Page 8, 18th October 2002

18th October 2002
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Page 8, 18th October 2002 — Does he or doesn't he support women priests?
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Does he or doesn't he support women priests?

Dwight Longenecker asks whether the Bishop of Clifton intended to promote

women's ordination when he invited a woman bishop to speak at his cathedral

in the world of media spin it is often difficult Co discern who is really saying what about whom and why. The propaganda professionals are adept at throwing up smoke screens, using euphemisms and double talk. In this spinning world no one can be sure who is friend or foe. One can't be sure of real motives when there are so many hidden agendas and duplicitous deals. The only Christian response to this sort of scheming is straight talk, honest questions and honest answers.

The recent ecumenical service at Clifton Cathedral is a good example of this kind of political chicanery. I will try to tell you what happened. See what conclusions you draw from it. An ecumenical service celebrating women's ministry was held in Clifton Cathedral. Three bishops took part in the service. Declan Lang, the Catholic Bishop of Clifton, Barry Rogerson, the Anglican Bishop of Bristol and Dr Margot Kassmann, the Evangelical Lutheran Bishop of Hanover in Germany.

Declan Lang is the new Bishop of Clifton, Barry Rogerson is the veteran Bishop of Bristol and for a long time, an outspoken advocate of women's ordination. Margot Kassmann is the second female bishop of the German Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Bishop Lang welcomed the crowd. Bishop Kassmann preached and Bishop Rogerson said prayers of thanksgiving. The rest of the service was planned by representatives of the Catholic, Anglican, Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed Churches. It included hymns, dances and the telling of women's life stories. Mary Manners, who works at the Clifton Cathedral Office, explained to me that the service was originally meant to be a celebration of the ministry of women in all walks of life.

Was this simply a celebration of women's ministry in general terms or was there another agenda?

Was it a subtle way of promoting the ordination of women in the Catholic Church? To have a lady bishop as keynote speaker in the Catholic cathedral in the city where one of the most vociferous Anglican devotees of women's ordination is the bishop makes one suspect that it was a care fully devised publicity stunt to promote the ordination of women in the Catholic Church.

It would seem that Dr Kassman's sermon drove the point home. In what reads as a direct challenge to her Catholic hosts, she said: "How can anyone tell women that they are not sent to the priesthood? Where is the biblical certificate that could deny that?" Dr Kassmann went on to tell the congregation that she was disturbed to hear voices saying that women's ordination threatens the ecumenical movement. Not only does this fly in the face of the facts, but it seems to be a direct rebuke not only to the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople, but to all Christians from the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches who hold to the historic faith.

I relate some of Dr Kassmann's words because they make it clear that, at least for some people, this was not simply a celebration of women's ministry. It was also a public promotion of the cause of women's ordination in the Catholic Church. For those of us who have watched the shrewd political manoeuvring and media manipulation by the women's ordination movement in the Anglican Church this sort of stunt is nothing new. Indeed, it is all too tiresomely predictable. What is new is that such a service should have taken place in a Catholic cathedral, and it leads us to wonder about the motives of the new Bishop of Clifton.

To put it plainly, there are only two options. Either the bishop is in favour of women's ordination in the Catholic Church and he was in cahoots with the agenda-laden organisers of the service or he was an innocent pawn in a political game. If the first option is true, then the Bishop of Clifton has been almost breathtakingly daring. In what could be perceived as a direct challenge to Vatican teaching on the matter, he has used his own episcopal authority to back women's ordination. If the first option is true, then Bishop Lang, by hosting such a service in his cathedral, was offering the mother church of the diocese — the church where the seat of his teaching authority resides — to be the venue for a challenge to the clear teaching of the Pope. If he is a slick, media operator, then it was a brilliant coup. He was able to get his controversial point across while hiding behind an "ecumenical service".

Could such a thing actually be true? Could the new Bishop of Clifton be such a bold, innovative and subtle schemer? Is it possible that he is a secret supporter of women's ordination and an equally shrewd manipulator of the media? I doubt it. I have met the bishop, and he does not strike me as a Machiavellian character. He seems like a "meat and potatoes" sort of bishop — a good, solid administrator who will lead the diocese with committees and working parties, rather than inspirational gestures and daring initiatives.

What did Bishop Lang actually say at the service? After welcoming the assembled dignitaries he quoted papal teaching. He said: "As Pope John Paul II wrote in his letter Christ's Faithful People, there is still within our world a need to affirm, defend and promote the personal dignity of women and the equality that women and men share together (CFL 49) ... as men and women we need one another because in our humanity there is a mutual complementarity."

The bishop's words may not be as firm and unambiguous as one might like, but he did impart the Church's teaching to the gathering. He hinted at some of the reasons for Catholic disapproval of women's ordination by affirming that women's and men's ministries were equal and complementary not equal and identical.

We might wish that the bishop had refused permission for such a service, or absented himself after giving a greeting, but was it all a devious plan by the Bishop of Clifton to promote women's ordination in the Catholic Church? No. The new bishop was simply caught up in events. He probably didn't envision how his participation would be perceived by some. Was the service hijacked to promote women's ordination in the Catholic Church? Probably. Bringing together a lady bishop and the Anglican Bishop of Bristol can't be total coincidence. Did they choose the venue deliberately so they could throw the issue of women's ordination into the face of the Catholic Church? We're told that the organisers approached the Catholic cathedral simply because it was the largest church in Bristol. It sounds disingenuous to me, but I don't know.

What I do know is that critics should give the new Bishop of Clifton the benefit of the doubt. After all, he's the new boy. He's the youngest of our bishops. His soutane is still shiny. I don't think he is guilty of anything more than being a nice chap who may have trusted his ecumenical partners with more enthusiasm than discretion.




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