By coincidence, a potentially historic speech about women that received little media fanfare was made two weeks before America’s Episcopal Church elected Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori as its leader, the first woman to head a branch of the international Anglican Communion.
The speaker was Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s top official on relations with non-Catholic Christians, addressing a private session with the Church of England’s bishops and certain female priests.
Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, spiritual leader of the 77 million Anglicans, invited Kasper to discuss the English church’s projected move to allow women bishops. To date, only the United States, Canada and New Zealand have female Anglican bishops.
Official Catholic and Anglican negotiators have spent four decades working toward shared Communion and full recognition of each other’s clergy and doctrine. Mincing no words, Kasper said that goal of restoring full relations “would realistically no longer exist” if Anglicanism’s mother church in England consecrates women bishops.
“The shared partaking of the one Lord’s table, which we long for so earnestly, would disappear into the far and ultimately unreachable distance. Instead of moving towards one another, we would coexist alongside one another,” Kasper warned, though some cooperation would continue.
In the New Testament and throughout church history, Kasper explained, bishops have been “the sign and the instrument of unity” for local dioceses and Christianity worldwide. Thus, women bishops would be far more damaging than England’s women priests.
This centrality of bishops also explains why within world Anglicanism there’s far more upset about U.S. Episcopalians’ consecration of an openly gay bishop than earlier ordinations of gay priests. But Kasper didn’t repeat Rome’s equally fervent opposition to gay clergy.
The cardinal said women bishops should be elevated only after ‘‘overwhelming consensus’’ is reached with Catholicism and like-minded Eastern Orthodoxy.
Anglicans cannot assume Catholicism will someday drop objections to female priests and bishops, Kasper said. ‘‘The Catholic Church is convinced that she has no right to do so.’’
Why? Casual Western onlookers might suppose Catholicism’s stance is simple gender prejudice, but Kasper cited theological convictions that some Anglicans share.
The Vatican first explained its opposition to women priests in 1975 after then-Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan notified Pope Paul VI that Anglicans overall saw ‘‘no fundamental objections in principle’’ to female clergy. That year, the Anglican Church of Canada authorized women priests, followed by U.S. Episcopalians in 1976.
Pope Paul’s 1975 reply to Coggan said the gender ban honors ‘‘the example recorded in the Sacred Scriptures of Christ choosing his apostles only from among men; the constant practice of the church, which has imitated Christ in choosing only men; and her living teaching authority which has consistently held’’ this fits ‘‘God’s plan for his church.’’
This established basic points that were elaborated in a 1976 declaration from the Vatican’s doctrine office and a 1994 apostolic letter from Pope John Paul II.
Before Paul’s 1975 letter, Rome’s Pontifical Biblical Commission reportedly voted 12-5 to advise privately, ‘‘It does not seem that the New Testament by itself alone will permit us to settle in a clear way’’ whether to permit female priests.
The commission examined numerous Bible passages. Yes, Jesus’ 12 apostles were male, it said, and there’s no New Testament evidence of women serving explicit priestly functions. However, women filled leadership posts and enjoyed high status. One was even considered an ‘‘apostle’’ if Junio or Junias (Romans 16:7) was female.
Protestants who forbid women clergy don’t usually cite Jesus’ choice of male apostles but rather 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over men; she is to keep silent”). The Pontifical Commission said this Scripture perhaps referred ‘‘only to certain concrete situations and abuses,’’ not all women anytime and everywhere.