Church of England’s Approval of Women Bishops ‘Obstacle’ to Christian Unity

Archbishop Longley commented on behalf of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, following the July 14 decision.

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (l) and Archbishop of York John Sentamu take questions at a July 14 press conference in York, England.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (l) and Archbishop of York John Sentamu take questions at a July 14 press conference in York, England. (photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

LONDON — The Church of England’s decision Monday to ordain women as bishops is “a further obstacle” on the path to Christian unity, several Catholic leaders have said.

Archbishop Bernard Longley of Birmingham, chairman of the dialogue and unity department of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, said in a July 14 statement the Church’s goal of ecumenical dialogue is “full, visible ecclesial communion.””

“Such full ecclesial communion embraces full communion in the episcopal office,” Archbishop Longley said.

“The decision of the Church of England to admit women to the episcopate therefore sadly places a further obstacle on the path to this unity between us.”

The Church of England’s General Synod voted July 14 to allow women to be ordained as bishops. The synod’s House of Bishops voted in favor 37-2, with one abstention; the House of Clergy voted 172-25, with four abstentions; and the House of Laity voted 152-45, with five abstentions.

A 2012 vote on the same topic had majority support among clergy and bishops but was blocked in the House of Laity.

Anglican Archbishops Justin Welby of Canterbury and John Sentamu of York supported the change, as did Prime Minister David Cameron. Because the Church of England is the established church in England and Wales, the vote must also be approved by parliament.

The Church of England said its first female bishop could be appointed by the end of the year. There are already women bishops in Anglican branches in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

However, the decision could increase tensions with some members of the Anglican Communion who reject the ordination of women bishops, as well as hinder relations with the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Churches.

During his tenure as president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper commented in 2006 that such a move would “call into question what was recognized by the Second Vatican Council (Unitatis Redintegratio, 13), that the Anglican Communion occupied ‘a special place’ among churches and ecclesial communities of the West.” Cardinal Kasper warned that “restoration of full church communion … would realistically no longer exist following the introduction of the ordination of women to episcopal office.”


Pastoral Provision

Archbishop Longley voiced appreciation for the Church of England’s pastoral provision for Anglicans who “continue to hold to the historic understanding of the episcopate”; the provision allows congregations with objections to seek a male alternative bishop if a woman bishop is appointed.

He added the Church is still dedicated to ecumenical dialogue with the Church of England.

“At this difficult moment, we affirm again the significant ecumenical progress which has been made in the decades since the Second Vatican Council and the development of firm and lasting friendships between our communities.”

Msgr. Keith Newton, head of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, said in a July 15 statement that the Church of England action is the “next logical step” following the Church of England’s 1992 vote to allow the ordination of women priests.

“What is undeniable is that both developments make harder the position of those within the Church of England who still long for corporate unity with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches,” Msgr. Newton said.

The personal ordinariate that Msgr. Newton leads is a structure established under the impetus of Benedict XVI, which allowed for communities of Anglicans to join the Church while also retaining some of the patrimony of their Anglican heritage.

Msgr. Newton said Benedict’s establishment of the ordinariates for Anglicans responded to “repeated requests from Anglicans who longed for unity with the Catholic Church. It was a prophetic and generous ecumenical gesture because it demonstrated the possibility of unity of faith with diversity of expression.”

The Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham’s groups across England and Wales will hold an exploration day on Sept. 6 to make the ordinariate more widely known, especially to those who are not members but are interested in its vision. The ordinariate says its “Called to Be One” event is “a major evangelization initiative.”