The Church of England approves women bishops

This week, the General Synod of the Church of England approved the appointment of women to the Anglican episcopate. “The synod’s House of Bishops voted in favor 37-2, with one abstention; the House of Clergy voted 172-25, with four abstentions; and the House of Laity voted 152-45, with five abstentions.” 1 “The Church of England [subsequently] said its first female bishop could be appointed by the end of the year.” 2 “Two years ago, a similar proposal failed narrowly due to opposition from traditionalist lay members, to the dismay of modernisers, the Church hierarchy and politicians.” 3


They are right to do so, but the reason why it’s right to do so requires explanation, and it unfortunately requires the suspension of a certain amount of otherwise-due tact. 4 Alas, we are awash in muddled thinking on this question, and so I feel obliged to bring clarity, even at the expense of being frank in order to do so.

The ecclesiastical decisions taken by a church or ecclesial community should be consistent with the internal logic of their beliefs. Relevant among Anglicanism’s beliefs are these: There is no ministerial priesthood and there is no sacrament of Holy Orders. 5 And because Anglicanism specifically denies the purpose for which the ministerial priesthood was founded by Christ, the confection of the Eucharist, 6 why would there be a need for such a priesthood and therefore a sacrament to constitute it? To be sure, Anglicanism refers to some of its ministries as “clerical” and provides a ceremony called “ordination,” and those are words that Catholicism uses,  but Anglicanism uses (and, given its substantive beliefs, must use) them to mean something other than that which Catholicism uses them to mean. 7

When a person is “ordained” to the Anglican “priesthood,” neither he nor the person “ordaining” him (or her) thinks it to mean that which a Catholic bishop would when “ordaining” a man to the “priesthood.” The same words, yes, but denominating different realities, almost as if homonyms. That’s why Anglican priests entering the Ordinariates are ordained: Precisely because he has not hitherto been “ordained” in the sense that we mean the term. (It might, tactfully, be called “re-ordination,” but that’s a social grace; there is no such thing as “re-ordination,” because the sacrament is irrevocable. 8)That doesn’t deny the fact that he went through a ceremony called “ordination,” but rather affirms the fact that something other than “ordination” (in the sense that we mean the term) was intended and effected when that happened.

And that’s critical in this case because it’s important to understand that the Catholic teaching on the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood presupposes the Catholic meaning of the words “ordain” and “priesthood.” Ordinatio sacerdotalis has no application here because Anglicans do not share those understandings. If a woman is “ordained” by an Anglican “bishop,” she is not a “priest” in the sense that Catholics use the word—but neither is a man so-ordained. That result follows inexorably from the Holy See’s 1898 decision in Apostolicae curae that Anglican orders are invalid: The problem isn’t that a woman so-ordained is a woman but that she hasn’t been ordained (in the Catholic sense). The quite different and separate question of whether or not she could be is the question governed by Ordinatio sacerdotalis.

As I have said, while Anglicanism uses traditional labels, they denominate something that is substantively different. It is tactless and unkind to put (but too helpful to avoid putting) it this baldly: All Anglican ministries are, in the Catholic understanding of those terms, lay ministries. And there is no theological obstacle to women serving in lay ministries. 9 It may help to illustrate it this way: Imagine that a Catholic diocese decided to give its chancellor the title “bishop.” Not, mind you, to ordain the chancellor as a bishop, but rather to simply give that officer the title “bishop.” That would be stupid and confusing, certainly, and one might fear that one’s bishop had gone a little bit Roger Cardinal Mahony,  but it would pose no obstacle to appointing a woman to the position, because there is no problem having a female chancellor, and the substance of the position is chancellor even if its label is “bishop.” In the same way, if the diocese decided to appoint lay administrators of parishes with vacant pastorships, it could appoint women as such administrators, and it would be neither here nor there whether they further decided to give those lay administrators the title “reverend.”

There is an important difference between label and substance, and in this case it strikes me as dispositive. The internal logic of Anglicanism poses no obstacle to the appointment of women as “bishops,” and where there is no such obstacle, it seems to me that tradition will not withstand the presumption of equality. 10. We know that women can carry out all the functions asked of Anglican priests and bishops, and we know that those are labels for offices quite different to the sacramental, ministerial sense in which Catholics use them, and so it is hard to see what the fuss is about.


I can subscribe to some, but not all, of what Father Alexander Lucie-Smith has said in his post on the subject. 11 When the Synod rejected the same motion two years ago, I pronounced it “a baffling turn of events,” 12 because as Fr. Lucie-Smith points out, “this move is long overdue. If women can be deacons, then they can be bishops, and they have been deacons for over two decades. The Church of England has at last caught up with itself.” One could maintain that women may be priests; one could maintain that women may not be priests; but it is incoherent, under any ecclesiology of which I am aware, to maintain that women can be priests but not bishops, 13 and so I agree with Lucie-Smith that “this latest step as it restores some sanity to the world. There was no earthly reason why that ‘stained glass ceiling’ was in place….”

