Ecumenism: Female Bishops and Anglican-Catholic Unity

by Annalise Deal


The ordination of the first female bishop, the Rt. Rev. Libby Lane, in the Church of England in January has had a global impact, opening the door to more discussion about the place of women in the church, as the Church of England now joins the Episcopal Church, as well as numerous protestant denominations in abolishing gender as a prerequisite to any type of ministry. However, this new development in the Anglican Church also has the power to damage Anglican-Catholic relations, as it marks a divisive doctrinal split between the two bodies, which inhibits the possibility of greater communion in the future. Due to Pope St. John Paul II’s 1994 apostolic letter, Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the door is officially closed to conversation about the possibility of the Catholic Church ordaining women, thus making a reunion between the Anglican and Catholic churches impossible.

“The ordination of women to the episcopate presents a further obstacle to achieving that unity among us for which Our Lord prayed,” said Archbishop of Birmingham, Bernard Longley.


However, despite the challenge posed to communion, the ecumenical conversation between the two churches continues. Though no official representative from the Catholic Church attended Bishop Lane’s consecration, multiple Catholic bishops, including Bishop Longley himself, have publically wished Lane well in her ministry, and are open to working together with her on ecumenical efforts.


In fact, focusing on ecumenical efforts and broader shared concerns, rather than trying to be in full communion, may actually be the most productive future for Anglican-Catholic relations. Bishop Longley pointed out that the ordination of women as bishops is certainly not the only thing driving the Anglican and Catholic churches apart right now. The division, he says, stems from “an acceptance by some parts of the Anglican Communion of the idea that important aspects of the Christian message and Christian living can change as a result of changed cultural attitudes.”


Thus, though Bishop Lane’s ordination has been viewed by many as yet another challenge to the unity of the Anglican and Catholic churches, maybe it is rather a sign that some of their ecclesiastical values are too fundamentally different to be reconciled, and the two bodies should focus instead on what they do have in common: their Christian desire to love and serve a suffering world.


Furthermore, despite their differences in social and ecclesial doctrine, the Anglican and Catholic churches have quite a bit of common tradition, and share very common liturgy. Thus, though their complete union seems nearly impossible now, the possibility of sharing in the Eucharist is not off the table. Bishop Longley cited the Bishops’ “One Bread, One Body” document in discussing this possibility, which calls for an inter-denominational sharing of the sacrament under certain circumstances.


Perhaps, if instead of focusing our energy on fixing our differences, both churches focused their energy on our common desire to love and serve the world, and break bread together as followers of Christ, our differences will be reconciled along the way. In the years to come, Catholic bishops will likely have to work alongside many more female Anglican bishops, giving them ample opportunities to work together towards their common Christian goals. If that happens, though complete union may not be a possibility, greater unity certainly will be.

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