by Martin Newland in Canterbury ALTHOUGH this week's decision by the Lambeth conference to endorse women bishops poses an "obstacle" to unity with Catholics, this can be overcome by grass roots initiatives to establish "local ecumenism", a representative of the Bishops' Conference Secretariat for Christian Unity said this week.
On Monday the bishops of the Anglican Communion, assembled in Canterbury for the 12th Lambeth Conference, voted overwhelmingly to pave the way for the consecration of women bishops as well as women priests. The move follows warnings from both Cardinal Hume and Cardinal Willebrands, head of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity, that the ordination of women to the Anglican priesthood would pose a threat to unity between the churches (Catholic Herald March 6 1987).
"The decision to ordain women as priests or bishops will not affect local ecumenism very profoundly", said Fr Michael Jackson, Secretary to the Department of Christian Unity of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales. "A single obstacle between two churches in the local ecumenical scene doesn't have to upset the whole pattern of relationships between all churches."
Fr Jackson pointed out that although the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC) dealt more with the theory of ecumenism, it is initiatives like the "Not Strangers But Pilgrims" programme of interchurch co-operation that deal with its concrete application.
"In the long term we have full visible unity as a goal. This is a long way off and there are many intermediate steps to take. It is at the level of local ecumenism as initiated by the Swanwick Agreement last year, that a better understanding of each other's ministry will take place," he said.
Whereas ARCIC has always had on its agenda the discussion of Anglican and Catholic orders, the question of women and the ordained ministry is expected to feature strongly in the second stage of ARCIC discussions. A future paper on the nature of communion at present being worked on by the Commission is expected to appear soon.
"The decision of the Anglicans to endorse women bishops is not a severe setback to unity, but rather a further obstacle. It is very disappointing when working for church unity to see obstacles being put in your path, especially when you have seen so many obstacles being cleared away in the past", said Fr Jackson.
"As we see it we do not have the authority to overturn tradition and the mind of the Church. Simply to look to the concerns of the Anglican churches is not to look widely enough. There is a far wider Christian tradition to take into account as experienced by the churches of the Orthodox and Roman Catholics".
The two Catholic observers at the Lambeth Conference, Bishop Cormac Murphy O'Connor of Arundel and Brighton (Co-Chairman of ARCIC) and Fr Kevin MacDonald of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity are expected to produce some "reflections" on events at Lambeth, though out of politeness to the Anglicans, they will not produce any kind of authoritative document on the internal affairs of another church.
A significant lobby in favour of holding back on the consecration of women bishops was apparent at the Conference on Monday. A supplementary resolution proposed by the traditionalist bishops sought to delay a decision "for the avoidance of further impairment of communion both within and between churches."
A major argument put forward by the Anglican traditionalist faction is that women priests and bishops represent a departure from a tradition shared by churches who see themselves as Catholic. Dr Graham Leonard, Anglican Bishop of London and a reading figure in the opposition to the ordination of women in the Church of England, told Lambeth delegates that "I cannot accept that the ordination of women to the priesthood is what has been described as a 'legitimate' development. It is I believe a fundamental change for which a much greater doctrinal consensus is required, and from the greater part of the Christian Church."
In saying this Dr Leonard was echoing the sentiments of Cardinal Hume who in a message to the Archbishop of Canterbury concerning the Church of England Synod's decision in March last year to proceed with legislation for the ordination of women said "a development of great theological significance and past consequence should be undertaken only by a united Christian exploration as to the mind of Christ."