drove a car, a first priest and bishop with a pacemaker. What is it about gender which makes that criterion subject to 'universal Church' agreement, when nobody thought any of the others were?

Of course it will be possible for conservative Anglo-Catholics to answer this question by finding some distinction that fits the bill and exalting it to the status of essential criterion; no doubt there is some x which can complete the sentence 'Gender is a different distinction from all the others because of x'; but no such criterion has already been agreed with both Orthodoxy and Rome. Orthodoxy and Rome do not play this game because they are not committed to the three-denominations definition of the universal Church. Only conservative Anglo-Catholics do. This is why the need for such a criterion has not arisen: in practice, the need for 'universal Church' agreement is only proposed when conservative Anglo-Catholics want to oppose something.

Valid sacraments

In addition to redefining the 'universal Church' in terms of apostolic succession, the Tractarians combined it with a new idea characteristic of nineteenth century thought, the idea of an absolute distinction between valid and invalid sacraments. I have described it in greater detail elsewhere and will only offer a brief summary here. There was a general cultural anxiety that the advances of science would disprove all religious belief and human values and show that all reality, including human minds, could be reduced to atoms pushing each other according to impersonal laws of nature. Nineteenth century religious leaders reacted by insisting on a spiritual realm full of meaning and value, beyond the reach of scientific observation. Catholics revived the medieval idea of sacraments as spiritual processes conferring benefits on their recipients. However the reaffirmation of unobservable spiritual qualities was, in the nineteenth century context, a distinctively religious claim about distinctively religious processes. Within this context a sacrament either 'worked' or it did not; shades of grey no longer made sense. This is the idea to which conservative Anglo-Catholics appeal when they express concern about 'sacramental assurance'. The underlying assumption is that there is a sharp distinction between valid and invalid sacraments, such that valid sacraments confer spiritual benefits but invalid sacraments achieve nothing.

Apostolic succession or valid sacraments?

Anglicans today are used to hearing the two claims, about the visible Church and valid sacraments, as though they were one. The above quotations from Newman, Keble, Gore and Killwick all combine them as though they belonged naturally together. When Newman responded to the idea of apostolic succession by claiming that 'We must necessarily consider none to be ordained who have not been thus ordained', he presupposed a real spiritual distinction in which non-apostolic ordinations are worthless. When Keble claimed that no other English church 'has a right to be quite sure that she has the Lord's Body to give to his people', he indicated that the Church of England could, but other Protestant denominations could not, turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ by means of valid consecrations. When Gore described bishops as authorised by Christ to pass on 'spiritual empowerment', he was similarly asserting a spiritual quality, available with apostolic succession but unavailable without it. Killwick's concern for 'sacramental assurance' is about exactly this: the faithful need to know that the sacraments they are receiving contain the spiritual quality they will only have if the conditions of validity are met.

In fact the two ideas are quite different. The traditional 'visible Church' idea had no need for this innovation. It had functioned without it since ancient times. We might compare the situation with a group of vigilantes who appoint their own police force and instruct them to catch criminals in the local area, contrary to opposition from the national government. We would expect the government to condemn the action on the ground that the unofficial police have no legal authorisation to arrest and detain other people. From the government's perspective the vigilante initiative is not legitimate, whether or not it succeeds in its aim. The objection relates to authority, order and discipline, not success. The same was true of claims to be the 'visible Church' before the nineteenth century, and remains true often enough outside Anglo-Catholicism today; for example Pope John Paul II's 'Apostolic Letter On Reserving Priestly Ordination to Men Alone' (1994) does not argue that sacraments administered by women are invalid.

In practice the combination of the two claims produces bizarre results. We may picture an Anglican woman priest celebrating the Eucharist every Sunday at an ordinary Anglican church. Let us call it St Margaret's, Toxteth. The Anglo-Catholic version of the 'universal Church' theory, on its own, without the extra 'valid sacraments' theory, is easy enough to understand. On this basis her priesthood is invalid because the Orthodox and Roman churches do not accept it. In theory, at some stage in the future the Vatican may decree women priests acceptable. This will not satisfy conservative Anglo-Catholics because the Orthodox churches have not followed suit. If, a few years later, the Orthodox patriarchs also agree to women priests, this will be the point at which the ministry of the Vicar of St Margaret's becomes part of the ministry of 'the visible Church'. As a matter of authority and order, this is realistic. Nobody is claiming that anybody in Toxteth will notice a difference.

