It is a long time since I have commented here on the slow progress towards the Church of England accepting women as bishops. I haven’t really been following the discussions, which have dragged on interminably. But they may now be nearing an end. The Church Mouse has made a welcome return to blogging to report on the current situation, in a post with the unlikely title Ladies hats. It seems that within the next few days the General Synod may give the final go-ahead for episcopal women – or may throw the process into turmoil by accepting an alternative proposal.
I will not attempt to deal with the issues in detail here. But one thing puzzles me – perhaps someone reading this can enlighten me. I tried to post a comment about this on the Church Mouse blog, but the vagaries of the Blogger comment system defeated me.
The current proposals require any future female bishop to delegate to a male bishop her authority over parishes that object to women in the episcopate. “Sir Watkin”, in a comment on Mouse’s post, rehearses a common conservative Anglo-Catholic objection to these proposals, that this delegation of authority
will no longer work if the diocesan is female, and thus the priests and laity … aren’t convinced she is a bishop. They would be in the nonsensical position of accepting the delegation of an authority that the person delegating didn’t (from their perspective) have in the first place.
The Supreme Governor of the Church of England
The problem with this argument is that Anglo-Catholics, as members of the Church of England, have accepted ever since the 1534 Act of Supremacy that the English monarch is Head or Supreme Governor of the Church of England, with all earthly authority over it including the right to appoint its bishops. Diocesan bishops are still appointed by the monarch, on the advice of the Crown Nominations Commission. Clearly by appointing a bishop the monarch delegates some of her own authority over the church, including giving that bishop the right to appoint suffragan bishops and priests within his diocese, as well as to celebrate the sacraments within that diocese – something which the monarch cannot personally do.
The point here is that the monarch is not a bishop, and is currently, as quite often in the past, a woman. The first woman to be in this position was Elizabeth I in 1558. Yet these Anglo-Catholics have remained within a Church of England headed in this way by a laywoman.
So this is my question to the Anglo-Catholics: If you accept that Queen Elizabeth II, a laywoman, can appoint diocesan bishops and delegate to them authority and the right to celebrate sacraments, why can you not allow that a woman appointed by her as a bishop can appoint a male subordinate bishop and delegate to him authority and the right to celebrate sacraments? I understand that you do not recognise the appointed woman as a bishop. But if the authority to act as a bishop can be delegated only by a bishop, or only by a man, then none of the diocesan bishops are validly appointed either.
I note that this is not an issue of the validity of orders, as it could be required that the subordinate bishop be consecrated by at least one male bishop, but of the validity of episcopal appointments.
Now I respect the argument that no lay person can have authority over the church or appoint any kind of bishop. That is the argument for which Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More were put to death in 1535. Fortunately our current Queen does not assert her authority as vigorously as Henry VIII did, and does not count it as an act of treason to reject her supreme governorship of the church. So there is an easy way out for those who can only accept bishops being appointed by other bishops: they should move to the Church of Rome, all of whose bishops are appointed by the Bishop of Rome. The recent innovation of the Ordinariate has made things even easier for Anglicans who wish to make this move.
On the other hand, those conservative Anglo-Catholics who choose to stay in the Church of England should recognise that not only those they recognise as bishops have the right to appoint bishops and delegate authority to them. They should also recognise that the church is bending over backwards to make allowances for their minority position of not accepting that women can be bishops. And they should accept those arrangements with good grace and work for the peace, unity and general advancement of the church in which they choose to stay.