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Speech to General Synod on Women Bishops

Saturday 8th July 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury made a contribution to a debate on women in the Episcopate, discussing the implications on ecumenical relations, especially in relation to the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC)

Time permitting I would like to make two points. The first really is essentially one of clarification, to see if we can get a better grip on why it is that some might say the ordination of women to the Episcopate is of a slightly different order from that of the ordination of women as priests - and not simply an extension of a category.

There is a theology which takes for granted that the bishop is in some sense the animator of mission, not just in the sense of getting mission to happen, but in the old sense of missio canonica - that is the ordaining and sending of persons The bishop is someone who helps animate that fellowship of the spirit which goes out in Christ's name and therefore, from that perspective the ordination of women as bishops, is a slightly different question from the ordination of women as priests.

Now I make this point not just to add a sort of anorakish-footnote to the debate, but so that the episcopate that we are discussing comes a little more clearly into focus for us, in connection to many of the issues that have already been touched upon. I mention it also because it is an issue that is mentioned although briefing in the ARCIC documents on ministry to which I will return in a couple of minutes. There is emphasis there on the transmission of faith as a missionary activity belonging first and foremost to the bishop. Now I hesitate to refer even in passing to a complex and painful issue but it may just be worth mentioning it here. In the recent issue which is disputed between the Bishop of Southwark and the Revd Richard Coekin, I do think that, whatever the legal and disciplinary quagmires in which that dispute got entangled, it is perfectly reasonable to say that the Bishop of Southwark was responsibly seeking to uphold just this principle in the action undertaken; and it is certainly a question which affects quite a lot of our practical thinking about mission and church-planting.

But I said I wanted to mention a word about the ARCIC document - this is my second point - if this Synod moves forward to affirm this motion and to take action consequent upon it; if in a few years time we are looking seriously at the practical possibility of women ordained as bishops - what will the ecumenical cost be? We know it will in many ways be heavy and serious. But granted that, what will be the ground on which we pursue ecumenical conversation and relationship from that point on. I would like to say that the ARCIC documents do give us a theology which we need to return to and try to make sense of in that long-term view, because we do there have a remarkably rich deposit of reflection on the ordained ministry, agreed between the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches over the last thirty years; in this year of the fortieth year of the establishment of the ARCIC dialogues it seems to be appropriate to just mention that fact.

But the ARCIC document in 1973 about ministry stated that the Commission considered that it had settled essential matters where it considers that doctrine permits no divergence. But the agreement on the theology and the nature of ordained ministry in that document was relative to that fundamental area in which doctrine permits no divergence - the implication being that further questions about the ordination of women, for example, did not belong to the essence of the nature of the ministry as conceived by our two Churches. It is a point which seems to me to be recognised in the later elucidation and even in the 1994 document of clarifications around Eucharist and ministry. That 1994 document recognised significant consensus on the nature of the ordained ministry - that's the wording - Cardinal Cassidy in 1994 said no further study at this stage was necessary on that convergence of fundamental area where doctrine permits no divergence. That's why I hope that both in our reflection at this stage of the debate and in the years ahead we will keep going back to that agreed received deposit of provision of the ordained ministry it will still be - whatever the outcome of our presents discussions - a deposit that will enable us to keep talking ecumenically - I think in a fruitful and constructive way.

And if I wanted to make one slightly critical remark about the way in which sometimes our ecumenical partners have addressed this question, it would be this; that since the original 1973 agreement and even since 1994 there has certainly been development in what the Roman Catholic Church has said publicly on the nature of the ordained ministry, going rather beyond what was taken for granted in those earlier discussions - that's to say some of the documents that have come from the Vatican in the last decade an a half, lets say, have certainly raised the question of women's ordination to a higher level, I would submit, than the ARCIC discussion assumed they were at. That in itself slightly shifts the terms of engagement and I do think we ought to argue that with our Roman Catholic friends as they argue their points with us - that we are not the only ones to be shifting ground here!

But that's the substance of what I wanted to say - just an attempt to ask what is the common ground for continuing intelligent theological ecumenical engagement that we need to hold on to during and beyond this debate - I'm not pessimistic about that.

© Rowan Williams 2006

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