Now add in the 'valid sacraments' claim. At the first stage, our vicar administers  the sacraments, but because she is a woman she does so invalidly  (or possibly invalidly: on Killwick's account there is uncertainty). What this means is that God does not turn the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ so the congregation do not receive the spiritual benefits they have been misled to expect. Had they walked down the road to Christchurch, where the priest is male, they would have received the spiritual benefits; but they do not. When the Vatican accepts women priests there is no change at Toxteth because the universal Church is yet to agree on them. When the patriarchs also accept them, then comes a real change at St Margaret's. God will then provide the spiritual benefits there, just as at Christchurch. The congregation at St Margaret's will, for the first time, receive valid Communion, valid blessings, valid absolutions. Yet the priest is doing exactly what she was doing before.

Of course nobody in Toxteth will notice any difference; the claim that there is a difference is entirely a matter of dogma, an untestable claim about a hidden spiritual process. When we ask what is going on in this hidden process, we find two ill-fitting accounts. The 'universal Church' account tells us of delegated priestly authority. It is not that God grants the priest special spiritual power unavailable to lay people, but that (in the Anglo-Catholic version) God delegates to the governing leaders of Orthodox, Roman and Anglican denominations the power to make changes when, and only when, they agree with each other. In the 'valid sacraments' account, on the other hand, God acts directly, to provide the benefits of the sacraments when and only when the conditions of validity are met.

It is the dominant position of Anglican opponents of women's ministry that both these claims are true. In that case, the benefits of valid sacraments are produced in three stages. The first is the original delegation of power by God to the relevant church leaders. At the second stage the church leaders determine conditions of validity, including whether the priest must be male. At the third stage God does the work again, producing the benefits of sacraments in accordance with the validity conditions laid down by the church leaders. God begins as the supreme deity, delegating power to church leaders, but ends up as their obedient servant, distributing spiritual benefits in accordance with their instructions. Logically, it is theoretically possible that God may choose to adopt this dual role, but it seems so bizarre that I doubt whether any theological account of the nature of God has ever attempted to justify it.


The argument that we should not permit women bishops without the agreement of Orthodoxy and Rome depends on a theory about the nature of the Church which Anglicans have good reason to question.
  1. It is not self-evident that there is a single 'true Church' distinguished from all the others by God's stamp of approval, let alone by Christ's intention to establish it. An alternative account is that every denomination is a varying shade of grey, depending on what it is, does and teaches.
  2. If there is a 'true Church', it has been conceived in a wide variety of ways. The Tractarian exaltation of apostolic succession  as the criterion of 'the visible true Church' was their own innovation. It leads to the conclusion that the visible Church is a combination of Orthodoxy, Rome and Anglicanism, but none of the three denominations formally accepts the idea and none makes any consistent attempt to operate according to it.
  3. If Orthodoxy, Rome and Anglicanism were to agree that there is a visible true Church, and that it consists of these three denominations together, there would then be an ecclesiological basis for establishing a shared system within which a debate could be held about whether this three-denomination universal Church should forbid women priests and bishops. Before that stage is reached the three denominations would need not only a high level of mutual cooperation, of which there is no sign at present, but also substantial agreement over criteria for judgements of this type.
  4. If the 'three-denomination universal Church' were to establish such a level of mutual commitment and cooperation as to make all this possible, and if they were to issue a joint decree that women should not be priests or bishops, such a decree would be a matter of authority and discipline. It would say nothing about whether sacraments administered by women priests and bishops were sufficiently valid to confer spiritual benefits.
  5. If the 'three-denomination universal Church' were to issue a decree stating that 'sacramental assurance' is not available for sacraments administered by women, such a decree would need to be based on a theory about how God distinguishes when to confer spiritual benefits and when to withhold them. Such a theory, if true at all, would be true regardless of which church, if any, decreed it true. The appeal to Orthodoxy and Rome would be irrelevant.

Given the large number of difficulties with the 'universal Church' objection to women priests and bishops, how should the Church of England's governing body, General Synod, respond?

The temptation is to conclude that we have discussed it long enough, accept that our contrasting theologies are here to stay, and seek a compromise which minimises the numbers so dissatisfied as to leave. The danger with this approach is that it may, like the 1993 Act of Synod, treat a changing range of theological positions as though they were permanent, make permanent provisions for specific theologies, and thereby perpetuate divisions which would otherwise have died a natural death over time.

A mature church will acknowledge the different theological perspectives but avoid separating them out into specialist categories and congregations. Instead it will encourage open discussion and debate about the strengths and weaknesses of each view until such time as consensus is reached.

