Women and the priesthood

November 17, 1992

No institution that survives over a span of centuries is unfamiliar with the constant tug between loyalty to tradition and acceptance of change. With its vote last week to ordain women as priests, the Church of England recognized that change is not incompatible with its mission -- and, in fact, is necessary to remain true to that mission.

The step has been debated for almost two decades, and it brings the church closer to its American counterpart, the Episcopal Church, as well as many other Protestant groups that ordain women. Traditionalists, however, have warned the decision will create a schism; the Vatican viewed the move with such alarm that it issued a statement saying it threatened a "grave obstacle" to reunification of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. Significant change never comes easy.

But change is also a sign of life -- and the Anglican church is sorely in need of renewal. If census data is any indication, Great Britain has become a secular society, despite the tax dollars it spends to support the Church of England. Only about 10 percent of the adult population -- roughly 3.7 million people -- say they regularly attend Sunday services, and of that number fewer than one in three attend Anglican services. In the past two decades alone, attendance at Anglican churches has dropped from 1.5 million people to 1.1 million. Those numbers suggest the real threat to the Church of England lies not so much in any prospective rift spurred by unhappy traditionalists, but rather in the indifference to the church by the large majority of Britons.

It is worth noting that the Anglican vote came only days before the gathering this week in Washington, D.C., of U.S. Roman Catholic bishops. One notable item on their agenda is the task of finding the least awkward way to set aside a nine-year effort to write a pastoral letter addressing issues concerning women and the church. Having solicited the opinions of 75,000 Catholic women around the country, the bishops ran into opposition from Rome and now face the risk of alienating or offending thousands of Catholic women if they continue the project. Indications now point to a compromise that will essentially table the measure without a potentially divisive debate.

But the issue of ordination, which lies at the heart of any discussion of women and the church, will not go away. Too many lay people, theologians, priests and even bishops recognize that Catholic women deserve at least a sound, scholarly examination of the ordination issue. The Vatican's disapproval has only delayed the debate, not ended it.

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