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.

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