UPDATE: The dialogue is now up on Covenant.

Note: The following is my contribution to an ongoing dialogue among the Covenant Communion authors regarding Women’s Ordination–specifically the vote of the Church of England’s General Synod to allow women Bishops.  Some might well ask why the vote in England has attracted so much attention, after all there are plenty of Churches within the Communion who ordain female priests (and once women were admitted to the Presbyterate it was only a matter of time before they were admitted to the Episcopate–it became a fait accompli at that point)  Not only that, but a majority of provinces now allow for women’s ordination to the Diaconate.  So all the fuss might seem a little strange, lot least to Episcopalians who have moved in a universe where women have been ordained as Priests since the 1970’s and to the Episcopate not long thereafter.  Yet, this *is* a big deal, at least ecumenically because–for example–it has a dramatic impact ecumenically that the decisions to ordain women priests and consecrate women bishops in say, the US or New Zealand did not have.  This impact is related to the fact that the Church of England, as the mother church of the Anglican Communion as a whole, has been seen as the “bell weather” church for the whole communion, especially by Rome.  Some have suggested that this particular concern for the Church of England on the part of the Roman Catholic Church has had a lot to do with the perception in Rome of the Church of England as a wayward province of the Western Catholic Church, and therefore one that could concievably be brought back–whole and entire–into union with the Holy See.  Hence the fact that the Roman Catholic Church in England was very careful not to reproduce sees (the head of the RCC in England is the Archbishop of Westminster, not the “Roman Catholic Archbishop of Canterbury”, for example).  Whatever the underlying reasons are, the Roman Catholic Church (and to a lesser extent the Orthodox) have always taken more heed of what the Church of England has done, noting that until something is done in England the question cannot be said to be settled, and if it is done in England it is a foregone conclusion elsewhere.  So all of this led to a discussion among us of the General Synod vote, women’s ordination as well as the notion of a “process of reception” for changes in practice within the Communion.  I am addressing some particular objections to the idea of a process of reception in the comment below.  The whole dialogue will be posted on Covenant shortly and I hope you all will take time to read it when it is up.

I have a few thoughts I would like to add to the discussion regarding reception and the questions raised by Sam above.  Any discussion of women’s ordination, particularly the ordination of women to the episcopate would seem to be incomplete without some reflection on how the issue of reception can be seen in the evolution of the episcopacy in general.  (Of course part of the issue that has to be raised is whether or not one believes there was a time when the ministry of Bishops, strictly speaking, did not recognizably conform to our contemporary expectations, i.e. one has to allow that there were a diversity of practices locally that eventually developed and coalesced into the three orders of ministry with the mono-episcopate that we recognize today.  Once one has answered that question allowing for development, the next question is whether such development was guided by the Holy Spirit or not.

I agree with those who assert that the biblical record is clear that there was no single definitive way of organizing the early Christian communities that arose from the missionary activities of the Apostles and other disciples but that it emerged and became uniform over the first two centuries especially.  Indeed, the only Church that is spoken of in the New Testament as being under the authority of a single residential leader is the Church of Jerusalem of which James was the single episcopos, perhaps serving as a model upon which later individual episcopacies would be founded (this observation connects, I believe, with +Rowan Williams’ recent observation in his paper–read in his absence–to the Society of St. Alban and St. Sergius, that, with the exception of Jerusalem, all churches are daughter Churches).  In the case of other local churches, it seems that the situation was rather more diverse.  In some instances it appears as though there was indeed a single overseer for the entire community, while in others it appears  as though councils–alternatively referred to collectively either as councils of presbeuteroi or episcopoi–exercised as a collective the authority that would later be ascribed to one of their number as Bishop.  Largely this distinction seems to have been geographic in nature, with the eastern churches developing the episcopate as we now understand it at an earlier date (understandable given their closer proximity to the Mother Church in Jerusalem).

In his book, From Apostles to Bishops: The Development of the Episcopacy in the Early Church, Francis A. Sullivan, S.J. argues persuasively that there were differences in the authority structures of local churches.  Specifically he maintains the the mono-episcopate seems to have developed earlier in the churches of the east (think Syria-Palestine and Ignatius).  On the other hand, in comparing the letters of Ignatius and Clement, he shows that the episcopal authority at Corinth in Clement’s day (and, he argues, in Rome as well) seems to have been held collegially by a council of elders, in contrast to, at the risk of using a biased term, the more developed episcopacy evidenced in Ignatius’ writing.

