Speech on the Ordination of Women

Ann Widdecombe/1993

Category: Religion

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Michael Alison) on the extremely comprehensive and moderate way in which he introduced the Measures, which l believe will have won the respect even of those who profoundly disagree with the reasons that he advanced. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (John Gummer) on giving a clear and moving exposition of the reasons why those of us who believe in the authority of a universal Church find it quite impossible to stay within the Anglican Church if the decision to allow the ordination of women is taken and if this is now to be the nature of the Church. My right hon. Friend's speech was extremely profound, as well as being extremely learned and lucid, and I for one regretted the amount of what I considered to be inappropriate barracking that greeted his extremely serious attempt to try to get away from the secular debate and instead to explain the theological objections that some of us hold most strongly.

Let me deal first with what this issue is not about. It is not about women's rights in the secular sense. I believe that those who would promote the role of women within the Church, of whom l consider myself to be one, have to ask a rather different question from the question on which we have been concentrating. Instead of talking about women fulfulling the sacramental role of the priesthood, to which l shall return, we should ask a much more basic question: has the Church - I use the term in its broadest sense, to mean not just the Anglican Church but the Church universalgot its balance of authority right as between the clerical and the lay? There are many positions of authority held in the Church universal that do not necessarily have to be held by the priesthood. If we consider that rather more fundamental question, the role of women in the Church could be increased. None of us who object to women holding the sacramental priesthood have ever objected to the fact that the Queen is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, have never objected to women deacons, have never objected to women in the ministry as opposed to the strict definition of the priesthood, and in the Church to which I now belong, l see no reason why there should not be a woman Papal Nuncio. After all, a nuncio is an ambassador and I do not see why a nuncio has necessarily to be a priest.

Let me make it clear from the beginning, I am not opposing the Measure because l do not want to see women fulfilling an important role in the Church. I am opposing it because l believe that it is theologically impossible for women to perform the specific role of the sacramental priesthood. If a woman represents Christ as victim and priest at the Holy Communion, there may just as well be a man who represents the Virgin Mary in a nativity play. Considering the way that the Church of England has been going over the past two or three decades, it would not in the least surprise me if one day I attended a nativity play and found that the Virgin Mary had a beard.

The Church is surrendering its moral authority to purely secular arguments. I am not at all surprised in following today's debate that there is a concentration on the women' rights issues - the House is a secular body, but the Synod is not. The debate in the Synod appalled me because Church matters were being determined with reference to secular approval. As a reason for voting women into the priesthood, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to whom one should be able to look for spiritual, moral and theological leadership, advanced the argument that it would make the Church more acceptable to the secular world.

It seems that the Church of England has not yet learned the basic message that the secular world has been sending back for the past 20 or 30 years: that compromise and a sacrifice of creed to compromise, of doctrine to doubt, and of faith to fashion does not increase congregations or the approval of secular world but decreases congregations, decreases the standing of the Church and undermines its moral authority. Until the Church can send out the straight, simple, uncompromising, courageous and at times unpopular gospel message, all the other compromises that it regularly makes come down merely to rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic.

I could not share the rosy view of the health of the Church of England to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby subscribed in his excellent and able speech. He rightly said that when choosing to be baptised, married or, as he put it, reluctantly to be buried, the majority of the people in the country choose the Church of England through which to conduct those ceremonies. However, the fact remains that during the rest of their lives, there is a minimal number of people in this country who find spiritual sustenance from the Church of England. I will not embarrass my right hon. Friend by drawing comparisons with the ways in which congregations have grown or have been decreasing less in other denominations. One of the reasons for that failure is the way in which the Church looks to the secular world for approval instead of taking its message to the secular world.

I cannot improve on the exposition of my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal on the issue of authority, but l should like to deal with one point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby made. He said that if the Church of Rome could take decisions on the immaculate conception and glorious assumption without reference to the Church of England, the Church of England could take decisions on Orders without reference to the Church of Rome. He entirely ignored the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal made about the agreement over the last decade between the various members of the - Church universal not to take decisions that will damage the united base of those churches. The decisions to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby referred were taken by the Roman Catholic Church many decades ago and they precede this agreement.

