The Truth about What Mary Did and the Right to Bear Witness

By Hebblethwaite, Peter | National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 1994 | Go to article overview

The Truth about What Mary Did and the Right to Bear Witness


Hebblethwaite, Peter, National Catholic Reporter


OXFORD, England - Saturday by Saturday more and more women are being ordained in the Church of England. April 23 St. George's Day, 35 were ordained in Coventry Cathedral in central England. German bombs destroyed the old redbrick cathedral one night in November 1940.

It ruined walls remain and provide the entrance to Britain's first postwar cathedral, a magnificent open space for workship adorned with brilliant stained glass and a huge tapestry by Graham Sutherland.

In all, 1200 women will be ordained by the time summer is through. Never again after this year will women be ordained separately from men. So these liturgies are especially moving, not only for their novelty but for their unrepeatability.

The words of Isaiah 61, quoted by Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:18-19), struck home with special force: "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners."

Even more apt was the reading from John's resurrection narrative (Jn 20:11-23) where Jesus tells Mary Magdalene to "go to my brothers and say to them, |I am ascending to my father and your father, to my God and to your God,'"

So off went Mary Magdalene "and announced to the disciples, |I have seen the Lord'; and she told them that he had said these things to her." The first witness of the resurrection is a woman. To bear witness to the resurrection is the main task of any ministry in the church.

Next came an ad hoc innovation. After reading out the names - Celia, Barbara and Daphne headed the list - the bishop of Coventry, Simon Barrington-Ward, put the ritual question: "Is it therefore your will that they should be ordained?" The usual answer is a halfhearted "It is." But the Church of England is fair-minded, and the bishops have devised the doctrine of the "two integrities." Both the view that the women really are ordained and the view that they are not, have an equal right to find a hearing. So at this point an objector stepped forward.

The Rev. Graeme Hands declared that "this is not the action of the whole church, nor is the general synod of the Church of England empowered to authorize it."

He further stated his belief that "the ordination of women to the priesthood is contrary to the witness of scripture and the tradition of the universal church." He added that he would be unable, in conscience, "to accept the orders of the women you ordain or the sacraments celebrated by them." His three minutes were soon up.

This was not a spontaneous intervention. It had been fixed in advance. It had a ritual quality - like going through the motions.

Barrington-Ward replied in the same ritual style: "Our Lord Jesus Christ promised to lead us into all truth. …

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