Where I disagree with Lucie-Smith (and with the Catholic bishops of England and Wales) is the notion that this move imposes some new obstacle to reestablishment of communion between the Anglican Communion and Rome. The bishops say: “For the Catholic Church, the goal of ecumenical dialogue continues to be full visible ecclesial communion. Such full ecclesial communion embraces full communion in the episcopal office. The decision of the Church of England to admit women to the episcopate therefore sadly places a further obstacle on the path to this unity between us.” 14 And Lucie-Smith says: “[T]here is now a new (and, in human terms, insurmountable) obstacle to unity. Once, when I was in my youth, corporate reunion looked possible in my lifetime. Not any more.”

Nonsense. Any “reunion” was always going to mean re-absorption. If it was going to happen, it was going to look like Anglicanorum coetibus, and it was going to involve (with all the caveats and explanations tendered above) the “re”-ordination of the Anglican clergy. 15 Anyone who thought otherwise was living in a dreamworld.  And the reason for that has nothing to do with women bishops vel non, or even the original decision of the Church of England to start ordaining women. It is because the Church has expressly held that Anglicans have no valid orders and so no valid succession. Any possibility of “reunion” in the sense of the Church recognizing the Anglican clergy as valid in situ flew the coop not this week, nor two decades ago, but more than a century ago with promulgation of Apostolicæ curæ, the above-cited decision that Anglican orders are invalid:

[W]e ordered that the Anglican Ordinal, which is the essential point of the whole matter, should be once more most carefully examined. … [T]he words which until recently were commonly held by Anglicans to constitute the proper form of priestly ordination namely, “Receive the Holy Ghost,” certainly do not in the least definitely express the sacred Ordel of Priesthood (sacerdotium) or its grace and power, which is chiefly the power “of consecrating and of offering the true Body and Blood of the Lord” in that sacrifice which is no “bare commemoration of the sacrifice offered on the Cross.”

This form had, indeed, afterwards added to it the words “for the office and work of a priest,” etc.; but this rather shows that the Anglicans themselves perceived that the first form was defective and inadequate. But even if this addition could give to the form its due signification, it was introduced too late, as a century had already elapsed since the adoption of the Edwardine Ordinal, for, as the Hierarchy had become extinct, there remained no power of ordaining.

. . . .

The same holds good of episcopal consecration. For to the formula, “Receive the Holy Ghost”, not only were the words “for the office and work of a bishop”, etc. added at a later period, but even these, as we shall presently state, must be understood in a sense different to that which they bear in the Catholic rite.… So it comes to pass that, as the Sacrament of Order and the true sacerdotium of Christ were utterly eliminated from the Anglican rite, and hence the sacerdotium is in no wise conferred truly and validly in the episcopal consecration of the same rite, for the like reason, therefore, the episcopate can in no wise be truly and validly conferred by it, and this the more so because among the first duties of the episcopate is that of ordaining ministers for the Holy Eucharist and sacrifice.

. . . .

With this inherent defect of “form” is joined the defect of “intention” which is equally essential to the Sacrament. The Church does not judge about the mind and intention, insofar as it is something by its nature internal; but in so far as it is manifested externally she is bound to judge concerning it. A person who has correctly and seriously used the requisite matter and form to effect and confer a sacrament is presumed for that very reason to have intended to do (intendisse) what the Church does. On this principle rests the doctrine that a Sacrament is truly conferred by the ministry of one who is a heretic or unbaptized, provided the Catholic rite be employed. On the other hand, if the rite be changed, with the manifest intention of introducing another rite not approved by the Church and of rejecting what the Church does, and what, by the institution of Christ, belongs to the nature of the Sacrament, then it is clear that not only is the necessary intention wanting to the Sacrament, but that the intention is adverse to and destructive of the Sacrament.

. . . .

Wherefore, strictly adhering, in this matter, to the decrees of the pontiffs, our predecessors, and confirming them most fully, and, as it were, renewing them by our authority, of our own initiative and certain knowledge, we pronounce and declare that ordinations carried out according to the Anglican rite have been, and are, absolutely null and utterly void. 16

Thus, Apostolicæ curæ stands as an insuperable obstacle to the kind of reunion that it would seem that the English bishops and Lucie-Smith have in mind. No one seriously supposes that the Holy See would or could overrule it. And, crucially, it rested not merely on form but also intent, which precludes any objection that Apostolicæ curæ need not be overruled, but could instead be sidestepped by declaring that it judges only the situation as it existed in 1898 and insisting that today’s situation is distinguishable. But even if the form were corrected and the apostolic lineage rejuvenated (for example by having a Catholic or Orthodox bishop co-consecrate, Anglicanism would have to change its foundational ecclesiological beliefs in order for those ordinands to subsequently ordain (in the Catholic sense) another generation. So what, really, has changed this week?

