Really? We’re the problem?

You can’t make this up. For years, our friends in the Church of England have regularly scoffed at us here in the Episcopal Church in the USA. I know, not everyone has done this, but plenty of people have done so. It is, after all, the English pastime: being right. And who could blame some smirks now and then, what with clown masses and zydeco masses. (For the record, I happened to appreciate the experimental value of the masses in question.)

Now, friends, it’s time for the shoe to go on the other foot. Word comes from England that Blackburn Cathedral has set up two-track communion whenever a woman (gasp!) is presiding at the Holy Table. On those occasions, God-fearing (or, more accurately, woman-fearing) men can receive consecrated bread that is “untainted” by female hands.

I am not making this up. Ruth Gledhill writes,

Even Forward in Faith, the Church’s traditionalist lobby group, described the arrangement as unusual. Its spokesman Stephen Parkinson said: “I’ve never come across this before. It is pretty extraordinary. I can’t understand why the women priests put up with it.”

Dr Penfold and the Dean are on holiday and not available for comment. But the cathedral’s canon, Andrew Hindley, defended the arrangement. He said: “It was agreed by all the clergy and cathedral chapter that this was the best way to handle what we call a mixed economy.”

What you call a “mixed economy” I might call heresy. Donatism, to be exact. Here’s the thing: the Cathedral has accepted that women can validly preside at Holy Communion, as evidenced by the fact that they have such priests on their rota. If they did not receive women’s orders as valid, then there should be no women presiding. I’m not saying that to recognize only male priests is heresy; plenty of orthodox Christians hold that view. But once you’ve scheduled a presider, then Consecrated Bread is Consecrated Bread is Consecrated Bread.

Let’s take this to its extreme. I am a progressive person with strong vegetarian tendencies. Should I only receive Holy Communion from someone who has not sinned, in my view, by eating red meat? Of course not! This would be ridiculous. How is this different? Is it a question of the validity of women’s orders? No, remember? They’re on the Cathedral’s schedule. And then that same Cathedral creates a separate provision for people who are “uncomfortable” receiving Holy Communion consecrated by a woman. The logic simply does not hold. The Cathedral is teaching, by its practice, that sacraments are valid only sometimes, depending on the presider and the recipient.

So next time someone sneers at ECUSA for this or that, remind them that we are certainly not the exclusive purveyors of bits of bad teaching and poor taste in the Anglican Communion. I give thanks for our whole Church — for the moments we get it right, and for those moments we are reminded of the frailty and error of the humanity which constitutes the church. I do not give thanks when some people pretend they have it all figured out, when they clearly don’t. Sorry, Church of England, you’ve got this one wrong.

Oh, by the way, someone should tell the Dean of Blackburn that this practice is also forbidden in the 39 Articles (see number 28), which I believe are still held as authoritative in the Church of England. But, hey, look at the bright side! This whole incident has provided some excellent fodder for what will no doubt be a brilliant sermon by Susan Russell tomorrow in Pasadena.

Wave of the pyx to Thinking Anglicans. Photo from St. Peter’s ELCA in New York.

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11 Responses

  1. Rachel says:

    So. Right. On.

  2. Once again, excellent blog; not just because I like the way you’re pointing out the hypocracy but you are backing up your dispute with this practice with good, solid theology.

  3. GinnyRED57 says:

    I don’t think my theology is very solid (I’m no transubstantialist, if that’s the word for it) but this “two-track communion” is just so very wrong and bad.

    It’s called Communion for a reason.

  4. Judy Stark says:

    I thought it was well established that communion is valid regardless of the (perceived!) character/flaws/whatever of the person celebrating/distributing, or whether you happen to like the priest or think s/he is a jerk. This is between you and God. In any case: What’s next, the chador? Women who are still menstruating not allowed to serve on the Altar Guild? Goodbye, female acolytes/crucifers/chalice bearers/vergers/readers? Maybe all the women involved in ministry, lay or ordained, should just take a week off. The church would grind to a halt.

  5. Fr Alexander says:

    Wow, Scott. I can’t believe how completely you misunderstand and misrepresent what is going on here.