He also very cleverly said that it (the decision of the C. of E.) does not make any difference because the magisterium says that Anglican orders are null and void. Therefore it does not make any difference (to Rome) whether those orders will be held by men or women. That is not the point. The difference is the taking of the decision in isolation. I grieve for members of the Church of England who have devoted their lives to the Church but who cannot stay as a result of that single departure from the united Church.

The right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn), in a very amusing but not always relevant speech, said that he hoped the day would come when the Roman Catholic Church would ordain women.

I point out to the right hon. Gentleman and to those who are uttering sedentary approval that it has taken us 400 years to get round to forgiving Galileo and I do not think that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield or l will see a Roman Catholic Church that ordains women.

I now want to deal with the package of compensation for those who have been driven out of the Church by this Measure. If I have derived any amusement from this terrible, grievous and serious subject it is the sight of so many hon. Members who always cry out for employees' rights and for justice and equity brushing aside the inequity and injustice of this provision. The right hon. Member for Chesterfield asked whether Cranmer would have gone if instead of facing the stake he had faced a cheque. Even before this compensation package is in place or any money is available, at least 60 priests have left the Church of England, some of whom are married and have family responsibilities, having sacrificed their rights to that compensation in many cases. There may be no stake for them, but there is no cheque either. I find any condemnation or ridicule of the consciences of those who could not stay utterly offensive and out of keeping with the way in which we should be debating this.

I find the financial provisions Measure entirely inadequate. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby said, it does not cover, except in a discretionary sense, a man who has spent five years studying at theological college, a further two years as curate, who has been ordained for 30 years in the Church of England, whose wife has given up her career to support his priesthood but who is, instead of an incumbent of a parish in the Church of England, a serving missionary overseas and is not therefore covered by this compensation. The case l cite is an actual one, not a theoretical one.

There is no coverage, except under discretion, for those who are serving as chaplains - for example, to the armed services or to regional health authorities - although such people might previously have been parish priests. There is no protection for them. Nor will they have protection under ordinary law as a result of the Measure. If they feel that they cannot stay, they will have no protection against constructive dismissal if they are employed by a third party - for example, a regional health authority.

If monks and nuns in religious orders, who have taken vows of poverty and have no resources of their own - and who had reasonably believed that, at the end of their lives they would be cared for by their order - feel, as a result of this Measure, that they cannot stay, they too will have no automatic compensation.

I believe that this Measure is unpassable as it stands. I had originally thought that I would be obliged to vote for the compensation Measure because the worst of all worlds would be that we pass an order in favour of ordaining women but not an order for compensation for those whom this drives out of their livelihood. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) for making clear that that will not be the result of voting against compensation Measure. The one cannot be valid with the other, even if there is a huge vote in favour of ordination of women.

Those who believe in justice and equity for the people who have no resources of their own, and who will not be covered by this Measure, should know that if the compensation package is rejected, it will not mean that no one will get compensation; it will mean that the legislation will have to be reworked.

I very much regret the inadequate compensation package. We have had a year since the Synod decision last November. Too little was done in advance of that decision the attitude was, "Oh well, we have another five years. The Measure will not be passed." No sense of urgency was shown before that decision to have in place, at the time it was taken, a proper package that people could respect and take into account when voting for the main Measure.

There has been no sense of urgency since then. There has been ill-concealed panic and some hasty patch-ups, but no great sense of urgency to get to the bottom of the compensation provisions and present them to the House in a form which at least meets our standards of justice whatever our doctrinal objections to the main Measure may be. I have listened to the glowing accounts of the Ecclesiastical Committee's work - which was indeed difficult and complicated - but if the early Apostles had shown the same sense of urgency as the Church of England in its approach to moral issues and this compensation package, we would still be worshipping Zeus. The Church of England has failed its own members.

