After ‘The Vote’

It’s been 15 years since the Church of England began ordaining women as priests. A look at the state of the Anglican church today.

(photo: CNS Photo)

CANTERBURY — As the Church of England marks 15 years since the General Synod voted to ordain women, it faces new tensions — and the prospect of further major divisions in its ranks.

Topics now under discussion in the Worldwide Anglican Communion include acceptance of homosexual “marriage,” and in England a debate is brewing about creating women bishops.

Bishop Jeffrey Steenson of Rio Grande, N.M., has become the latest prominent Anglican to announce his resignation — and his conversion to the Catholic Church.

“My conscience is deeply troubled about where the Episcopal Church is heading, and this has become a crisis for me because of my ordination vow to uphold its doctrine, discipline and worship,” he said in a letter to his diocese. He joins two other American Anglican bishops who have already become Catholics: Daniel Herzog of Albany, N.Y., and Clarence Pope of Fort Worth, Texas.

The Church of England’s General Synod, meeting in London in November 1992, voted for women’s ordination by a narrow margin, and it was immediately followed by the exodus of a number of Anglican clergy, many of whom went on to become Catholic priests. They included five Anglican bishops, among them retired Bishop Graham Leonard of London.

Essentially, the question was whether the Church of England was part of the Catholic Church — going right back to the apostles with an unchanging doctrine and valid sacraments — or not. That a group in London could change something so fundamental as a male priesthood, which dates back to Christ’s own choice of men as his apostles, raised wider issues about the nature of the Anglican Communion itself.

“We come as supplicants,” now-Msgr. Leonard wrote, announcing his decision to become a Catholic in the wake of the Synod vote. He and those who were with him in looking to Rome made it clear that they expected no concessions or special treatment; they just wanted to be part of the Church.

Following meetings with Cardinal Basil Hume, then archbishop of Westminster, those who wished to be considered for the priesthood — including married men — were invited to apply, and training was arranged. Pope John Paul II urged the English bishops to “be generous.”

Leonard was ordained and is today patron of the Continuity Movement, which works for the conversion of England to the Catholic faith.

Also ordained was Rev. Peter Geldard, who as chairman of the (Anglican) Church Union, had been the foremost spokesman opposing the ordination of women. He had always believed that it was possible to be a Catholic within the Church of England. After the vote, he said, “scales fell from my eyes. Everything had to be seen in a new light.”

Today, he is a Catholic priest and chaplain at the University of Kent in Canterbury. Some 35 members of his former parish also became Catholics. When he was ordained, he found peace.

“After being in the media spotlight during the years of Anglican campaigning, I dropped quietly from view to take up my new life as chaplain to the university — which I loved. There is so much work to do, and it is so satisfying.”

He said he has no regrets and does not look back.

Others decided to remain in the Church of England. Canon Nicholas Turner is editor of New Directions, magazine of “Forward in Faith” Anglicans who do not accept women priests. Special arrangements were made for them by the Anglican authorities, including the appointment of two Anglican Bishops whom they can use for confirmations and other ceremonies so that they do not need to be involved with those who support women’s ordination.

“Being faithful is most important to us,” he said. “It matters that we accept and understand and reinvigorate those aspects of the Church of England that have nurtured us and our country: the Book of Common Prayer, to take a most obvious example. Our hope is that we can be found a home within our home so that the debate between faithfulness and inclusion can continue.”

Any decision about women bishops in England will not take place for at least three years. If the Synod votes for the move, it will certainly mean a crisis of conscience for those who believe that it is simply theologically wrong. But it seems unlikely that there will be a fresh exodus as there was in 1992.

“What matters is that we should remain part of the Church of England after any decision to ordain women bishops, so that the period of reception may continue,” said Turner. “Some issues are complex and cannot be resolved in a single generation.”

He is not optimistic about the immediate future: “What do we hope for?” he said. “Not a great deal, it is true. But the prospect of defeat is not sufficient excuse for running away.”

The Catholic Church in Britain has benefited from the arrival of a number of energetic, dedicated and well-trained men who have brought zeal and commitment to their task.

Father Stephen Langridge, director of vocations for the Diocese of Southwark, which has received a large number of convert clergymen, said the former Anglicans have “greatly enriched the life of parishes” in the diocese.

Said Father Langridge: “They are generally men of solid intellectual foundation, developed prayer life and a great love for, and commitment to, the Church.”

Joanna Bogle writes

from London.