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Vatican casts skeptical eye on Anglican women clergy.

OXFPORD, England -- The British press unanimously applauded the Church of England's decision to ordain women, seeing it as the collapse of the last male bastion. Rupert Murdoch's down-market Sun hailed this triumph for "vicars in knickers."

The official Vatican response was very different and evidently had been prepared well in advance. The spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls, an Opus Dei medical doctor and ex-bullfighter, declared that the decision by the Anglican Communion to ordain women constituted a new and grave obstacle to the entire process of reconciliation."

There are two things wrong with that statement. The disputed decision came not from the Anglican Communion but from the Church of England. The Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, which is still in business, is likewise with the entire Anglican Communion and not just with the Church of England.

The second Vatican error was to say that this is a "new" obstacle to rapprochement: for several provinces of the Anglican Communion have been ordaining women for years, and two of them -- the United States and New Zealand -- already have women bishops.

The Vatican can hardly claim to be surprised. On Feb. 10, 1976, Donald Coggan, then archbishop of Canterbury, wrote Pope Paul VI on the topic.

"We believe," Coggan wrote, "that unity will be achieved within a diversity of legitimate traditions because the Holy Spirit has never ceased to be active within the local churches throughout the world."

Paul replied on March 23, 1976, expressing his sadness at "this new obstacle on the way to reconciliation" -- almost exactly the phrase used in 1992.

That sad but courteous exchange did not prevent pope and archbishop from meeting the following year and declaring that the three ARCIC statements on baptism, ministry and authority had "without compromise ... discovered theological convergences as unexpected as they were happy."

They were to go forward on the basis of common traditions shared by both churches. This shows that the Anglican Communion has a special relationship with the Church of Rome. By opening the Anglican Centre in Rome in 1962 and sending a strong team of observers to the second Vatican Council (1962-65), the Anglican Communion secured recognition as a church with a distinctive personality. Manifestly not an Orthodox church, it also differed from the Reformation churches in that "it retained certain Catholic features." Among them was the threefold ministry of bishop, priest and deacon.

Many synod members emphasized that point. The Church of England does not have a theology of its own, still less a faith of its own. Geoffrey Fisher, former Archbishop of Canterbury, was quoted as saying that "an Anglican priest is ordained not for the Church of England but for the church tout court."

John Selwyn Gummer, minister of agriculture, made the same point from another angle. Of Evangelical background, he has come to understand the "Catholic faith" of the Church of England. The Reformation removed the accretions of late medieval Catholicism. The church that emerged was both Catholic and reformed. The spots and wrinkles were removed from the face. But it was the same face.

However, the more one emphasizes the Catholic nature of the Anglican Communion and its grounding in scripture and the councils of the church, the stronger the argument against going it alone and flouting the clearly expressed position of the Roman Catholic Church.

Opponents argued that the Church of England should not ordain women as priests until the Church of Rome did. The synod was incompetent, being little more than a provincial council masquerading as an ecumenical council.

But there were two reasons why playing the Roman card proved ineffectual. There so far is no prospect of an ecumenical council that would tackle the question of women's ordination. To wait for such a council would perhaps be to delay for centuries.

Again, the ecumenical understanding achieved in the three ARCIC reports on Eucharist, ministry and authority that seemed so promising, was rudely rejected by the Vatican last December. The official reply to ARCIC came from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, headed by the Bavarian Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

It showed no understanding of the method of ecumenical dialogue. ARCIC produced reports that were consonant with the faith of both churches. The Vatican wanted identity with Catholic doctrine, an unreasonable demand. The Vatican wants unity -- but on its own terms.

George Carey's first visit to Rome as archbishop of Canterbury in the spring confirmed that Rome had lost interest in ecumenism at least as it was lived in the heyday of ARCIC in the 1970s. Anglicans could be forgiven for thinking that if nothing were to be gained by deferring to Rome, then Rome need not be deferred to.

One of the most important speeches at the synod was that of Mark Santer, bishop of Birmingham and cochairman of ARCIC. No one is more committed to improving relations with Rome than Santer.

Yet in coming to its decision, he said, the Church of England had to bear in mind all fellow Christians and not just those in communion with Rome. Above all, they had to show concern for what their fellow Anglicans were doing throughout the world, and they were ordaining women.

Stephen Sykes, bishop of Ely, added a gloss to the argument from Rome. He had been present in Louvain in September 1990 at the Concilium conference. There he was "besieged by Roman Catholic theologians urging me to support this legislation." Nor were they offbeat mavericks, he said -- a claim Ratzinger would dispute.

But the point remains valid. Many Catholic theologians do not believe the question of women priests has been settled for all time. It remains an open question, even if the present discipline goes against it.

Sykes quoted Belgian Jesuit theologian Piet Fransen, writing in 1969 in Sacramentum Mundi, a synthesis of post-conciliar theology. Who was to be ordained, said Fransen, was "not a matter of theological principle but of ecclesiastical economy." The church, in other words, could give itself the ministers it required, as new needs and the call of the Holy Spirit demanded.

The synod's case for the ordination of women ultimately rested on the principle "What is the Spirit saying to the churches today?" There is indeed a tradition of not ordaining women, but that is not the same as a tradition against the ordination of women. The question simply had not arisen until modern times.

One can picture the Church of England's and the Anglican Communion's acting as an experimental research unit within the universal church. If the experiment succeeds, as it surely will, then Rome will have to face the question with more honesty than it has hitherto displayed.

Perhaps that is what makes the Vatican so testy. It is also loath to accept the synodical method of decision-making that allows such a significant place to the laity.

There is a great contrast between the Anglican synod and the Roman synod, comprising exclusively bishops and so far not allowed to decide anything.

Two friendly warnings are in order, one for the majority (it is better not to call them victors) and another for the minority. It would be a great pity if the emphasis on women's call to the priesthood obscured the call to lay ministries that already are open to women.

Some of those who feel called to ministry can fulfill it in the Roman Catholic Church. A purely clerical ministry would not help evangelization. The sight of all those rejoicing women in dog collars did not inspire confidence.

A word for those of the minority who threaten to "go over to Rome." It may be bluff, it may be conscience. One-issue resentment is not a good basis for such a step and to import factionalism and party spirit into the Church of Rome would be unwelcome.

My own local vicar in Oxford, Martin Flatman, pastor of St. Mary and St. John, already has announced his move Romeward. But he had clearly signaled this in advance, and his wife, Frances, already had preceded him.

The fact that we all care so much about what happens in another church is itself a sign of ecumenical progress. If one hurts, all are hurt; if one rejoices, all rejoice. It is in sharing one another's burdens that we fulfill the law of Christ.

One can only speculate about the answer the Vatican bad ready in case of a "no" vote. Presumably it would have congratulated the minority on saving the Anglican Communion from catastrophe. That would have poisoned the atmosphere still more.

One of the arguments against accepting artificial birth control by Jesuit Father John J. Ford in the late 1960s was that it would mean accepting that the Holy Spirit had been with the Lambeth Conference of 1930 rather than with Pius XI and Casti Connubii in 1931.

In a polemical age, that consideration might have counted. But in the ecumenical age, it is no longer a knockout argument.
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Author:Hebblethwaite, Peter
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Date:Dec 4, 1992
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