Catholics would do well to pay greater attention to the programme which resulted in the ordination of women in the Church of England.
Pope Francis, returning from Bulgaria, was asked on the plane about the committee he set up about three years ago to investigate the role of women deacons in the early church. There were as yet no firm conclusions, he told reporters: the experts varied in their opinions.
What should be noted about this exchange was the unspoken assumption on both sides that, if it could be agreed that female deacons were equivalent to their male counterparts, it would be a game changer in the debate about women in the priesthood.
This, of course, is very far from being the case. But the assumption is part of the armoury of the women’s ordination movement. In the CofE women were first made deacons (Bishop Graham Leonard, a doughty opponent of women priests, was persuaded by scholarly arguments, and backed the innovation). This opened the way for women deacons to take up roles which had previously been restricted to priests, and to seek election to the House of Clergy of the General Synod.
From positions of influence on committees and commissions, and with voting rights in the most conservative house of the Synod, women were able to press their case from within the establishment. And when women were finally ordained priest, the case had already been made for equality and parity. Women bishops were an inevitability.
At each stage, it was denied that any further developments were envisaged. Incremental but modest steps were the means of advancement.
So it will be in the Catholic Church, with covert Papal assistance. We are not dealing with a ‘slippery slope’ here, but with a carefully crafted programme of proven efficacy.