Disagreement should not be by-passed, suppressed or treated as a reason to block change; it is a normal part of everyday life, and if we want to kneel at the altar rail alongside someone we disagree with, we will find a way to do it.


  1. Church Times 30 July 2010 quoted in full on this bl
  2. The Works of John Whitgift (Parker Society) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1851), 3 vols, ii, p. 248, quoted in Chapman, Mark, Anglo-Catholics and the Myths of Episcopacy,  Liverpool: Modern Churchpeople's Union, 2006, p. 9.
  3. Chapman, Mark, Anglo-Catholics and the Myths of Episcopacy, Liverpool: Modern Churchpeople's Union, 2006, p. 3.
  4. Yngve Brilioth, The Anglican Revival: Studies in the Oxford Movement (London: Longmans, 1933), p. 192, cited in Chapman, Mark, Anglo-Catholics and the Myths of Episcopacy, Liverpool: Modern Churchpeople's Union, 2006, p. 1.
  5. Gore, Charles, The Church and Ministry, London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1919. The first edition was printed in 1888. The key texts are at II.53-61 & 92, IV. 208-209, V. 211-214 and VII. 298-314.
  6. Church Times 30 July 2010 quoted in full on this blog.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and (at the time of writing) was Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.

When is a bishop not a bishop

Summary of argument

Modern Church's reasons for opposing Clause 5(1)(c) are as follows:
  1. It would allow PCCs to subordinate the Church of England's open, inclusive and developing theology to their own minority convictions on women's ministry.
  2. It would reinforce this subordination by giving dissident PCCs a legal right to demand alternative episcopal oversight.
  3. Instead of encouraging Anglicans of diverse views to worship with each other and learn from each other, it would encourage division into separate parishes.
  4. It would not only continue, but expand, the present situation where the Church is helping to maintain within itself a group of churches whose primary feature is its opposition to the main body.
  5. By granting legal rights to PCCs to override the wishes of their bishops it would ensure that such opposition becomes permanent, and therefore a continual source of tension.
  6. The provision of exemption from the Church's authority structure in the 1993 Act of Synod has already set an unfortunate precedent, inviting campaigners against gay bishops to demand alternative episcopal oversight. If maintained, the exemption would inevitably encourage similar demands in future.
  7. It would weaken the authority of bishops, not out of a considered decision to do so but as a by-product of a dispute about women's ministry.
Instead the Church of England needs to reaffirm its identity as an open, tolerant and inclusive church. It should:
  1. allow for the widest practicable range of theological opinions so that questions may be debated without fear of discrimination, and
  2. have a coherent authority structure which protects freedom of opinion against those who would suppress it and encourages communication between those of different persuasions.

Its inherited authority structure makes a bishop responsible for the administration of each diocese. As long as there is no proposal to abolish bishops or to abandon the diocesan structure, the legislation should retain the authority of bishops without any distinction between men and women. Any decision to limit the authority of bishops should be based on a consistent principle (e.g. greater accountability), not on special concessions to a specific lobby - least of all one which rejects the Church's authority structure.


This is a response to the House of Bishops' Clause 5(1)(c) amending the proposed legislation for women bishops. The Clause has generated considerable controversy, both because of its long-term implications and because of the procedures by which it was inserted. This article discusses the theological implications. It does not offer advice on how members of General Synod should vote on the motion.

Draft legislation to allow for women bishops was approved by 42 of the 44 English dioceses. The House of Bishops used its authority to make two changes to the wording in order to make the legislation acceptable to opponents of women bishops. Clause 5(1)(c) is the controversial one. If passed it will add a legal requirement to the forthcoming Code of Practice setting out the parameters for diocesan schemes catering for opponents of women bishops. The new Clause specifies that the Code must provide for

the selection of male bishops or male priests the exercise of ministry by whom is consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women on grounds of which parochial church councils have issued Letters of Request.

The theological positions

Within the Church of England there are competing theologies of episcopal authority. From the time of Henry VIII onwards for three centuries the dominant view was that the bishop's authority came from the monarch, who was in turn appointed by God. During the Tudor and Stuart eras controversy raged over whether the Church should have bishops, and the usual defence was that they were needed for decency and good order; the theory of apostolic succession was yet to be developed.1 Later Erastianism declined; there is now less emphasis on the Queen as Head of the Church and more on the Church's own structures, centred on General Synod. This means that if Synod votes for women bishops, women so consecrated will indeed be bishops. Such a theology is public: it appeals to open procedures, not disputed theories of invisible divine processes.