In examining this historical process one has to read back into it certain things, including a reception process for the mono-episcopate itself.  While accepting that this process was guided by the Holy Spirit, one also has to recognize that it was a process that went from the bottom up rather than the top down.  In that sense then, it seems inappropriate to critique the idea of reception for not happening in the reverse in every case, i.e. saying that unless the whole Church decides something at once, it cannot be decided.   If this were the only necessary qualification for any innovation however, it might well allow for any number of harmful practices in local churches.  But there is another important aspect of this process, which is that it was mission driven.  The ordering of the Church was of great importance to the spread of the gospel, and as such it seems that any change at a local level must first pass what could be called, for lack of a better term, an evangelical test.  In some sense this would bear relation to the test passed by Paul’s ministry to the Gentiles (again, an innovation that began in a limited capacity with Paul’s ministry and was only later affirmed by the whole church) “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us.”  The question one must ask of course is why did it seem good to the Holy Spirit and to them?  I would argue that it seemed good precisely because it was in keeping with the overall mission of the Church to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.

In considering this fact, I also have to consider the fact that women seemed to have a prominent place–particularly in the ministry of Paul.  Taking their leadership as “fellow workers” of the apostle into account, and also considering what can only be considered the evangelical nature of the earliest decision to ordain a female presbyter in the Anglican Communion (the ordination of Li Tim Oi in response to the crisis in the Chinese Church), as well as the evidence that those revivalistic churches that have ordained women to the ministry for evangelical reasons have not had the same issues of coupling women’s ordination to other, less biblical practices, it seems fair to say that women’s ordination is indeed in a process of reception communion wide because of the evangelical imperatives that have motivated the innovation in many (most?) places.  The political “rights talk” that inspired the original non-canonical ordinations of women in TEC should not so color our understanding of women’s ordination as a whole that we cannot ask the question of whether this “seems good to the Holy Spirit.”

A helpful distinction has been made in the past between a process of reception which was entered in the case of women’s ordination and the correlative process that one must inevitably recognize, a process of rejection, which seems to be where the Communion has a whole is at in regards to the most recent innovations of the American and Canadian churches.  There may come a time when women’s ordination is seen to not pass the test, but at the moment, as the General Synod vote indicates, as well as a look at the number of provinces of the communion that now ordain women to the prebyterate, it seems that the opposite is proving true.

Of course, the question of the good of women’s ordination is quite separate from one’s opinions on whether or not appropriate provision has been made by the General Synod of the C of E for those who dissent.  (I suspect Dan Dunlap is right when he says below that the lack of such provision may be evidence of frustration at the saber rattling of some conservatives.)  Additionally, one can be theologically convinced of the rightness of women’s ordination and at the same time wonder whether it has been pursued in an appropriate manner and whether our decisions regarding such ordinations have appropriately taken into account the ecumenical ramifications, particularly as regards Rome and Orthodoxy.  Be that as it may, I don’t think one can really argue that every innovation must inevitably be made from the top down–it is just that it must be affirmed at some point by the whole.

Of course, one must define what the whole is.  Certainly there is a degree to which, in spite of our recognition of there being One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, we must recognize the fact that there is division within Christendom and make choices to act in ways that may be counter to the practices of other Christian bodies.  There is, frankly, no avoiding this.  I agree however, with the uncomfortable feeling expressed by Fr. Humphrey regarding Anglicanism being seen as a “sacramental laboratory,” and I do not think such an understanding is helpful or desirable.  The tension in which we live as a divided Body of Christ is that there are some decisions that must be recognized as being within the realm of individual communions of Christians while there are some that are not.  Also part of this reality is that the different communions will inevitably have (or at least until now have always had) differing views of what those particular decisions are.  And that of course speaks to Sam’s concern regarding the role of Tradition: different bodies of Christians have different views and interpretations of the great Tradition and even what constitutes it.  There is even diversity on that question within the various communions, so it only makes since there would be differences between them.