Church of England’s Impending Ordination of Women Bishops Poses Ecumenical Challenge

The Pope and the archbishop of Canterbury emphasized areas where their churches can work together when they met last month, but progress towards future unity appears blocked.

Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury joins a crowd of hundreds of Church of England women priests on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, prior to a special service on May 3 celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women.
Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury joins a crowd of hundreds of Church of England women priests on the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, prior to a special service on May 3 celebrating the 20th anniversary of the ordination of women. (photo: Mary Turner/Getty Images)

LONDON — In a sign of the current good relations between the Catholic Church and the Church of England, the meeting at the Vatican on June 16 between Pope Francis and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby was warm — but clouds still loom over the prospect of any unity between the two churches in the foreseeable future.

Pope Francis emphasized the ways in which Catholics and Anglicans can work together, highlighting “the effort to achieve greater social justice, to build an economic system that is at the service of man and promotes the common good. Among our tasks as witnesses to the love of Christ is that of giving a voice to the cry of the poor, so that they are not abandoned to the laws of an economy that seems at times to treat people as mere consumers.”

These sentiments were echoed by Archbishop Welby, who said Christians must “love, above all, those tossed aside — even whole nations — by the present crises around the world.”

Yet unspoken was a decision the Church of England is expected to take this month that would seriously damage the prospect of any future unity between the Catholic Church and the Worldwide Anglican Communion.

It is a near certainty that the Church of England’s General Synod, taking place in York July 11-15, will see the Anglicans push ahead with the creation of women bishops.

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.”

Speaking to the Register, Father Tony Currer, secretary to the Anglican and Methodist dialogues at the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, said that while the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) has made great strides in addressing theological differences, two issues have emerged “which make progress towards full visible unity extremely difficult.”

“The first concerns the ordination of women; the second is that of human sexuality and ethical teaching,” he commented. “It has to be admitted that it is extremely difficult to see a way forward on these issues at the moment.”

Father Currer added that the Church’s dialogue is with the whole Anglican Communion, not only the Church of England. Many elements of that communion are acting similarly to the Church of England on these issues, he said, “which constitutes a very significant obstacle to the full visible unity that we continue to seek.”


Anglican Perspective

Serenhedd James, visiting tutor in ecclesiastical history at the University of Oxford’s St. Stephen’s House — an Anglican theological foundation in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England — told the Register, “The admission of women to the historic episcopate in the Church of England will, no doubt, make ecumenical conversations more difficult.”

He noted the same caveat as Father Currer: that women bishops already minister elsewhere in the Anglican Communion, but maintained that the Church of England’s move will not necessarily derail the ecumenical dialogue, “although it may make it harder to find common ground on sacramental issues, especially as those women then begin to ordain others.”

Instead, James said he saw more significant problems likely to emerge over moral issues. Although he said there is “a good deal of common ground” between Catholics and Anglicans, he commented that “it is no secret that there is dissent in the Church of England on a number of issues among members of both clergy and laity — most recently and vocally on the matter of same-sex marriage — and Rome knows this.”

He added, “Should the House of Bishops at some point in the future depart from traditional church teaching on the dignity of human life — for example on issues like abortion on demand and euthanasia — then that would no doubt be viewed as a problem.”


Areas of Shared Commitment

Nevertheless, all involved in such ecumenical discussions are keen to stress that the likely episcopal ordination of women does not mean a total breakdown in relations between the Catholic Church and the Church of England.

Professor Paul Murray, dean of Durham University’s Center for Catholic Studies, who was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to ARCIC and as a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, told the Register that Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby “share a passionate commitment to the social gospel in the face of such contemporary issues as human trafficking.”

He added, “With Pope Francis and Archbishop Welby, the Catholic and Anglican communions are both blessed with charismatic evangelists. Even recognizing the significant theological and ecclesial difficulties that continue between the traditions around such sensitive matters as ordained female ministry, this represents the most remarkable moment of opportunity for real progress in the relations between Catholicism and Anglicanism.”

James, who is also a regular contributor to the Anglican newspaper Church Times, concurred. “It’s clear that the two churches are willing to work together on domestic issues: the eradication of poverty, to take one example. The image of the cardinal-archbishop of Westminster standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the archbishop of Canterbury on social issues is a powerful one.”

Other areas where the two churches are already working together are in attempts to tackle human trafficking and campaigning for freedom of worship in the face of religious extremism.

Thus, although the ordination of women bishops in the Church of England may prove an insurmountable hurdle to full reunion, a future relationship based on practical cooperation remains. It may not be a fully corporate union, but the potential for working together as a united Christian voice in an indifferent, sometimes hostile, secular environment is significant, according to participants in the Catholic-Anglican dialogue.

Said Father Currer, “We are committed to continue to talk to one another and to explore our differences in charity. To do anything else would be to give up on Christian unity and to allow ourselves to simply grow apart. As St. Pope John Paul II taught in Ut Unum Sint, this is not a legitimate option for a Christian, because ‘to believe in Christ means to desire unity.’”

Register correspondent James Kelly writes from London.