Similarly the usual conservative evangelical position is comparatively easy to understand. Some biblical texts disapprove of positions of leadership being held by women. There is scope for debate about the authority of those texts and the leadership roles of bishops, but the theological position appeals to easily understood criteria.

In the case of the anglo-catholic position the matter is different. Supporters and opponents alike often find it difficult to understand as it seems rooted in arcane mystical claims. This leads some to dismiss it as nonsense and others to allow it a wide berth.

Sacramental validity

It was a product of the Oxford Movement. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries governments determined the state religion. By the 1830s British Government support had waned; in the first of the Tracts for the Times Newman asked: 'Should the government and country so far forget their God as to cast off the church, to deprive it of its temporal honours and substance, on what will you rest the claim of respect and attention which you make upon your flocks?' His answer was his theory of apostolic succession:

The Lord Jesus Christ gave His Spirit to His Apostles; they in turn laid their hands on those who would succeed them; and these again on others and these again on others; and so the sacred gift has been handed down to our present Bishops, who have appointed us as their assistants, and in some sense representatives.

Newman acknowledged the implication: 'We must necessarily consider none to be ordained  who have not been thus ordained.'2 His concern was to establish that authority to appoint bishops lay with the Church, not the Government.  Nevertheless by providing an alternative way of judging who was a true bishop it paved the way  for future disputes. The logic of the theory is clearly expressed in Carleton's The King's Highway, a classic anglo-catholic text:

The true reception of spiritual life, and the maintenance of it in us, are assured to us through valid sacraments; and the validity of the sacraments through valid priesthood; and the validity of the priesthood through valid ordination by a bishop who has received his power to ordain in direct and unbroken line from the apostles and from Christ.
Therefore a first requisite in every part of the Church is to have a valid episcopate. Where there are no true bishops, there can be no true priesthood, no real presence of the body and blood of Jesus in the holy Eucharist, no real setting forth on earth of the availing sacrifice, no ministry of sacramental reconciliation of penitent sinners, no sacramental maintaining or restoring of the eternal life. Where there are no bishops, there is no Church.3

This theology is echoed in recent writings by Forward in Faith. Thus Arthur Middleton argues in New Directions that 'Catholic means first of all the inner wholeness and integrity of the Church's life, and belongs, not to the phenomenal and empirical but to the noumenal and ontological plane.'

To the theory of sacramental validity Forward in Faith makes two additions. One is, of course, that sacramental validity fails whenever the priest or the bishop is a woman. The other is often described as the 'doctrine of taint': a bishop who in every other respect fits the criteria of 'sacramental assurance' would fail if he has ever ordained a woman to the priesthood. This additional obstacle to sacramental validity, over and above the others,4 is often judged the oddest part  of Forward in Faith's position. Elsewhere it has upheld the traditional catholic emphasis  on the objective validity of the sacraments regardless of the spiritual state of the minister. Here it seems to swing to the other extreme: critics complain that on this theory  a bishop's sacraments remain valid if he robs or even murders, but are permanently invalidated  if he ever ordains a woman.

These additions accentuate the significance of sacramental validity. The core claim is a radical distinction: valid sacraments provide divine grace needed by humans while invalid sacraments achieve nothing. Therefore 'sacramental assurance' is needed.

Reason and revelation

As a theology it is different in kind from the others described above. Both the mainstream view that women may be bishops and the conservative evangelical view that headship should be restricted to men are publicly based claims, open to examination and debate. The anglo-catholic theory of sacramental validity is not: it is a faith-claim without empirical support.

There is nothing unusual about such faith-claims in religious traditions. There is a long history of debate between 'natural' and 'revealed' theology, where the proponents of revelation claim that their doctrines and practices have been given directly by God and transcend all rational or empirical considerations. Within the Church of England, protestants and catholics alike often appeal to such reason-transcending revelations.

However, church unity is often threatened by competing revelation claims. Reason-based dialogue appealing to public criteria enables churches such as the Church of England to permit open debate without excluding dissidents, and to change over time in the light of any new consensus. Appeals to reason-transcending divine revelations, on the other hand, face individuals with a personal choice between accepting or rejecting any one revelation, knowing that to reject the revelation is to reject the raison d'être of that particular church. Churches committed to specific revelation-claims therefore characteristically depend on uniformity of belief and see themselves as voluntary societies of the like-minded with no obligation to accommodate dissidents. This in turn means that when differences of opinion emerge they produce schisms. The history of confessional protestant churches has witnessed to this schismatic tendency many times. The anglo-catholic theory of sacramental validity is of this type. Adherents make no claim to empirical evidence: they believe it true because of a revelation-claim. Theories of this type inevitably draw sharp dividing lines between insiders who accept the revelation and outsiders who do not.