    Actually, the confusion begins in the Times Online piece, which totally confuses the issue by talking about “tainted hands” (wretched phrase, that). Then you compound the confusion by talking about Donatism. It is nothing of the kind. This has nothing to do with the worthiness or unworthiness of the minister; and the question of whose hands are tainted or untainted doesn’t even enter into it. It has everything to do with the validity and invalidity of orders and sacraments.

    Blackburn Cathedral’s practice represents an attempt at a pastoral concession to those Christians — in this case traditional Anglo-Catholics of whom there are many in that diocese — who cannot in conscience recognize women priests as validly ordained priests. (You and the readership of this blog may believe that view to be horribly mistaken, but in what you say above you seem to recognize it as a position that many good Christians can and do hold.) Hence such traditionalists cannot recognize the bread and wine that women priests attempt to consecrate as the validly consecrated Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ. And they cannot in conscience receive as a Sacrament what they do not recognize as a Sacrament. So, in the absence of such a pastoral concession, traditional Anglo-Catholics entering Blackburn Cathedral and unexpectedly encountering a woman presiding at the Eucharist have no option in conscience but to refrain from receiving. Blackburn Cathedral is to be commended for its attempt to meet the pastoral and spiritual needs of such traditionalists by providing them with an alternative to simply going without.

    The deeper problem is that what is effectively happening is that two distinct liturgical / sacramental actions are taking place simultaneously in the same space. The majority of worshipers are participating in a Eucharist presided over by a woman presbyter, while a minority are receiving Communion from the Reserved Sacrament but cannot really be said to be participating in the *same* Eucharist. That state of impaired-to-broken Communion between members of the same Church is thus being openly acknowledged and honestly faced up to — and I suspect that is the underlying reason why this seems scandalous. But you yourself have called for precisely such honesty in another context recently …

  6. Johnson says:

    The practice of ‘His ‘n’ Hers’ hosts is more common than Blackburn cathedral. I know of other parishes who have women presidents but also members of the congregation who cannot accept their ministry, hence the dichotomy. Whilst the situation is not wonderful, it seems the best solution to an unfortunate situation. However, in a Cathedral with a large staff perhaps a concelebrating altar party with at least one male concelebrant would do the trick?

  7. Phil Snyder says:


    Let me see if I understand. When someone wants to provide a “pastoral solution” in the “progressive” direction (blessing same sex unions, knowingly giving communion to someone who is not baptized) that is a good thing and should be encouraged.

    However, when someone wants to provide a pastoral solution in a “conservative” direction (e.g. providing communion consecrated by a person who everyone would recognize as a priest in valid succession), it is a bad thing and worthy of ridicule and straw man arguments?

    You are better than this! The issue is not one of fear of women or donatism. The issue is are women valid priests? Now, I believe that God can and does call women to the priesthood, but the vast majority of the Church Catholic (including the those churches with Apostolic succession) disagrees. It is not a question of gender, but of valid sacraments. To the anglo-catholic way of thinking, a woman is not valid matter for the sacrament of ordination and, thus, cannot validly celebrate Holy Communion.

    Phil Snyder

  8. Scott Gunn says:

    John, if there are those who do not accept the ordination of women, I can respect that, even as I disagree. My specific problem is with the Cathedral as an institution both recognizing women’s ordination (by allowing them to preside) and then not recognizing them (by providing male-consecrated bread). It creates exactly the problem you describe, in which there’s not clarity about what’s happening in the liturgical assembly or whether the sacrament is valid.

    “Pastoral provision” is an interesting term. Suppose I think that Rite II is both more pleasant and more Catholic in its theology than Rite I. Should I be provided with “Rite II wafers” when I visit St. Stephen’s? Or should I be given headphones so that I can hear the words that are more in accord with my views? No, at some level, I have to respect the identity of St. Stephen’s when I visit. You need not make “pastoral provision” for me, if I had those issues.

    By attempting to provide for the needs of Catholic-minded congregants, they have created a confusing, non-Catholic situation. There are better, more honest, ways to handle this.

    Donatism was not about women’s orders, as you say. But it was about the worthiness of ministers and the sacraments they consecrate. The Donatists did not believe that some ministers’ sacraments were valid, because they doubted the ministers’ validity. They were wrong, and I believe Blackburn Cathedral is wrong in its current practice.