Bluntly, last week, reunion in the sense of in situ recognition was impossible because the Church of England had bishops who could be validly-consecrated but weren’t; after this week, reunion in the sense of in situ recognition will be no more impossible—were impossibility to admit of degrees—because the Church of England may also have bishops who couldn’t be validly-consecrated. It follows that reunion today means the same thing that it meant last week: Ordination of those Anglican clergy who can and wish to be Catholic clergy. 


Lastly, one must add that no matter what anyone thinks of the result, the means by which it was obtained is ugly and no credit to anyone. Even if one believes in democracy, and even if one believes in applying it to ecclesiastical governance, it is surely a mockery of democracy to say “we are going to vote on this, and we will keep voting until you rubes vote the right way.”

Of course it is true that progressives never believe that anything is settled until it is decided in their favor, 17 but it is rare to see so naked and unembarrassed a demonstration of the principle, or one so hasty. The question was raised and defeated in 2012,  but “Anglican Archbishops Justin Welby of Canterbury and John Sentamu of York supported the change, as did Prime Minister David Cameron.” 18 Thus, the Supreme Soviet’s rejection of the motion means nothing: We will bring the motion up again as soon as the rules allow, if not sooner, 19 and we will keep re-voting until the politburo-approved result wins. In 2012, Martyn Percy huffed that “it is only a question of time before the Church of England will take this next step.” 20 Well, duh. Anything can be achieved with sufficient determination to ram it through. Faced with implacable opposition, church leaders, Percy said, have a “duty … not to be too patient.” This is not quite Stalinist,  but it is not attractive.

On the feast of St. Camillus de Lellis, priest, patron of doctors.


  1. Church of England’s Approval of Women Bishops ‘Obstacle’ to Christian Unity, National Catholic Register, July 16, 2014, (all online resources last visited July 17, 2014).
  2. Ibid.
  3. Church of England votes to allow women to become bishops, ABC News, July 15, 2014,
  4. Cf. Unitatis redintegratio, no. 3 (2d Vat. Co., 1964).
  5. See Article of Religion 25.
  6. See Arts. R. 28, 31.
  7. See Simon Dodd, The Church of England rejects women bishops, 2 MPA 253 (2012).
  8. “[F]or the brand stamped by ordination remains forever. The vocation and mission received on the day of his ordination permanently mark him.” CCC ¶ 1583 (“quia impressus ordinatione character manet semper. Vocatio et missio receptae die eius ordinationis eum permanenti modo signant”).
  9. Cf. Dodd, “The whole thing is preposterous, and not just for unbelievers who can’t quite get their heads around the notion that this is being debated at all.”, 2 MPA 48; Dodd, Altar girls, redux, ante, 4 MPA __ (2014).
  10. See, e.g. Gal 3:28
  11. Rev. Alexander Lucie-Smith, The Church of England’s vote for women bishops has created an insurmountable obstacle to unity, The Catholic Herald, July 15, 2014,
  12. Dodd, Church of England rejects, supra note 6.
  13. Indeed, bishops are priests. The Catholic priesthood is a participation in the one high-priesthood of Christ, which is “made present” in the world “through the ministerial priesthood,” CCC ¶ 1545, and the episcopate is the fullest degree of participation in that endeavor. See CCC ¶¶ 1555 et seq.; Apostolicæ curæ, supra, no. 29; see generally, e.g., Rev. Benedict Joseph, The Bishop Participating in the fullness of Christ’s Priesthood, Our Sunday Visitor, May 2, 2014,
  14. Church of England’s Approval, supra note 1.
  15. Naturally, the Ordinariates are busily taking steps to hoover up Anglicans fleeing the sinking ship. See Ordinariate reaches out to Anglicans after women bishops vote, The Catholic Herald, July 15, 2014,
  16. Apostolicæ curæ, supra, nos. 23 et seq., 33, 36 (citations and internal numbering omitted). It should be noted that what might be characterized as a dissenting opinion was filed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, titled Sæpius officio.
  17. Cf. Dodd, The Conservative Premise, 2 MPA 50, 53 (2012) (“the progressive mindset is an ever-present geological force. Like plates grinding together, in every age it presses to be in motion…. The job of the conservative is not to win, but to lose as little as possible at a time, to preserve as much as possible for as long as possible without risking a sudden and violent rupture”).
  18. Church of England’s Approval, supra note 1.
  19. You may recall that when the 2012 motion was defeated, we knew that “under the Church’s rules, the no-vote has effectively killed off the prospect of women bishops for another five years.” Richard Alleyne and John Bingham, Women bishops ‘in my lifetime’, insists Archbishop John Sentamu, The Telegraph, Nov. 20, 2012, Events have shown that what we didn’t know (because we are numerate) is that 2012+5=2014.
  20. Percy, Women bishops: a failure of leadership, The Telegraph, Nov. 21, 2012,