The difference between the two systems is often misinterpreted. Atheists have often  accused religious belief of being entirely based on irrational belief-claims; and many Christians have agreed with them, dismissing more 'liberal' versions of Christianity as weaker. This is not the case: for the Church of England to declare at one time that it does not accept women bishops, and at a later time that it does, reveals a willingness to learn new insights; it does not reveal a lack of concern for religious truth. In no sense is it a weaker faith than that of opponents unwilling to alter inherited doctrines.

The effects of the Clause

It separates instead of keeping together

Modern Church is committed to maintaining the Church as open, tolerant and inclusive. It should (a) allow for the widest practicable range of theological opinions so that questions may be debated without fear of discrimination, and (b) have a coherent authority structure which protects freedom of opinion against those who would suppress it. Combining the two will inevitably mean that some will disagree with the Church's authority structure, but this is quite normal; we often belong to organisations without agreeing with all their procedures.

The Church should therefore welcome those who disagree with its stance on women bishops, just as it welcomes those who disagree with other aspects of its teaching. A healthy church is one where people who disagree with each other feel confident enough to sit on the same pew together, kneel at the altar rail together, and develop their faith by listening to each other. Clause 5(1)(c) is, however, designed to achieve the opposite: to provide alternative bishops, alternative priests and alternative congregations so that the opponents of women bishops can feel confident that their own sacraments and services are in no way connected to the rest of the Church.

It thus attempts to maintain a single confessional group within an otherwise open, non-confessional church. By its confessional nature it would inevitably function as an opposition to the rest of the Church, since its identity would be based on exalting its own distinctive revelation-claim above the more rational, public and developing theology of the mainstream Church, thus positively repudiating it. This has been the experience of Resolution C parishes since the 1993 Act providing for opponents of women priests. It may have been a satisfactory arrangement for them, to the extent that it enabled them to ignore the rest of the Church; but that achievement can hardly be called the maintenance of unity. In practice it was institutionalised schism, a schism which Clause 5(1)(c) would extend.

We therefore believe that if there is to be a permanent group repudiating the validity of the Church of England's sacraments, it should be independent of the Church of England, receiving no support from it and owing nothing to it. We suspect that the number of people who would leave the Church for this reason as a matter of conscience is far smaller than the number of Christians who have already decided to have nothing to do with an institution so determined to discriminate against women.

Legislating makes the separation permanent

According to the legislation approved by the dioceses, the diocesan bishop would be responsible for responding to Letters of Request from PCCs. In addition the Clause legally obliges the bishop to provide 'male bishops or male priests the exercise of ministry by whom is consistent with the theological convictions' of the PCC. This change has been welcomed by Forward in Faith:

For traditional catholics, that means bishops ordained into the historic episcopate as we understand it. The draft Measure now recognises that our position is one of legitimate theological conviction for which the Church of England must provide. This principle will be enshrined in law.5

There is a long tradition of Christians being committed to non-negotiable revelation-based theological commitments. In their dealings with other Christians they face two options. One is to modify the non-negotiable nature of their commitments, open themselves up to the contrasting views of others and draw on reason and evidence in the search for resolutions. The other is to refuse any compromise and keep themselves separate. What they cannot legitimately expect is that their refusal to compromise will oblige others to compromise with them. Yet this is what the opponents of women bishops are requesting and what the Clause would provide. While we accept the right of PCCs to develop, if they wish, revelation-based theological commitments which conflict with the mainstream teaching of the Church, we do not think there should be any legal entitlement to by-pass the Church's authority structure with their own alternative.

The Clause would maintain a permanent opposition group denying the Church's authority from within the Church itself. They would have full rights to influence the future direction of the Church even though they rejected its authority. If such a situation were to become permanent it would inevitably become a perpetual source of future tensions. Instead we think provision for opponents of women bishops should be treated as a local pastoral matter, not a matter for legislation.

Choosing one's bishop

Defenders of the clause argue that it only makes explicit what was intended anyway. The House of Bishops' Statement declares that 'the legislation now addresses the fact that for some parishes a male bishop or male priest is necessary but not sufficient'. The Statement from the Archbishops, published in response to the opposition, argues that 'it does not give parishes the right to "choose their own bishop" or insist that their bishop has a particular set of beliefs. It allows them to ask for episcopal ministry... only on the grounds of theological conviction about women's ordained ministry... it attempts to take seriously the fact that, as has been clear all along, simply providing any male bishop would not do justice to the theological convictions lying behind requests from some parishes.'

