Perhaps the most noteworthy bugbear of the Anglican Church in North America is the fact that we have (fiercely) divided opinions on the subject of the ordination of women. The status quo set forth in the Constitution & Canons since the ACNA was founded has been two fold: 1) only men are to be ordained bishops, 2) each diocese chooses whether or not to ordain women as deacons and/or priests. Thus we have members who are vehemently opposed to women in collars, so to speak, and others who are absolutely committed to it.
Knowing that this is a precarious compromise, at best, the Bishops initiated a 5-year study on the subject via the Theological Task Force for Holy Orders. They drew up a plan to study Anglican methods of hermeneutics (that is, how to interpret the Scriptures), what different parties within the Anglican tradition believe about the Church and the ministry, the various passages of Scripture that relate to ordained ministry, and finally compile a full report with a recommendation to the College of Bishops to consider. People have scarcely contained their patience as this process worked its way through. Earlier this year, the Task Force released their full report. It is introduced on this page, and you can download the report at the bottom of the article. The final recommendation at the end of the report was essentially that the “dual integrities” which the ACNA has held for the past few years (the coexistence of contradictory views) is an untenable impediment to the unity of the Church.
Two quick examples… what happens to the person who moves from one place to another and has to find a new ACNA church to attend? If he/she doesn’t believe that women may be validly ordained as priests, then this person has to filter out the search for a new church – the fact that a congregation is in the ACNA isn’t enough to clarify this critical issue. On the other side of the coin, think of those women who currently wear the collar. How do you think they feel knowing that close to half* of the ACNA would not accept their ministry? They and their advocates are made to feel they’re walking a tightrope both in person and online. People on both sides of the issue can be very unkind to one another, if not careful. Or, at the very least, even where civility is maintained, the mere knowledge of the deep mutual disagreement can be very painful for folks on either side.
But now the Bishops have met and discussed the task force’s document in a multi-day meeting. These bishops, some with vehemently disagreeing views on this subject, finally had a chance to sit down with the study and talk with each other heart to heart, mind to mind. They also took times to pray together, silently and aloud. They really want the ACNA to stay together, not breaking into factions over this issue. And they know how difficult it is to do so, with so many people rocking both sides of the boat. They released a statement about their meeting. Let’s take a look at it.
In an act of mutual submission at the foundation of the Anglican Church in North America, it was agreed that each Diocese and Jurisdiction has the freedom, responsibility, and authority to study Holy Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition of the Church, and to seek the mind of Christ in determining its own convictions and practices concerning the ordination of women to the diaconate and the priesthood. It was also unanimously agreed that women will not be consecrated as bishops in the Anglican Church in North America. These positions are established within our Constitution and Canons and, because we are a conciliar Church, would require the action of both Provincial Council and Provincial Assembly to be changed.
This Preamble is, for the most part, the history I’ve already described above. Where things get meaty is the next section:
Having gratefully received and thoroughly considered the five-year study by the Theological Task Force on Holy Orders, we acknowledge that there are differing principles of ecclesiology and hermeneutics that are acceptable within Anglicanism that may lead to divergent conclusions regarding women’s ordination to the priesthood. However, we also acknowledge that this practice is a recent innovation to Apostolic Tradition and Catholic Order. We agree that there is insufficient scriptural warrant to accept women’s ordination to the priesthood as standard practice throughout the Province. However, we continue to acknowledge that individual dioceses have constitutional authority to ordain women to the priesthood.
First, they’re recognizing that we have different methods of the interpretation of Scripture and Tradition that result in our different conclusions about the ordination of women.
Second, they acknowledge that the ordination of women is a “recent innovation.” This sets aside some rumored arguments that I’ve heard that there supposedly were women priests in the Early Church, and that the practice was banned and covered up. I guess that idea has turned out to be historically inaccurate. (It certainly seemed like paranoid revisionism to me; as one with a BA in history I’m pretty cautious about populist radical rewrites of standard history.)
Third, they acknowledge that the interpretation of Scripture that supports the ordination of women is not strong enough to make it mandatory throughout the ACNA. Either the anti-women’s-ordination folks were not to be convinced, or the pro-women’s-ordination folks simply didn’t have a good enough Scriptural foundation. Or both.
It seems to me, at least, that they’ve agreed that the ordination of women is in defiance of Tradition, and only possibly in defiance of Scripture.
Fourth, they acknowledge the present arrangement is still in place: each diocese chooses whether or not to ordain women or accept ordained women in their local ministries. In other words, they have not determined to chance the status quo at this time.
Then comes their conclusion:
As a College of Bishops, we confess that our Province has failed to affirm adequately the ministry of all Christians as the basic agents of the work of the Gospel. We have not effectively discipled and equipped all Christians, male and especially female, lay and ordained, to fulfill their callings and ministries in the work of God’s kingdom. We repent of this and commit to work earnestly toward a far greater release of the whole Church to her God-given mission.
Having met in Conclave to pray, worship, study, talk, and listen well to one another, we commit to move forward in unity to carry on the good witness and work that God has given us to do in North America (Ephesians 4:1-6; John 17). We invite and urge all members of the Province to engage with us in this endeavor to grow in understanding the mission and ministry of all God’s people.
Adopted Unanimously by the College of Bishops of the Anglican Church in North America
The Church of Our Lord, Victoria, BC, Canada
Interestingly, their call to action is to invest in the development of all forms of ministry, especially among the laity. All Christians are ministers of the Gospel in some basic sense, and the lack of discipleship is a serious setback to the Christian Church (not just in the ACNA). This, I daresay, is a wise starting point. If we learn to raise up the laity to greater ministry, the “need” to get more people ordained (women or otherwise) is lessened. Like in Acts 6, if we can raise up more people to do more ministry tasks “on the ground” so to speak, the relatively few ordained leaders can devote more time to the ministry of the Word and Sacraments.
Some might interpret this as dodging the issue. “We can’t settle this controversy so we’re going to focus on a slightly different topic.” That is possible. But, in general, I trust our college of bishops to be at the very least trying desperately to be biblical followers of Christ and shepherds of the flock. I don’t believe them the sort to say “look, a distraction!” and then run the other way, like embarrassed children who’ve been caught stealing candy.
Rather, what I’m seeing here is a strategic choice. If we can improve our concepts and practices of lay ministry, the pressure on the ordained ministry will be lessened. One of the perspectives about the ordination of women is that because the clergy are so “important,” they “need” women in their ranks to provide a “balanced” perspective and ministry. If the “best” way to minister is to be a deacon or priest, then women are being limited, even oppressed, by being denied ordination. So if we learn to raise up non-ordained men and women alike to greater forms of ministry, perhaps the pressure to ordain women will lessen over time.
This is certainly a long-term idea, and angry people hate long-term solutions. They want women’s ordination ended right now, or they want it fully accepted across the board right now.
Of course, there is a great deal of concern cropping up in response to this release from the Bishops – are they considering the matter closed? Will they meet and discuss this more? Are they really going to keep this awkward “dual integrities” status quo going another seven years or more? Will the opposing sides be able to “walk together” for that much longer?
But right now there are a lot of immediate crises that occupy the attention of many, including our bishops. Recovery from hurricane Harvey is going to continue for a long time, and hurricane Irma is charging through the Caribbean heading for the southeastern US. Wildfires are devastating regions on the west coast, too. But eventually when the smoke and waters settle, hopefully our Bishops will take another chance to clarify the ongoing status of this debate: what else they have in mind to do, and if they’re going to continue meeting together to discuss this. Time will tell; continue to watch and pray.