Leading Article: Keeping faith in competition

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THE CONTROVERSY in the Church of England over the ordination of women seems doomed to repeat that of almost a century and a half ago, when a theological quarrel starting in Oxford turned into a crisis of the entire Church establishment. Since the Synod agreed to ordain women, some of its members have resigned; prominent lay Christians, including Ann Widdecombe, the Social Security minister, appear on the point of becoming Roman Catholics; and Graham Leonard, the former Bishop of London, is considering a migration towards Rome that aspires to bring parish priests, their congregations and even church buildings themselves across with him.

The parallel with the Oxford Movement is significant because the row is not just about whether women should be allowed to become priests but also whether the Church of England should abandon its traditional view of itself as a Catholic Church in England. By admitting women to the priesthood unilaterally while the Roman church does not, say the malcontents, that is what the Synod has done. Hence the controversy, despite the generous terms that were offered those who wanted to keep women out of dog collars.

The Roman Catholic Church's increasingly sympathetic response to the minority has fuelled the flames. In a conspicuous lapse of the diplomacy for which he is famous, Cardinal Hume said in a recent interview that he regarded their wish to cross over as the beginning of the conversion of England for which Catholics had long prayed. No matter that he withdrew these inflammatory words: they struck fear into Anglican hearts. Early signs suggest that the Catholic establishment is willing to allow large numbers of married priests to retain their vocations under Roman auspices, while mainstream Catholic priests are forbidden to take wives.

This strategy has risks for both churches. Angry Catholics may complain to Cardinal Hume that their church is too flexible to former members of the Church of England but shows no quarter to its own members who demand that it should overtly change its line on contraception and abortion. For the Archbishop of Canterbury, the outstretched arms of the Catholic Church may beckon members of his flock who in calmer moments would realise the incompatibility of its views with their own on a far wider range of issues.

In principle, however, it is hard to argue against the idea that churches should be allowed to compete for believers. Such competition has gone on for centuries, notwithstanding the truce towards Protestantism implied by the Second Vatican Council; and it is one of the few external pressures that force religious establishments to keep themselves up to date with the views of the majority of their adherents. At a time when legislation is due to pass through the House of Commons that will forbid trade unions to make agreements not to poach one another's members, it would be bizarre to encourage churches to make such agreements. It is not only in temporal matters, but also in spiritual ones, that competition is desirable.