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Correspondence between Canterbury and Rome. 1984 - 1986. A further exchange of letters took place between Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Jan Willebrands

Correspondence between Canterbury and Rome

1984 - 1986

A further exchange of letters took place between Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, Pope John Paul II and Cardinal Jan Willebrands, President of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity. See the earlier correspondence between Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Coggan.

Numbering of paragraphs by John Wijngaards

Letter of Pope John Paul II to Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, 20 December 1984

Arms of John Paul II

1. The long but necessary task of evaluating the Final Report of the first Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission (CTS/SPCK, London 1982), in which both our Communions are now engaged, is a vital part of that journey of faith on which we have embarked together in our efforts to re-establish full ecclesial communion. It has been a joy to learn how seriously this task is being taken in so many countries, and how this study is frequently associated with joint action and common witness which express, as far as possible, the degree of communion which has already been brought about between us by the grace of God.

2. This degree of communion, indeed God’s very call to us to be one, also bids us face frankly the differences which still separate us. While the Catholic Church must always be sensitive to the heritage which she has in common with other Christians, she must nevertheless base frank and constructive dialogue upon clarity regarding her own positions.

3. It was in this spirit that, in an important exchange of letters in 1975-1976, Pope Paul VI affirmed to Archbishop Coggan the position of the Catholic Church concerning the admission of women to priestly ordination, a step at that time being considered by several Churches of the Anglican Communion. The reasons that he then stated briefly for the Catholic Church’s adherence to the long tradition on this matter were set out at length by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the Declaration Inter Insigniores of 15 October 1976. This same position was again stated clearly by observers from the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity during the hearing on this subject at the Lambeth Conference of 1978.

4. I know that Your Grace is well aware of the position of the Catholic Church and of the theological grounds which lead her to maintain it; indeed I am grateful that, in the recent debate in the General Synod of the Church of England, you referred to the implications of this question for Anglican relations with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. But the outcome of that debate prompts me to reaffirm with all brotherly frankness the continuing adherence of the Catholic Church to the practice and principles so clearly stated by Pope Paul VI.

5. With his well-known affection for the Anglican Communion and his deep desire for Christian unity, it was with profound sadness that Pope Paul VI contemplated a step which he saw as introducing into our dialogue ‘an element of grave difficulty’ even ‘a threat’. Since that time we have celebrated together the progress towards reconciliation between our two Communions. But in those same years the increase in the number of Anglican Churches which admit, or are preparing to admit, women to priestly ordination constitutes, in the eyes of the Catholic Church an increasingly serious obstacle to that progress.

6. Pope Paul VI stated that ‘obstacles do not destroy mutual commitment to a search for reconciliation.’ We too were ‘encouraged by our reliance on the grace of God and by all that we have seen of the power of that grace in the ecumenical movement of our time’ when we set up the new Commission whose task includes study of ‘all that hinders the mutual recognition of the ministries of our two Communions’ (Common Declaration, 29 May 1982, n. 3). It is in that same hope, in the charity that ‘hopes all things’ (1 Cor. 13:7) but which seeks the unity of Christ’s Body by ‘speaking the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) that I write these words to you, my dear Brother, as we celebrate the Birth of the Lord who came in ‘the fullness of time to unite all things’ (Eph. 1:10).

Pope John Paul II

Letter of Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, to Pope John Paul II, 11 December 1985

Canterbury Archbishop

1. The Churches of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church are fully committed to the quest for full ecclesial unity. No-one, however, anticipates that the path towards unity will be without difficulties. One such difficulty, I fully recognize, is the difference of thinking and action about the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood.

2. The receipt of your letter of December last year on this question therefore prompted me to confidential consultation with the Primates of the autonomous provinces of the Anglican Communion throughout the world. They also judged your letter to be of great importance and by various means themselves sought the counsel of their own Provinces. Accordingly it is only now that I am able to make a substantive reply to your letter in the light of the responses I have received from the different parts of the Anglican Communion.

3. Before all else I want to thank Your Holiness for the constructive and frank character of your letter. The question of the admission of women to the ministerial priesthood is a divisive matter not only between our Churches but also within them. It is surely a sign of both the seriousness and the maturity of Anglican-Roman Catholic relations that we can exchange letters on a subject surrounded by controversy. I read your letter as an expression of that responsibility in pastoral care for the unity of all God’s people which is part of the office of the Bishop of Rome. You may be certain that I received your letter in the same spirit of brotherly love with which it was sent and also intend this reply to reflect that ‘speaking the truth in love’ of which your letter spoke.

