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Hallo again to all.

A Jesuit and a Dissenter undermine the ChurchAnglican news for the last month has been dominated by discussion of the Church of England's General Synod deliberations on legislation about women bishops. (For latecomers, the Anglican Communion has for almost half a century been committed to a process of 'open reception' with regard to the ordained ministry of women in our part of the Church.)

There are many interesting dimensions of this ongoing process, which has taken place in the twinkling of an eye in the long view of church history.

At present, it is possible for women to be ordained to the priesthood in 28 of the 38 provinces of our communion. Three provinces allow only the diaconate to women. Six provinces allow no ordination of women to any ministerial order. Seventeen provinces of the 38 allow women bishops, but only four provinces actually have women bishops. These numbers will shift slightly very soon as the Church of England joins Canada, the United States, Australia, and Aotearoa-New-Zealand-and-Polynesia. (For our part, we have always been confused that there could be any debate about women as bishops once it was decided that women should be deacons—traditional Anglican theology acknowledges a difference of opinion about whether there are two formal dominical sacraments or seven common ecclesial sacraments, but in either formulation there is only one sacrament of holy order.)

In North America, women's ordination—at first canonically illegal—has been practiced in the Episcopal Church USA for some 38 years and in the Anglican Church of Canada for 36 years. We have no interest in impugning the official opinion of the Anglican Communion that both proponents and opponents of women's ordination are loyal Anglicans. And yet we wonder if some aspects of the North American experience of the ordained ministry of women, especially in the 23 years since 1989 when a woman was first consecrated there as a bishop, might prove helpful to the good people of the CofE as they make their momentous decisions going forward. The actual lived and human consequences of pitfalls in this connection are quite significant.

Until just a few years ago, there were a handful of dioceses in the Episcopal Church USA where women were not ordained or licensed in ministerial capacities. The bishops of these dioceses became, in the minds of some, the last surviving fonts of sacramental validity. The special touch in ordination by these bishops became so important for some ordinands that they were willing to be reordained privately by such men—even when the only supposed 'defect' in their ordinations was that they had been originally ordained by a male bishop who believed in the ordination of women. This is the squeezed-out-toothpaste theory of intention in holy orders, it being nigh impossible to put dentifrice back in its tube once it has escaped. This situation persisted until well into the current century; in the early church, it had a different name, which was Donatism.

In still other parishes and dioceses, opposition to or support of women's ordination became the sole shibboleth of orthodoxy—the all-consuming and ministry-hindering obsession it remains in some places to this day. If a bishop was opposed to women's ordination, and an ordinand was in favour of it—or worse still, a woman—the ordinand had no access to ordained ministry and so became a 'refugee' in a more likeminded diocese. If a bishop was in favour of women's ordination, and an ordinand was not, another set of red flags, closed doors, and internal exile began. The degree of ecclesiastical dislocation experienced by priests and people on both sides of these issues has still not been addressed adequately or in constructive and healing ways.

And there is a priest in Boswash (where else?) who compiles with great care each year a list from the Clerical Directory of the men ordained to the diaconate or priesthood by women bishops—since 1989, according to this reasoning, one cannot tell just by the gender of a cleric whether he or she has been ordained by a valid bishop. To protect against the unwitting reception of an invalidly confected eucharist, one needs an apophatic list of who is not safe in order to know by process of elimination who is safe.

We hope and trust that none of this sounds like the healthy behaviour of healthy people in a healthy church body. Our curiosity this week is about whether the Church of England's bishops and synod will learn from the flaws and snags experienced by younger sibling churches in recent decades. It is meet and right so to do with such changes and chances on the horizon.

See you next week.

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12 February 2012
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