Women bishops: historic words from Professor Henry Chadwick

Professor Henry Chadwick

Professor Henry Chadwick

“I would like to see the barriers to communion between Canterbury and Rome dismantled. I hope and pray that the 1988 Lambeth Conference resolution on the consecration of women as bishops, may, despite all appearances to the contrary, be over-ruled by the Lord in such a way that we are drawn closer and not driven further apart.”

These were the historic words of Professor Henry Chadwick, one of the most distinguished theologians and historians in the Church of England and a consultant at the 12th Lambeth Conference in 1988, the once-a-decade meeting of bishops from the 27 autonomous Provinces of the world-wide Anglican Communion, during an exclusive interview with me at the time.

The 1988 Lambeth Conference resolution which paved the way towards the consecration of women bishops was passed on a show of hands by 423-28 votes, with 19 abstentions.  In a separate resolution, the Lambeth Fathers rejected a strong call for restraint over the consecration of women bishops. This resolution was defeated 277-187 votes in a secret ballot.

Professor Henry Chadwick, then a member of the first Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC-One), had emerged disappointed from the hall at the University of Kent, situated about two miles from Canterbury Cathedral, after the Lambeth Fathers had rejected the resolution calling for restraint.

Asked if he thought dialogue between Rome and the Anglican Communion would now be made more difficult as a result of the Lambeth Conference resolution on the ordination of women to the episcopate, Professor Henry Chadwick replied: “The bishops have recognised that provincial autonomy in the world-wide Anglican Communion means that you cannot stop a Province from consecrating women to be bishops if that is considered necessary in their cultural situation.”

Professor Henry Chadwick said: “In Canada, the United States, New Zealand and Brazil, their judgement is that consecrating women bishops is not just something they would tolerate, but is something they would actively promote and foster.

“How soon they will do it l don't know, but it might be by the end of this calendar year 1988. That not only creates great problems for Anglican-Roman Catholic relations, but it is likely to add hundreds of years to the reconciliation process.”

The day after the vote on the consecration of women as bishops, the 525 Lambeth Fathers from 164 countries, voted by an overwhelming majority to endorse the Final Report on ARCIC-One, published during 1982. They also warmly welcomed the ARCIC-Two document, Salvation and the Church.

Professor Henry Chadwick said: “l was astonished by the enormous size of the majority. I frankly did not expect the Final Report of ARCIC-One to command that degree of consensus and assent.”

Asked what signals he thought the Lambeth Conference of 1988 was sending to Rome, Professor Chadwick replied frankly: “Anglicans like to think that great truths are always reconcilable with one another. Here we are faced with massive votes by the Lambeth Conference that is actually incompatible in their consequences.”

Professor Henry Chadwick emphasised: “The decision that no one can stop one of the 27 independent Provinces from consecrating a woman to be a bishop is also going to create vast internal problems for the Anglican Communion. The validity of ministry is not a totally objective matter. It is bound up with whether other people recognise that it is an authentic ministry of the word and sacraments.

“There are going to be problems with women bishops, because a bishop is a source of Order. The view of those who have doubts about it, is not that it is certain that this woman is not a bishop, but that it is not certain this woman is a bishop.”

Professor Henry Chadwick then posed the vital question that may yet cause a major split in the Anglican Communion: “What are we going to do about the Orders of men and women whom a woman bishop has ordained?”

He stressed: “It will be fine in Provinces where they are recognised. But suppose a man or woman ordained by a woman bishop moves to a Province where the Orders she has confirmed are not regarded as certain. Then there must be a conditional re-ordination, because the prime function of a sacramental act such as ordination is to put it beyond any question that it is valid.”

Asked if he was opposed to the ordination of women as priests, Professor Henry Chadwick paused for a moment and replied: “I find it impossible to think of any very good reason for being opposed to women priests. Therefore I am in the intolerable position of saying that the practical consequences are so awkward that I am against it for that reason, rather than for theological reasons.”

Professor Henry Chadwick stressed: “For 70 million Anglicans to adopt a decision which it is known in advance will not win recognition from four-fifths of the Christian world - the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches - raises great problems, and creates a serious new barrier to unity.”

Asked towards the end of the interview if he thought that the decision by several Provinces of the Anglican Communion to go ahead with the consecration of a woman bishop would put in jeopardy any reconsideration by Rome of Apostolicae Curae, the Papal Bull promulgated by Pope Leo XIII in September 1896, in which the Pope declared Anglican Orders “null and void”, Professor Henry Chadwick paused for a moment.

He replied: “In regard to the ecumenical situation as it is in 1988, the ball is now very much at the feet of the Vatican. An initiative on the part of Rome could create progress. It is very important that the Pope and Archbishop of Canterbury should know and understand one another. Summit meetings are good if very careful preparation has been made, and you do not get confrontations and demands.

Professor Henry Chadwick, one of the truly great figures in the Anglican Communion of his time added with tears in his eyes: “l have given my life to trying to bring Canterbury and Rome closer together!”

Professor the Reverend Henry Chadwick KBE died in Oxford on 17 June 2008, aged 87.

Meanwhile, the Most Reverend Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Westminster, President of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, was asked during a press conference in London on Friday 16 November 2012 about the impact on ecumenical relations if the General Synod of Church of England General votes in favour of the ordination of women bishops.

Archbishop Nichols emphasised that a vote for women bishops would “not fundamentally alter the dialogue and co-operation” between the two Churches.”

The Archbishop added: “The dialogue will continue but this is a very significant step which the Church of England now stands about to take, it would seem.”

The General Synod of the Church of England is due vote on the ordination of women bishops during its session at Church House, London, tomorrow, Tuesday, 20 November 2012.

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