    I did not intend to misrepresent anything, and if I have done so, I regret that.


  9. Scott Gunn says:


    For the record, not all progressives are monolithic, any more than all progressives are monolithic. You call me out on creating a “straw man” and then do the same. This progressive does not favor communion without baptism, for example.

    As I wrote to John, I think general pastoral responses is fine. Where are start to have trouble is “pastoral provision” within a single liturgical community. For example, the Bishop of Rhode Island permits latitude in observance of the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer by our two Anglo-Catholic parishes. That’s pastoral provision, and if she asked me I would support her in this decision.

    What would not make sense is pastoral provision for me should I decide to attend one of these two parishes next Sunday.

    Again, if I wasn’t clear, I am sorry. My objection is less about providing for those who do not accept women’s ordination than it is about the inherent contradiction in the practice of Blackburn Cathedral.

    Whether one should make pastoral provision for opponents of women’s ordination is indeed something I would like to take up, but it was not intended to be the focus of this post.


  10. Fr Alexander says:


    No, I don’t think you deliberately misrepresented anything — I know you better than that.

    Yes, there *are* better ways of handling this; the ambiguity of the situation created by the cathedral’s policy *is* troubling. Suppose a traditional Anglo-Catholic shows up at the Cathedral Eucharist and finds that she cannot recognize the validity of the Eucharist being presided over by a presbyter the validity of whose orders she cannot recognize, and she then decides to receive in the parallel administration of Holy Communion from the Reserved Sacrament that is taking place at the same time in the same place. Has she really participated in the Eucharist that has been offered in that place? Probably not; yet to all outward appearances, she has. (Especially since in many parishes Communion is administered from the Reserved Sacrament in addition to the hosts consecrated at the same Eucharist.) The arrangement thus carries a built-in confusion about what is really happening that cannot be edifying for anyone involved. Note the ambivalence expressed in the Times Online piece by the FiF representative when asked about this; it’s not clear that this is anything that traditional Anglo-Catholics have requested but rather something that has been offered to them as a sop by a Cathedral establishment seeking to smooth the introduction of female presidency at its Eucharists.

    That said, I still find it commendable that the Cathedral is honestly facing up to the reality of impaired communion within its congregation and trying to do *something* in the way of pastoral concession to the Anglo-Catholic minority. Unlike you, I don’t read it as speaking out of both sides of the mouth and saying that these Eucharists are valid and invalid at the same time. The Cathedral establishment is clear that they believe that these Eucharists *are* valid, but they also recognize that they are not universally received as such by members of their own congregation. Facing up honestly to that situation calls for *some* sort of pastoral concession, and this is the best they have come up with. Just out of curiosity, what do you think might be a better way of responding to the same concern? (Maybe setting aside one of the Sunday Eucharists on its schedule as one that will always have a male celebrant? I kind of think that would be preferable to the arrangement described here.)

    Your comments about Rite I really aren’t describing a comparable situation — unless you were to postulate that the use of Rite I renders a Eucharist *invalid* so that you cannot in good conscience receive Communion at a Rite I Eucharist; AND the church you are visiting is the cathedral of your diocese — where as someone visiting your mother church you might expect a level of pastoral concession that you would not expect from a parish not your own that you were visiting as a guest.

    As for the Donatists: in the context of that controversy and its resolution (as reaffirmed in Article XXVI) the term “worthiness” by definition refers to the *moral character* of the minister and nothing else. The Donatists believed that sacraments administered by bishops and priests who were notorious sinners (particularly reconciled apostates) were invalid. And that has absolutely nothing in common with with the position of those who affirm the traditional Catholic understanding of the priesthood as male. Quite the opposite, in fact. (Think about it.)

    With respect and affection, as always,


  1. July 25, 2009

    […] Really? We’re the problem? | Seven whole days Now, friends, it’s time for the shoe to go on the other foot. Word comes from England that Blackburn Cathedral has set up two-track communion whenever a woman (gasp!) is presiding at the Holy Table. On those occasions, God-fearing (or, more accurately, woman-fearing) men can receive consecrated bread that is “untainted” by female hands. […]

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