Thus it is being proposed that local church congregations should be empowered by law to reject the authority of their appointed diocesan bishop and opt into alternative oversight by a bishop they find theologically acceptable.

This principle was first introduced into the Church of England by the 1993 Act of Synod. This Act, while being perhaps the 'thin end of the wedge', remained a thin end in the sense that Resolution C parishes were permitted to opt into oversight by the Provincial Episcopal Visitor; no further options were provided. Clause 5(1)(c) would significantly widen the options. Despite the above denial that parishes would have the right to 'choose their own bishop', the options available to PCCs would certainly increase considerably and no limit is specified. The promoters of the motion have made it clear that their intention is simply to allow for anglo-catholics to request an anglo-catholic bishop and conservative evangelicals to request a conservative evangelical. This in itself would increase every PCC's episcopal options from two to three; but the intentions of the proponents would become irrelevant once the legislation was in force. What would count would be what the clause actually says. A parish would be able to object to a bishop who is a woman; or a man ordained by a woman; or a man consecrated by a woman; or a man consecrated by a man who also consecrates women; etc! We can be quite sure that demands of all these types would indeed be made, and from time to time there would be pressure to consecrate a man who would otherwise have been considered unsuitable. Furthermore, anybody with experience of PCCs will anticipate changes of theological conviction when Bishop X better fits the criteria but Bishop Y has a more agreeable personality.

The nature of episcopacy

'Simply providing any male bishop', now declared inadequate, has been normal practice since New Testament times. In Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy there is no process for parishes to seek and secure alternative episcopal oversight; nor was there in the Church of England before 1993. The proposed clause would not only make this change permanent, but would extend it by subordinating the bishop's role to the PCC's declared convictions.

The role of bishops has varied but the most persistent elements have been two. Firstly the bishop has been the chief representative of the Church within the diocese, with authority to administer the diocese and declare the Church's teaching within it. Secondly only bishops have had authority to ordain priests and consecrate other bishops.

With the 1993 Act Resolution C parishes were granted the legal right to reject the authority of their diocesan bishop with respect to both. The Clause would extend this right of rejection, thereby shifting ecclesial authority decisively away from bishops and towards PCCs. The Church of England would become a bit more like Baptist Churches, each of which is free to join or leave the Baptist Union as it sees fit.

Baptists have no bishops. If the Church of England is indeed to move in this direction  questions will increasingly arise as to why we need bishops at all. The current proposal stipulates that the only basis for requesting an alternative bishop would be opposition to women's ministry. However the direction of travel will be clear: the diocesan bishop's authority to administer the diocese, declare the Church's teaching and ordain priests will be subjected to formally authorised opposition from within the Church itself. Unless a consensus develops about a clear limiting principle, the trend is unlikely to stop there. Opponents of gay bishops have already seized on the precedent set by the 1993 Act to demand their own bishops and other lobbyists will no doubt do the same. If additional controversies over new issues add to the pressure for alternative episcopal oversight the authority of bishops is bound to decline. If the ministry of bishops is to depend on personal approval by each PCC, in the long run the bishop could end up becoming just one more diocesan officer.


We believe the Church of England needs to reaffirm its identity as an open, tolerant and inclusive church. It should:
  1. allow for the widest practicable range of theological opinions so that questions may be debated without fear of discrimination, and
  2. have a coherent authority structure which protects freedom of opinion against those who would suppress it and encourages communication between those of different persuasions.

Its inherited authority structure makes a bishop responsible for the administration of each diocese. As long as there is no proposal to abolish bishops or to abandon the diocesan structure, the legislation should retain the authority of bishops without any distinction between men and women. Any decision to limit the authority of bishops should be based on a consistent principle (e.g. greater accountability), not on special concessions to a specific lobby - least of all one which rejects  the Church's authority structure.

From this perspective our reasons for opposing Clause 5(1)(c) are as follows:
  1. It would allow PCCs to subordinate the Church of England's open, inclusive and developing theology to their own minority convictions on women's ministry.
  2. It would reinforce this subordination by giving dissident PCCs a legal right to demand alternative episcopal oversight.
  3. Instead of encouraging Anglicans of diverse views to worship with each other and learn from each other, it would encourage division into separate parishes.
  4. It would not only continue, but expand, the present situation in which the Church is helping to maintain within itself a group of churches whose primary feature is its opposition to the main body.
  5. By granting legal rights to PCCs to override the wishes of their bishops it would ensure that such opposition becomes permanent, and therefore a continual source of tension.
  6. The provision of exemption from the Church's authority structure in the 1993 Act of Synod has already set an unfortunate precedent, inviting campaigners on other issues to demand alternative episcopal oversight. If maintained, the exemption would inevitably encourage similar demands in future.
  7. It would weaken the authority of bishops, not out of a considered decision to do so but as a by-product of a dispute about women's ministry.

