Ron Coates Looks Back and Forward - Newsletter Spring 2008

Early beginnings of my relationship with like minded people, who saw the dangers that had become so prevalent in synodical government among many other difficulties in the Church of England, were brought about by the movement to ordain women.  The proponents appeared to be well organised and gathering supporters and followers.  Those opposed in my view were least prepared and very isolated.  It was common to hear the remarks from people (in my opinion people who should have shown more responsibility) trotting out, “It will never happen in my lifetime”.  This remark seemed to me to miss out in providing substance for our children and grandchildren to grow in faith.

It was at one meeting of the Church Union and Federation of Catholic Priests, a young priest at that time Fr. Edwin Barnes prepared to speak out and defend revealed doctrines and moral teachings, warning how precisely the Church was replacing traditional formulations of the Faith with alien substitutes.  He encouraged and urged members of all Catholic Societies to speak with one voice against secular beliefs.

The indifference and difficulties created by these secular beliefs were worsened by the proposed ordination of women to the priesthood.  It appeared to me that we had quickly forgotten some of the issues that existed and lessons learnt during the period of Anglican Methodist talks.  The teachings of Scripture, and the Traditions and Reasons of the Church guided by the Holy Spirit, mattered little.

Forward In Faith was founded in November 1992 in the wake of the decision of the General Synod of the Church of England to proceed with the ordination of women to the priesthood.  I remember reading one of the early issues of a Forward In Faith Newsletter which began, “The Church prayed earnestly for Peter’s release from prison.  His chains fell off and he walked some distance before he woke up to the fact that he was free”.  In gaining its freedom, Forward In Faith spread quickly to the dioceses and parishes where it helped to organise and bring people together to form committees and councils, and to organise events.  I recall one of the early events when we gathered at the Methodist Hall, Bailgate to be addressed by the Chairman of Forward In Faith, Revd. John Broadhurst.  He rallied the crowd with much enthusiasm and encouraged many questions.  These went on and on, to cause the clerical and lay chairmen to be filled with concern.  They wanted everybody to get to the Cathedral on time for a service, “A Celebration of Faith”, at which the preacher was to be Revd. John Broadhurst.

It is over sixteen years since 11th November 1992 when as it seemed to many came that body blow to Christianity.  We are still in a state of awakening from that event.  Women are now legally ordained in the Church of England and proponents are presently pushing hard to ordain women to the episcopate.  We are still in a state of uncertainty, not sure of the way forward.  After much debate and many individual contributions, a number of publications have been issued such as “Consecrated Women?” (edited by Jonathan Baker) and “Women Bishops in the Church of England?” (Rochester Report).  And still there is no considered concensus on what to do.

The Anglican Church no longer has a common recognised ministry, nor commonly recognised sacraments.  Provinces, dioceses, parishes, congregations, religious orders and families have been split over the issue of women’s ordination.  Many of us in good conscience cannot, and will not, receive sacramental administration from women priests.  The Lambeth Conference of 1988 noted the sorry situation of “impaired” communion.  The Archbishop of Canterbury refers to it as “two integrities”, those who accept the ordination of women and those who do not.  Many lay people, both men and women, are firmly opposed to the ordination of women, but sometimes impairment is felt most acutely in the priesthood itself.  Among the clergy there can no longer be mutual recognition and acceptance of one another’s orders.  The college of presbyters has indeed been fractured and can no longer gather as a common ministerial priesthood, not at ordination services and not even on Maundy Thursday.

It is in the parishes in which the priest has the cure of souls and where the PCC has petitioned to receive Alternative Episcopal Oversight that those opposed to women priests can worship with confidence.  We have further assurance which comes with knowing that Forward In Faith is committed to finding a way ahead whereby traditional Anglicans may continue to live with honour within the Church of their baptism.

We have lost many good friends both ordained and lay.  They have moved on in their pilgrimage to become part of other communions.  Yet despite all the hardships endured and continuing, we can rejoice in the knowledge that God is still there and He is the same.  We have also gained more friends through opportunities of meeting and coming together on many occasions within our diocese.  I mentioned earlier one of the first events held at the cathedral.  At that time only two PEVs or “flying bishops” – John Richards of Ebbsfleet and John Gaisford of Beverley – had an immense task of administering pastoral care in the provinces of Canterbury and York.  We should be eternally thankful for the care and hardwork these two bishops gave, and indeed to all our PEVs.  We had the opportunity on one occasion to meet Bishop John Richards at St. Peter-at-Gowt’s Church, Lincoln.

I had pleasure to attend Westminster Abbey when Revd. Canon Edwin Barnes was consecrated Bishop of Richborough on 20th July 1995.  Again, Bishop Edwin’s successor Canon Keith Newton was consecrated on 7th March 2002 to the episcopate in the Cathedral Church, Southwark.  We have travelled in coaches, trains and cars to attend memorable occasions at Westminster Central Hall, Wembley for the Festival of Faith, Royal Albert Hall, Canary Wharf and, annually, the Emmanuel Centre for the National Assembly.  These are just a few that gave me much pleasure and grateful thanks for the opportunities that I have had along with others from our diocese.

We need to look up and not down.  We need to recognise and give thanks for the ministry that women have given in areas such as hospital visiting, counselling and administration.  Undoubtedly, women have many gifts which they can bring to these and other lay ministries in the Church.

Evelyn Underhill in her book, “The Ideals of the Ministry of Women” says that she has known lay women “who have genuinely ministered to souls in a creative way”.  She continues: “The question of status, scope and so forth has never, I should think, entered their minds at all.  Their hidden life of love and prayer … has largely exceeded and entirely supported their life of active work”.  Later she writes of these women: “We notice a sort of beautiful informality and freedom in their proceedings, and something which we might call a material and domestic quality in their minds, which seems on the whole to look more towards the prophetic than the priestly way of serving God and tending souls”.  She refers to these women as: “individuals surrendered to the Spirit, moving and working under His pressure, and yet with great freedom and originality, within the institutional frame …”.

In affirming the importance of women’s ministry in the Church, we must never forget the supreme example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a lay person upon whom God bestowed a dignity higher than that given to any other human being.  Year by year we have the wonderful opportunity to give thanks to God for Mary the Virgin.  And in addition to giving thanks in our churches week by week, we go on pilgrimages to the shrines dedicated to Our Lady, in particular the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.  Over many years in the diocese of Lincoln we have recognised this by our annual Day and Weekend Pilgrimages to this Shrine.

So we are asked to leave behind the pain and look to the way ahead.  Where that pilgrimage will lead us who can tell?  What route we must follow we do not know.  What we do know is that God will be with us on the journey.  What we also know is that God is there to help us and that He has given us things to strengthen us.  Now we must play our part.  Use the tools He has given us and trust Him.