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.