Jonathan Clatworthy on behalf of Modern Church June 2012


  1. Chapman, Mark, Anglo-Catholics and the Myths of Episcopacy, Liverpool: Modern Churchpeople's Union, 2006, p. 9.
  2. Chapman, Anglo-Catholics, pp. 1-2.
  3. The King's Highway, Norwich: Canterbury Press, 1940 edition, pp. 124-125. First published in 1924, this book's fourth and last edition, published in 1940, has been reprinted eight times.
  4. This is one of Forward in Faith's Agreed Statements:
    'The priests of a diocese act on behalf of its bishop, standing in his place. Every eucharist celebrated by his authority is his eucharist. The priests of a diocese act as alternates one of another because all act on behalf of the one bishop. It follows that if that bishop introduces into his college of priests those whose orders are in doubt, this fellowship and the guarantees it mediates are fractured. A priest who cannot in conscience recognize the orders of one ordained by his bishop cannot in conscience act on behalf of that person or of that bishop. He is obliged to seek fellowship with a bishop whom he can with integrity represent, and in whose college of priests he can wholeheartedly participate. A diocese is not merely an administrative territorial unit; it is also, properly and necessarily, a fellowship based on doctrinal agreement and sacramental assurance.'
  5. Forward in Faith responds to House of Bishops on changes to draft legislation

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and (at the time of writing) was Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.

Theological objections to women bishops

by Jonathan Clatworthy, November 2012

Are they any good?

Astonishment all round. How could anybody in this day and age think it acceptable to restrict the job of bishop to men? So lamented the Government and pretty well all the mass media, accurately reflecting the mood in the country as a whole. To discriminate against women in this crass way is to violate all our values.

That's the point, reply the objectors. We have different values. Society's values  are precisely what we are resisting. We have theological reasons for objecting  to women bishops. So argue two groups of people: conservative evangelicals and conservative catholics.

Conservative evangelicals

For conservative evangelicals they are about the authority of the bible. The bible (that is, Paul) says that headship belongs to men, not women. Bishops are in positions of leadership. So we must not have women bishops. End of story.

To others this is too absurd to be credible. So Paul said it, in letters to churches, nearly 2000 years ago. He did not say it applied in all places for all time; and even if he had, why can we not just disagree with him?

Because, they tell us, it is in the bible. The bible is The Supreme Authority. (Or, The Supreme Authority in 'matters of faith', depending on who you ask.) This belief dates from the 16th century. Paul certainly would not have agreed with it; he played fast and loose with the scriptures available in his day. In the early Reformation, though, it became the main justification for rejecting the pope's authority. The point was that whatever we mere humans think, the bible has greater authority; so Christians should always subordinate their own thinking to what the bible says.

But wasn't the bible written by human beings like you and me? It was indeed humans who held the pen and scratched onto the papyrus or the codices; but perhaps the words were the words of God? Perhaps God switched off the brains of the human authors and made them do automatic writing? Bizarre though it seems to others, ever since Calvin tackled the question in the 16th century biblical literalists have produced a colossal literature debating just how God made sure the texts ended up being exactly what God wanted. None of the many theories adequately explain how the bible has turned out the way it has. Even if one of them did, it would only be a theory. There is not a shred of evidence that any biblical text was written in a different manner from other texts.

Biblical scholars think they were written by human beings like you and me. People engaged with the issues of the day, committed to doing God's will and disagreeing with their opponents. Later generations thought they were right, and included those writings among their scriptures. It was later again that others developed the theories of divine authority which characterise conservative evangelical thought. Most Christians do not go so far: we value the Bible greatly, draw inspiration from its insights and see it as in some sense inspired, but we also read it in the light of developing tradition, our cultural contexts and our own experience. We therefore retain the right to make different judgements about different texts.

So while conservative evangelicals claim that the bible overrides what society thinks, the rest of us consider it right and proper to judge for ourselves whether women should be bishops here and now. In Paul's society it was socially unacceptable for women to be in positions of leadership. In our society it is socially unacceptable to discriminate against women. Of course society does sometimes develop anti-Christian values, but in this instance there is nothing intrinsically anti-Christian about women bishops. Unless, of course, you buy into that theory that the bible overrides all human reason.