4. In this fraternal spirit I am bound to report that-although Anglican opinion is itself divided-those Churches which have admitted women to priestly ministry have done so for serious doctrinal reasons. I have therefore felt an obligation to explain this more fully in a letter to His Eminence Cardinal Jan Willebrands, President of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, whose recent letter to the Co-Chairmen of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission now raises the discussion of the reconciliation of ministries to some prominence in the theological dialogue between our Churches (Anglican Orders - a new context). I fully realize what a serious obstacle the actual admission of women to the priesthood appears to place in the way of such a possibility.

5. I would therefore propose to Your Holiness the urgent need for a joint study of the question of the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood, especially in respect of its consequences for the mutual reconciliation of our Churches and the recognition of their ministries. Indeed such a study seems already implicit in the mandate of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission expressed in our Common Declaration at Canterbury of 29 May 1982.

6. Though the difficulty is grave, to face it together would, I suggest, give real substance to the hope expressed at the end of your letter. While neither of us can under-estimate the seriousness of this obstacle, I know that we are both convinced that our two Communions ought to maintain the mature trust in each other which has been built up over recent years. Because we have a grave responsibility to continue and intensify our co-operation and dialogue in everything which promotes our growth towards unity, there is a special obligation to tackle such a potentially serious difficulty. In this I believe our two communities will be sustained by their hope and confidence in the Holy Spirit, who alone can bring unity to fulfilment-a fulfilment we need to strive for without wearying and to receive in humility as his gift.

Letter of Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury to Cardinal Jan Willebrands, President of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, 18 December 1985

Canterbury Archbishop

1. The letter sent to me by His Holiness Pope John Paul II of December last year concerning the question of the admission of women to priestly ordination is one of great importance and weight. As I have explained to His Holiness, I have needed time for reflection and consultation within the Anglican Communion before making a considered and substantive reply. I am deeply conscious that such a letter would not have been written if the Churches of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church were not deeply committed to the search for full ecclesial unity and that the far reaching progress already achieved may appear to be checked by the actual admission of women to the priesthood in some Anglican Provinces-and its possibility in others including the Church of England.

2. In my letter to the Holy Father I have stated that those Provinces which have acted in this matter have done so for serious doctrinal reasons. I have also said to the Holy Father that I feel an obligation to explain this more fully to you both out of respect for the integrity of those Anglican Provinces which have so acted and because an authentic ecumenical dialogue must be built upon the utmost candour as well as charity. It is my sincere hope that this letter will help the Roman Catholic Church to interpret the opinions and actions of the Churches of the Anglican Communion more intelligibly and sympathetically, while still dissenting from the position of some Anglican Provinces in admitting women to the ministerial priesthood.

3. In the first place it must be said that the Holy Father’s statement of the position of the Roman Catholic Church will clarify the dialogue between our Churches. Those responsible for the dialogue between us will be able to pursue their task more realistically by knowing that the position of the Catholic Church remains the same as it was in the exchange of letters between Pope Paul Vl and my predecessor, and more fully set out in the Declaration of the Sacred Congregation of the Faith Inter lnsigniores of 1976. Ecumenical dialogue must be based on the presentation of the authentic positions of the Churches. While some Roman Catholic theologians may have suggested otherwise to Anglicans, I understand the Holy Father’s letter as affirming that the Roman Catholic Church believes that it has no right to change a tradition unbroken throughout the history of the Church, universal in the East and in the West, and considered to be truly Apostolic.

4. On the Anglican side there has been a growing conviction that there exist in Scripture and Tradition no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood. This has been expressed synodically by a number of Provinces. Within the internal debate upon this matter-a debate which has developed with growing intensity for over forty years-Anglicans would generally doubt whether the New Testament by itself alone permits a clear settlement of the issue once and for all.

5. When we turn to the Tradition of the universal Church, those Anglican Provinces which have proceeded to the ordination of women to the presbyterate have done so with the sincere conviction that the Tradition is open to this development, because the exclusion of women from priestly ministry cannot be proved to be of ‘divine law’. Nor have they intended to depart from the traditional understanding of apostolic ministry. Nevertheless, I recognize that in view of the universal Tradition of East and West, it is insufficient simply to state that there are no fundamental reasons against the admission of women to the priesthood. For so significant a theological development it is not enough to assert that there are no reasons against such a proposed action. It is also necessary to demonstrate compelling doctrinal reasons for such a development.

