Gummer defects to Rome and brands Church of England 'a sect'

JOHN GUMMER, the Secretary of State for the Environment, accused the Anglican Church of reducing itself to 'a sect' by voting to ordain women priests, before he entered the Roman Catholic faith on Sunday, it emerged yesterday.

Mr Gummer, 54, is the second government minister to convert. Ann Widdecombe, Under-Secretary of State for Employment, did so at Westminster Cathedral last April, saying she had been 'voluntarily excommunicated' by its decision to admit women. Mr Gummer made his move privately at the Church of the Sacred Heart, in Westminster. It was not unexpected. Last year, he resigned from the Church of England General Synod, its ruling body, when it voted for women priests.

But yesterday, the minster insisted the controversy was an irrelevance. 'It is not about whether women can do the job. The fact is the Church has always taught otherwise,' he maintained. 'I don't have a view about the ordination of women.'

In the past, however, he has asserted that God is undoubtedly the Father, not the Mother, and the Movement for the Ordination of Women yesterday said it was convinced there was an element of sexism underlying his move.

The question of whether women should be ordained was also raised by George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, in a letter to Mr Gummer on Sunday. 'Many believe these women will bring a profound enrichment to (the) priesthood, reflecting more truly the pattern of the Incarnation, when God became human, not merely male,' he wrote.

Mr Gummer, however, claims the reason for his secession is the question of authority - that the Church of England did not have the power to decide unilaterally to ordain women priests. It was, he argued, such a fundamental change it could only have been approved by the 'universal church' - the Catholic, Anglican and Orthodox churches acting together. Because this did not happen, the Church of England had rendered itself little more than a 'sect' and betrayed its long-held claim that it had no principles or orders of its own but only those of the universal church.

'By it, the Church of England has invited those who believed themselves members of the Catholic Church instead to transfer their allegiance to a denomination and declare their adhesion to a sect,' he told George Carey.

The Anglican Church argues in its defence that, in voting to ordain women, it is not altering a word in the scriptures or the creeds. Besides, it says, seeking universal authority for such a move, as Mr Gummer demands, is a practical impossibility: the last time the universal church convened was at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787.

His conversion brought him both sadness and joy, Mr Gummer said yesterday. 'My only bitterness was I wasn't eloquent enough to convince people of the damage it (voting for women priests) could do.'