It may have passed you by, but on Monday of this week, the Church of England ordained its first female bishop: Libby Lane, the new suffragan Bishop of Stockport. What was clearly a momentous day in the history of the Church of England was evidently just a minor story in the British national news, and most people were probably unaware of the event.
While many supporters of women bishops like to say that the consecration represented a brave new start for the Church and a great day for womankind in general, society at large seems largely unaffected by this Good News. It is not clear that having women at the helm of the Ship of the Church will in itself significantly enhance its work of spreading the gospel, nor has it been primarily talked of in such terms. And there would appear to be many more, and much more serious, examples of inequality, violence, exploitation and poverty faced by women throughout the world.
Clearly, though, the significance of the ordination in terms of gender equality was mainly symbolic: removal of one of the last bastions of patriarchy and a kind of ultimate recognition – at symbolically the highest level: the Church as representative of Christ – of the equality of women and men.
That’s all well and good, and I won’t go into the many arguments around the difference between equality and sameness, and between authority and power in the Church; and the reasons why the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches have not yet instituted female bishops.
This latter fact is one reason why Monday’s ceremony was an occasion of sadness for me personally. The Church of England has now severed the universal basis for its claim to have the ‘apostolic succession’: the unbroken line of succession linking today’s bishops directly back to the first Bishop of Rome, St Peter, via the laying on of hands during episcopal consecrations.
According to traditionalists who maintained until Monday that Church of England bishops were still in this succession – and hence were authentic bishops – the succession was broken by Monday’s ceremony. On this point of view, not only was the consecration of Libby Lane invalid (as she cannot be a true bishop by virtue of the unbroken tradition of male bishops linking back to St Peter and the original, all-male Apostles) but the episcopacy of all the bishops who laid hands on her has also been cancelled out, as they have been involved in a heretical consecration that directly subverts the principle – the apostolic succession – that confers validity to their own episcopacy.
This is why the part of Monday’s ceremony in which numerous bishops gathered round to lay hands on Libby Lane put me in mind of one of those murder mysteries in which a group of people all take part in a murder in order to assume collective responsibility. This was indeed a case of the bishops in attendance making sure they all participated in the act, and that if any one of them was going to jeopardise their episcopacy, they were all going to. Would it be too unkind to suggest that, having left the murdered corpse of the Church of England (as a member of the Church Universal) lying in the Cathedral, the Church of England is now marching on, zombie-like, to a marginal future as the Church of liberal progressivism or of British Values?
Even if you do not accept the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church’s previous claim to have the apostolic succession – which I do not, in fact – the Church had at least retained a form and basis of ordained ministry consistent with that of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, and had maintained it intact ever since the Reformation. I had hoped, in fact, that the Church of England might one day be reconnected to the universal apostolic Church as part of a renewal of faith in the land. Maybe this will still happen – everything is possible to God – but the Church of England has just made its journey back into the fold that much longer and bumpier.
In essence, the Church of England can no longer really claim to be a catholic Church, other than in the non-episcopal sense of sharing in the universal faith in Christ that unites all Christians. The Church of England has become a Protestant denomination. For some, that will be no bad thing. But for me, the Church of England is becoming increasingly irrelevant as it remodels itself on the image of modern secular society.
For me, therefore, Monday’s event brought only the sadness of hope deceived.