Anglican Women Bishops – An Obstacle to Unity?

Implications of the Church of England’s Decision to Allow Women Bishops

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In 1978 I was a theological student in the Church of England preparing for ordination. Training with us men were women who were completing the same course. A few years earlier in the Episcopal Church of the USA women had already been ordained and the assumed position in the English seminary was that the women should do the same preparation as the men because they would eventually be ordained as priests. In other words, from the mid-1970s the Anglican establishment not only accepted the inevitability of women’s ordination, but planned for it.  

By 1988 I had a discussion with a young female seminarian. While admitting the arguments in favor of women’s ordination I pointed out that a major argument against the innovation was that Pope John Paul II and the Eastern Orthodox bishops had said repeatedly that women’s ordination would be “a grave obstacle to unity.”

The young woman began to raise her voice, “You don’t seem to get it! I’m NOT. I repeat NOT a Roman Catholic and I don’t want to be! I don’t care what the pope or the patriarch say. I’m Anglican. What does it matter?” Her forthright admission revealed the real position of most members of the Church of England. They are Anglican and do not wish to be Catholic. This is the position not only of strident feminist theology students. It is also the view of most Anglicans in the pews, most Anglicans in the pulpit and most Anglicans on the bench of bishops. Some may pay lip service to the idea of church unity, but they have no real commitment to it. The female seminarian said it for them, “I’m NOT Roman Catholic and don’t want to be!”

Catholics should be very clear that this Anglican position is held from three classic viewpoints. An explanation of the complexity of the Church of England can be found here. The progressive Anglicans have no wish to be Catholic. They often wear Catholic style vestments and favor Catholic forms of spirituality, but their belief system and underlying viewpoint is not only not Catholic, but in many ways it is anti-Catholic.

Jemima Thackray, writing here in the Daily Telegraph sums up the progressive Anglican’s understanding of the church’s mission: “part of me wishes that the liberal wing of the church could just bulldoze right over the evangelicals and Anglo Catholics who oppose women in leadership, offering no concessions and allowing the church to get on with its primary task of caring for the communities it serves. In my even wilder dreams, I imagine the church at the vanguard of every progressive cause, leading the way in the campaign for nuclear disarmament for example, or gay rights, rather than always being the slowest on the uptake of every social development.” Anglicans of Thackray’s stripe, like the female seminarian, have no desire to be Catholics and regard the Catholic church as the hidebound, patriarchal, misogynistic, homophobic enemy.

In addition to the progressives like Thackray, there are Evangelical Anglicans and Anglo-Catholics. The Evangelicals also have no desire to be Roman Catholics. However, their objections are along the traditional Protestant-Catholic divide. Even Catholic-friendly Evangelicals like Nicky Gumbell–the founder of the Alpha Course– and Justin Welby–the present Archbishop of Canterbury– would have deep reservations about the “Church of Rome.” Most of the Evangelicals are woefully ignorant of the Catholic Church and many still view the Catholic Church as the dark and decadent, foreign power from Reformation days.  Calvinist in theology and congregational in ecclesiology they have no time for a sacramental, hierarchical church. The liberal Evangelicals in the Church of England are in favor of women’s ordination and the conservatives who are opposed to women’s ordination are far more united in their opposition to Catholicism than they are divided over women’s ordination.

That leaves the small Anglo Catholic rump in the Church of England. Most of them left twenty years ago over the ordination of women to the priesthood. Many more left in the intervening years as the Church of England moved increasingly in both an Evangelical and Progressive direction. More left to join the newly established Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham–the “church within a church” launched by Benedict XVI for Anglicans who wanted to retain their traditions while being in full communion with the Holy See. The few who remain in the Church of England have the right to opt out of women’s ordination and their parishes can elect to have “alternative episcopal oversight”–which means they can have a male bishop come to their parish to minister to them. Despite their Catholic tastes the Anglo Catholics also have no desire to become Roman Catholic; otherwise they would have already.

The fact of the matter is that in deciding to have first women priests and now women bishops, the Anglican Church has also decided what kind of church she is. She is a Progressive Protestant Church along with the modern day Lutherans and Methodists. There is no reason, therefore, why they should not have women ministers. This article discusses this point in more detail. While this article explains why women cannot be ordained as Catholic priests. The Anglican decision to have women priests and bishops has been a genuine blow to the cause of church unity. It is a blow that, in human terms, cannot be overcome. However, it has clarified the identity of the Anglican Church and in the process, clarified matters for many of us who have decided that the Church of England, now self identified as a Progressive Protestant Church is not the Church we wish to belong to.

It was the debate over women’s ordination in the Anglican Church that prompted me and my family to come into full communion with the Catholic Church twenty years ago. I tell that story here in more detail, and it is a story of both sadness and joy. Sadness at leaving a church we loved which had a beautiful and historic Christian tradition, but joy at realizing where our hearts truly lay and finally making that journey home to Rome.


Fr Dwight Longenecker is a former Anglican priest. His latest book is The Romance of Religion–Fighting for Goodness, Truth and Beauty. Visit his blog, browse his books and be in touch at 


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Church of England Votes for Women Bishops

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Dwight Longenecker

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