Suppose it does. Suppose the bible really was written by God, word for word, to tell us how to live because our brains are incapable of working it out for ourselves. If that is true, should we not obey every biblical command? And since the number of commands in the bible is well into four figures, would this not be a major task? Precious few Christians today even know what they all are, let alone seriously attempt to obey them. For a short while in the 16th century the Anabaptists tried, but they soon gave up. It was just impossible.

Given that conservative evangelicals do not attempt to obey all the bible's commands, why the selectivity? Why pick out the 'headship' texts as obligatory, while ignoring most of the others? In the absence of a convincing explanation it seems that their theological position is not the real driving force behind their opposition to women bishops. There must be some other unspoken agenda.

Conservative catholics

The conservative catholic reasons for opposing women bishops are basically the same as their reasons for opposing women priests. Many people find them difficult to understand because the central notion of 'sacramental assurance' is unfamiliar outside this theological tradition.

It was developed by the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century. In Anglicanism before then, and in Roman Catholicism still today, the emphasis is on the authority of church leaders to appoint bishops. In the Church of England this authority lay for a long time with the monarch: if Elizabeth I had appointed some women bishops, bishops they would have been.

Put simply, the theory of sacramental assurance is that the sacraments provide real benefits provided that they are administered correctly. The bread and wine of Communion become the body and blood of Christ if and only if a validly consecrated priest performs a valid liturgy. Similarly in the ordination of a priest and the consecration of a bishop the Holy Spirit imparts a grace which can then be effective. According to the theory these sacraments only work if every step of the process is valid.

Opponents and supporters alike often describe this as a form of magic. Sociologists distinguish between religion and magic by usually drawing the line at automatic efficacy. In religion one is appealing to a free divine agent under no obligation to respond. What matters is the quality of the relationship with God. In magic on the other hand natural processes are being manipulated, so that the effect is assured provided that the words and actions are performed exactly, and one of the precise requirements is that bishops must be male. The word 'magic', though often used, may sound dismissive. An alternative analogy would be with technology. If you want to build your own car you will need to follow the instructions exactly. One error and it may not move.

This is a very brief summary of an idea which has been extensively analysed and debated. It should however suffice to reveal its main difficulty. Magic and technology both aim to manipulate natural processes in order to produce visible effects. In the case of the sacraments the effects are invisible. This makes it possible to believe there is no effect at all: the bread and wine do not suddenly change their nature so as to give communicants a distinctive sacramental benefit, validly ordained priests do not cause this change by reciting valid prayers and a valid consecration of a bishop does not itself bestow on the recipient the gift of validly ordaining priests.

Here the theological argument is that God does certain things in certain ways. Again, however, there is no empirical evidence for it. People who receive Communion may, of course, live happier and better lives than others, but this could be for many reasons: what is in question is whether real benefits are given when, and only when, the bread and wine are validly consecrated by a validly ordained priest.

Counter-cultural theology

Both sets of opponents therefore offer theological arguments. Both arguments appeal to divine intervention: in one case to establish the text of the bible and in the other to change the sacramental nature of priests and bishops.

It is this strained appeal to divine intervention which makes them seem so incredible to modern ears. Yet that is the point: those who believe in them think modern society is at fault. They can distinguish themselves not only from supporters of women bishops, but also from modern western society in general. It is a deliberately counter-cultural stance, opposing what everybody else thinks.

This makes the 'conservative' positions newer than they seem. The conservative evangelical appeal to the divine authorship of the bible stems from the sixteenth century, when society in general believed in divine intervention; over a century later Isaac Newton still argued that God intervened in the solar system from time to time to push the planets back into orbit. Similarly, the Oxford Movement's appeal to invisible sacramental grace proved popular because at the time many people longed for signs of a rich spiritual realm functioning independently of the physical world; it was the century in which ghosts and clairvoyants regained popularity. Like every religious doctrine, these beliefs began at a time when they seemed to make sense and met a need. To hang onto them now, when they neither make sense nor meet any needs, is to do something new with them: to turn them into acts of defiance.

Religion at its best does the opposite. It helps us reflect on who made us, for what purpose, and how therefore we should live our lives. It gives us resources to help us with our reflecting, allowing us to respond to different circumstances by doing things differently in different times and places.

Religion at its best is creative and exciting.

Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and (at the time of writing) was Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.

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