Peter and Paul

from the Tablet:

The Church of England is groping towards a harmonious solution of its internal crisis over the ordination of women bishops, but with no guarantee that such a solution exists. The crisis reveals much about the nature of Anglicanism itself. The Anglican claim to be both Catholic and Reformed is a challenging one, for it sets up a tension at the heart of the Church between two tendencies which sometimes point in opposite directions. One problem with the claim is that very few Anglican individuals are both Catholic and Reformed in themselves, even if the Church of England is as a whole: individuals tend to be one or the other and, indeed, so do parishes. The weakness of the third way, liberal Anglicanism, is that it regards both these positions through the lens of relativism, denying both of them any enduring claims to truth.

But all coexist inside the same Church. This principle of Anglican comprehensiveness was dictated more by the circumstances of English history than by some blinding theological insight, but it does have its parallels there, for instance in the tensions between the Pauline and the Petrine principles which are described in Acts and have continued to rumble on ever since. Indeed the early Church could have split along those lines, were it not for the fact that St Paul and St Peter realised the danger and steered away from it in time. Sometimes, as Brendan Byrne points out on page 16, the Pauline-Petrine tension is seen as being between the prophetic and the traditional. It is a comparison that flatters the former and a premise that disguises the point at the heart of the current Anglican dilemma.

If one tries to be prophetic without at the same time being traditional, what weight does it have? On whose behalf is one being prophetic? It is one thing to say that the entire thrust of Christian history leads ultimately to the conclusion that ordination to the priesthood and episcopacy should be open to either sex. It is quite another to say that the thrust of Christian history can be ignored if it does not point that way. Indeed, if such ordination is advocated as an act of justice to women, it gains far more from being a historical culmination than from being a historical departure. If the price of victory is to force tradition into unconditional surrender then it becomes a somewhat pyrrhic one, all the more so if it is widely depicted as Christian faith being forced to bow the knee to secular post-Christian values. That is the danger in saying, as some at the General Synod did this week, that if the Church of England does not allow women bishops it will look ridiculous in the eyes of society at large. Instead, the question ought to be: does what is proposed look ridiculous in the eyes of tradition? On that, the debate is far from over.

There is shrewd wisdom in the Catholic Church’s ancient custom of celebrating the feast of St Peter and St Paul on the same day, refusing to allow anyone to say “I am for Peter” or “I am for Paul” by favouring one saint’s day more than the other. The dialogue between Peter and Paul belongs at the heart of the Church’s life, and cannot end with the triumph of either.

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