6. Leaving aside sociological and cultural considerations, as these bear mainly upon the question of whether such ordinations would be opportune, I feel an obligation to report to Your Eminence what I consider to be the most substantial doctrinal reason, which is seen not only to justify the ordination of women to the priesthood by some Anglican Provinces, but actually to require it.

7. The fundamental principle of the Christian economy of salvation - upon which there is no question of disagreement hetween Anglicans and Roman Catholics - is that the Eternal Word assumed our human flesh in order that through the Passion, Resurrection and Ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ this same humanity might be redeemed and taken up into the life of the Triune Godhead. In words common to both our liturgical traditions: ‘As he came to share in our humanity, so we may share in the life of his divinity.’

8. It is also common ground between us that the humanity taken by the Word, and now the risen and ascended humanity of the Lord of all creation, must be a humanity inclusive of women, if half the human race is to share in the Redemption he won for us on the Cross.

9. Some Anglicans would however then go on to point to the representative nature of the ministerial priesthood. They would argue that priestly character lies precisely in the fact that the priest is commissioned by the Church in ordination to represent the priestly nature of the whole body and also-especially in the presidency of the eucharist-to stand in a special sacramental relationship with Christ as High Priest in whom complete humanity is redeemed and who ever lives to make intercession for us at the right hand of the Father. Because the humanity of Christ our High Priest includes male and female, it is thus urged that the ministerial priesthood should now be opened to women in order the more perfectly to represent Christ’s inclusive High Priesthood.

10. This argument makes no judgment upon the past, but is strengthened today by the fact that the representational nature of the ministerial priesthood is actually weakened by a solely male priesthood, when exclusively male leadership has been largely surrendered in many human societies.

11. I must also say something of the experience of those Anglican Churches which have taken the step of admitting women to the ministerial priesthood. While honesty compels me to acknowledge deep division on this matter amongst Anglicans even to the extent of tensions which strain the bonds of communion-those Provinces which have taken this step have indicated to me that their experience has been generally beneficial. Nor have they yet heard compelling arguments to abandon this development. It is also possible that some other Provinces of the Anglican Communion will take similar decisions in their respective Synods.

12. It is however by no means a foregone conclusion that the General Synod of the Church of England will immediately move in such a direction, for it is not yet clear whether a sufficient consensus has been reached to effect the proposals called for by the Synod last November which prompted the Holy Father’s letter. Other Anglican Provinces have also indicated to me that they are unlikely to ordain women in the immediate future. While Anglican diversity of opinion and practice must be a difficulty for the Roman Catholic Church, I believe it is also an indication of the fact that Anglicans are still seeking the will of God in this matter. Nor can this be discovered by either of our Churches without the wider, general study and experience of the role of women m the community of the Church. In this context the admission of women to the diaconate in Anglican Churches is important, as is the ministry of women religious within the Roman Catholic Church.

13. As you already know, I am not myself convinced that action should be taken on ordination to the presbyterate by Anglicans alone, no matter how convincing the positive arguments, until there is a wider consensus in our Churches. I believe the argument for ecumenical restraint is also a doctrinal one because it is only in such a wider perspective that particular Churches can truly discern the mind of the whole Church.

14. At the same time realism, together with an acquaintance with the history of the Church, prompts me to recall that until such time as Christians have clearly discerned the mind of the Church in matters of contention, there has often arisen sharp discussion, debate and even conflict. It is indeed through such conflict and debate that the truth is often discerned. You will already know that the question of the ordination of women to the priesthood is the occasion of such sharp debate within the Anglican Communion at the present time. I also recognize that this development appears to be a serious obstacle to the eventual reconciliation of our Churches and have expressed this in my letter to the Holy Father.

15. It is at such difficult times that dialogue is essential. This is especially necessary in the light of the increasingly close relationship which has developed between the Churches of the Anglican Communion and the Roman Catholic Church in many parts of the world and in view of the crucial stage we are reaching as we engage in the task of evaluating the Final Report of the first Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission. It is also urgent in the light of the constructive letter you have sent to the Co-Chairmen of the ARCIC on the question of the reconciliation of ministries. I believe that letter provides the proper context for the dialogue I have proposed to the Holy Father. As the International Commission cannot fail to have to examine the ordination of women if it is to fulfil its mandate to study all that hinders the mutual recognition of the ministries of our Communions’ (Common Declaration, 29 May 1982), I also believe the Commission will be the right forum for this difficult discussion. Having said this it may be that we should envisage the possibility of some strengthening of the Commission by the addition of special consultants for this particular task.