We have heard a lot, particularly from those in favour of the Measure, about the women who have waited patiently within the Church, sat it out and prayed for the resolution that they desired. Those in favour ask why we should be sympathetic to people who have lost the argument when those women have waited patiently for all these years. The answer is that the terms were never changed for the women who waited patiently. When they came into communion with the Church, when they took confirmation, even when they took ordination as deacons, they knew the terms that the Church was setting out. Those who were confirmed and ordained decades ago - like the clergyman to whom l referred, who is now a serving missionary and excluded from compensation - came into the Church on one set of terms and on one doctrine to which they subscribed, which has now been changed over their heads. That is the fundamental difference.

If those who exhibit disagreement with what I am saying were not so wholly taken up with the argument about women's rights which is not the main argument would feel strongly about the injustice and inequity of the compensation package.

Let me make a plea to hon. Members. The way, in which they vote on the first Measure must be a matter of conscience, but the second Measure is another issue. The people to whom I have referred look to us to ensure that the position is somewhat better than it is now: only the House can afford them protection.

I am a member of the laity. It is relatively easyin physical and financial terms, if not in spiritual termsfor members of the laity to leave the Church. But there are many missionaries, monks, nuns and chaplains for whom it will not be at all easy and this Measure denies them any help.

The way in which my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby proposed the motion showed, in large measure, the attitude that l hope the House will adopt. Even if hon. Members cannot understand the reasons involved, l ask them to understand that the matter goes well beyond rights and secular concerns. The sacramental nature of the priesthood is precious, and some people will never be about to come round to the change. At least 60 clergy have already left the Church, and I believe that many more will go when the Measure is passed and the first priestess ordained - because they will then be confronted with the utter reality, and will know that there is no turning back .

Members of the laity can make the decision that the right hon. Member for Chesterfield suggested was so easy .We can just go, albeit with a huge struggle; but the clergy cannot, and they are not well covered by the compensation Measure. The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey and my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby have more or less admitted it. What will determine whether those people receive any protection is the amount of money that the Church Commissioners haveand, we know, the Church Commissioners are facing a bIack hole of £800 million, which is not entirely accounted for.

I think it important that we do not, at any rate, vote for the second Measure. As for the first, I seek to persuade no one. I think that the issue of the sacramental priesthood very personal: it is based on a person's own spirituality belief, prayer and receipt of the Holy Spirit. I do seek to persuade the House, however, to recognise the grievous position that those in holy orders who share my viewsthere are some in my own familynow face.

I do not believe that the Church has yet done all that it may. I do not believe that the provisions outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby, which will sustain the freedom to dissent, are sustainable. They are okay for an immediate transition, but l do not believe that the conscience clause will be worth the paper that it is not written on in 10 years' time in the Church of England.

I think that we shall find a self-selecting Church where vocations are not recognised for priests who do not believe in the ordination of women, where preferment is denied to bishops, or would-be bishops, who do not believe in the ordination of women. The transition period may be quite satisfactory, but it is unsustainable. The Measure, as drawn, is designed to be unsustainable. It is designed not to be written down as legally binding forever. I think that we have given a raw deal.

The Church had a simple option. It could have included certain specified categories of people and still had an open category for discretion. It could have included those people within the statutory compensation package. It did not. I am not respectful of the way that the Church of England has put its message across in recent years. That is no secret to anybody, but contrary to the views of the right hon. Member for Chesterfield and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, who spoke as a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee, although the division between myself and the Church of England is very deep, although the disrespect that l feel for a lot of itbut not all of Itis deep, I never want to see that Church disestablished. If the price that we have to pay for having an established Church is that unbelievers and others will be voting on Anglican Measures, it is a price worth paying, if the other option is finally to remove the tenuous spirituality of this country, where only the recognition of an established Church, through having a crown which holds its authority as a result of a coronation by an Archbishop of Canterbury, gives us religion in schools. If we cut those links, it will be the death of spirituality in Britain. I do not believe that the Church of England has done much to promote it.