The Church of England: Old Sins and New Doctrines

Article excerpt

When the Church of England's governing body voted in November 1991 to ordain women as priests it was said that the decision would bring about earth-shattering changes in England's religious life. The least of these would be the loss of between 3,000 to 4,000 priests, approximately a third of the clergy. With them an untold number of laymen would leave and, if Rome gave her consent, a transitional Anglican-Catholic rite could be set up within the English Catholic Church as a haven for those who left, but who still wished to retain their 'Anglican identity' within the Catholic Church. The growing rapprochement with the Catholic Church would be ended and the decision would start a train of radical changes that would rapidly make the Church of England unrecognisable. None of this has happened and some might say that the only thing the Synod's decision has produced is a variety of books which will be noted here. This would be wrong for there has been a revolution, however quiet.

The latest figures show that 1,380 women have been ordained to the priesthood of whom 827 are full time ministers. Only 215 priests have left at a financial cost to the Church of [pounds]1,900,000. In addition to these 215, nineteen more are about to leave while 882 have asked for information about the compensation available. If all do leave the grand total would be 1,116. While we might say that the operation so far is something of a 'tit-for-tat' the predicted exodus has not taken place. Part of the explanation lies in what some see as the Roman Catholic Church's less than welcoming attitude towards Anglican priests and part, in the financial arrangements made to compensate priests who leave. These are complicated but in essence a priest gets nothing, while losing his home and his livelihood, unless he has been in the priesthood for a specific number of years. This means that those who wish to leave but who are married and with a family will leave over a period of time. It is not surprising that those who have left have a disproportionate number of older men among them.

There have been some 'defections' large enough to warrant attention in the national press. The Duchess of Kent, the wife of the Queen's cousin, is the first member of the Royal Family to become a Catholic since, I suppose, Queen Victoria's grand-daughter, Princess Victoria Eugenie, who did so when marrying the Spanish King, Alfonso XIII, in 1906. Three retired Bishops, the most famous of whom is the former Bishop of London, the Rt. Rev. Graham Leonard, have left. Two members of the Government (both from prominent clerical families), John Selwyn Gummer and Ann Widdicombe, as well as the editor of The Sunday Telegraph have joined the Catholic Church. It is not so much the quantity of laity who are leaving, but rather the quality. For example at the best known Anglo-Catholic Church in Oxford, the choir and church-wardens have resigned and the three lay people who devoted hours every week to the Church have left. One was given a box of chocolates by the vicar.

Yet one of the major predictions made by opponents of women's ordination has not come true. What of the others? The Roman Catholic Church has not set up an 'Anglican Rite' and this undoubtedly lessened the number of those who wanted something of a half-way house. Financial considerations have caused many married clergymen to delay leaving: if they cannot be reordained what are they to do with their wives and families? Ecumenical relations between Rome and the Church of England have not been broken because the English Catholic bishops have behaved with a 'decorum' equal to that of Anglican bishops.

The key to the revolution that is taking place lies within the English character as it now stands. When in 1991 one watched the Church's ruling body, its General Synod, one was impressed by the governing abilities of the country's middle classes. Yet there was also an air of smug self-satisfaction and frightening insularity. …