16. Your Eminence will know that the writing of my letters to the Holy Father and yourself has been no light matter. When sister Churches have been estranged for four hundred years, but at last begin to see tangible signs of reconciliation, it is particularly painful to find this new obstacle between us. But in writing this fuller letter to you I have been helped by our personal friendship and by my absolute confidence in your sympathetic understanding of the Anglican position. I hope I have been able to express my consciousness of the reasons why the Roman Catholic Church finds herself unable to accept the ordination of women to the priesthood.

17. Though we do not yet see the way forward from what at present appear to be mutually incompatible positions-at least where some Anglican Provinces have actually ordained women to the priesthood-I am given hope by the fact that those who began the doctrinal dialogue between us twenty years ago did not themselves see the end from the beginning. May the same Holy Spirit which assisted them in the search for agreement in faith, and whose Report both Churches are in the process of evaluating and receiving, also assist their successors who will, should the Holy Father be in agreement with my proposal, have the weighty responsibility for seeking a way forward.

Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury

Letter of Cardinal Jan Willebrands, President of the Vatican Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, to Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, 17 June 1986

Papal Arms

1. I thank you most sincerely for your letter of 18 December 1985 on the question of the ordination of women. Especially I thank you for setting out so clearly the reasons why those Provinces of the Anglican Communion which have proceeded to ordain women to the priesthood feel justified in so doing. I acknowledge that your letter is the fruit both of considerable reflection on your part and of consultation with the Primates of the Anglican Communion. That this matter has been taken up so seriously is a measure of the confidence that exists between us and of the progress that has been made to overcome the divisions between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. It will be especially important for those who have the task of continuing the dialogue between our Communions to understand the theological reasons why some in the Anglican Communion see the ordination of women to be justified and even required. It is equally important that something be said about the mind of the Catholic Church in relation to the ideas and arguments set out in your letter.

2. My purpose in this reply is not to enter in an exhaustive analysis of the questions which this problem raises. I agree with you that this issue cannot fail to arise on the agenda of the second Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission which has the task of studying all those things which stand in the way of mutual recognition of each other’s ministries. It is in that context and in that perspective that I too would envisage further study and reflection on this question taking place.

3. What I would like to do is to refer to some specific points made in your letter and I wish first of all to speak to a point you make towards the end of your letter. You say that you yourself are not convinced that Anglicans should go ahead with the ordination of women ‘until there is a wider consensus in our Churches.’ This observation seems to me to open up a profound theological dimension of this question. The ordination only of men to the presbyterate and episcopate is the unbroken Tradition of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. Neither Church understands itself to be competent to alter this Tradition. In 1976 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, in the declaration Inter Insigniores, stated clearly that ‘the Catholic Church does not consider herself to be authorized to admit women to priestly ordination.’ The principal reason put forward in the declaration was that of Tradition (cf. 1-4). The constant Tradition of the Catholic and Orthodox Churches has considered the practice of Christ and the Apostles as a norm from which she could not deviate. The practice of the Church to ordain only men embodies her fidelity under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to what was given by Christ. The declaration, together with the earlier correspondence on the subject between Pope Paul VI and Archbishop Coggan, is where Catholics must look for guidance.

4. I am aware that some of those in the Anglican Communion who oppose the ordination of women give as their reason that since the Anglican Communion is part of the whole Catholic Church, it cannot undertake so radical a departure from Tradition independently of the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches. The Anglican Communion, on this view, cannot act alone and may not prescind from the practice and understanding of the wider Church. I propose that this point of view merits serious reflection. The Catholic Church takes very seriously the considerable progress that has been made towards our eventual goal of full communion of faith and sacramental life. Our greater unity must be a fundamental concern, and it has to be stated frankly that a development like the ordination of women does nothing to deepen the communion between us and weakens the communion that currently exists. The ecclesiological implications are serious.

5. Having said this, I take very seriously your point that those in the Anglican Communion who have proceeded to the ordination of women have only felt able to do so on the basis of serious theological conviction. This I welcome, since it must be clearly stated that this is a theological issue and cannot be resolved on sociological or cultural grounds. The question of the rights of women to hold secular office is a quite separate matter and should not in anyway be connected or paralleled with the question of women’s ordination. The context for that discussion is the context of sacramental theology and the tradition of the Church. My comments will, I trust, illustrate this point.

6. I have given considerable thought to the theological arguments for the ordination of women which you report. As I have said, I do not propose to deal in detail with this question, but I do wish to indicate why I consider these arguments to be unsatisfactory.

7. If I understand it correctly, the thrust of the argument is this: Christ is our High Priest. The humanity he assumed to accomplish our redemption was a humanity that included both male and female. That is to say, his humanity must be understood as an inclusive humanity, if the whole human race is to be able to enjoy the fruits of the redemption. Those who are commissioned as priests in the Church fulfil a twofold representative function: not only do they represent the priestly nature of the whole body of the Church; they also stand in a special sacramental relationship with the risen Christ. Especially in the Eucharist, they represent Christ. Since Christ’s humanity is inclusive of male and female, those who represent Christ in the Church would do so more perfectly if their number included both males and females.

8. My first observation would be to note that the language used in this argumentation is the language of priesthood and sacrament. This makes it clear that what is at issue is precisely the question of sacramental ordination of women to the ministerial priesthood. It is important to draw attention to this, so as to make clear that this discussion is directly relevant only to those Christians who share this understanding of Christian ministry. For our two communions, the stimulus to our present correspondence is the Final Report of the Anglican/Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC-I). That Commission claimed to have reached substantial agreement on the doctrine of ministry. So we are addressing a problem that arises in the context of real progress being made towards a common mind on the sacramental nature of ministry. In addressing this issue now, I write as one for whom the sacramental understanding of the ministry is part of the faith of the Church. The issue, then, is the ordination of women to the priesthood and, that being so, it is clear that the question of who can or cannot be ordained may not be separated from its appropriate context of sacramental theology and ecclesiology. The practice of only ordaining men to the priesthood has to be seen in the context of an ecclesiology in which the priesthood is an integral and essential aspect of the reality of the Church. It is in and through the ministry of priests that the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ is present reality. So there is real continuity between the redemptive work of Christ and the priestly office exercised both by those in the episcopal order and by their collaborators in the order of presbyters.

9. I do acknowledge and welcome the fact that the arguments for the ordination of women which you report are clearly arguments of those who believe deeply in the important place of the ordained ministry in God’s economy of salvation. But what I must seriously question is whether they constitute an adequate or proper understanding of that economy of salvation as revealed in the Scriptures and meditated and preached in the Church. I will give some indications of why I say this.

10. The picture of human redemption that is put before us in the Scriptures is of a God who is powerful to save and of a people who receive salvation as a free gift. Feminine imagery is used to reveal the place of the human family in God’s plan of salvation. In the Old Testament, the people of Israel is depicted as the bride of Yahweh. In the New Testament, St Paul speaks of the Church as the bride of Christ. In its tradition, the Church has understood itself in terms of this feminine imagery and symbolism as the Body which received the Word of God, and which is fruitful in virtue of that which has been received. Mary, the Mother of God, is, in her response to the Word of God, a type of the Church. Christ, on the other hand, is the Head of the Body, and it is through the Head that the whole Body is redeemed. It is precisely in this perspective that the representative role of the ministerial priesthood is to be understood.

11. Christ took on human nature to accomplish the redemption of all humanity. But as Inter lnsigniores says, ‘we can never ignore the fact that Christ is man.’ His male identity is an inherent feature of the economy of salvation, revealed in the Scriptures and pondered in the Church. The ordination only of men to the priesthood has to be understood in terms of the intimate relationship between Christ the Redeemer and those who, in a unique way, co-operate in Christ’s redemptive work. The priest represents Christ in his saving relationship with his Body the Church. He does not primarily represent the priesthood of the whole People of God. However unworthy, the priest stands in persona Christi. Christ’s saving sacrifice is made present in the world as a sacramental reality in and through the ministry of priests. And the sacramental ordination of men takes on force and significance precisely within this context of the Church’s experience of its own identity, of the power and significance of the person of Jesus Christ, and of the symbolic and iconic role of those who represent him in the eucharist.

12. In saying this I wish simply to make the point that the arguments you relay cannot count as reasons for the radical innovation of ordaining women to the priesthood; the arguments do not negotiate the manifold theological issues which this matter raises. The possible future consequences of introducing such a practice at this point of time also require careful attention.

13. This topic will, of course, continue to be a matter of discussion and in the context of the Anglican-Roman Catholic dialogue the most immediate question will be about how the ordination of women in some parts of the Anglican Communion affects progress towards fuller communion between us. We may not doubt that under the power and inspiration of God, whose ways are not our ways, and whose thoughts are not our thoughts, those deliberations will contribute towards the unity for which Christ prayed.

Cardinal Jan Willebrands


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