For more than thirty years now I have been an observer and sometime participant in what I will here call the conservative Episcopalian mess. The departure of more orthodox Episcopalians from an apostatizing mainstream headed by weak and clownish English archbishops and astoundingly aggressive heretics in North America, contained no real surprises, for this is the predictable fruit of religious liberalism hatched upon an ignorant, passive, and venal laity, that we have seen in other major Protestant churches, and from which modern Roman Catholicism, especially under a Nice Pope, is unlikely to be much of a refuge.

What I have found somewhat surprising, I suppose because my knowledge of the ecclesial geography was not very deep early on, was what a hard time conservative Anglicans have had getting their act (literally) together. Now to be sure, my “geographical” knowledge has increased over the years, so that I understand quite well that “conservative” applies to a number of incompatible or barely compatible attitudes. It covers the traditionalist for whom a charge of heresy applies to any change from the 1928 Prayer Book (even though that Prayer Book is a liberalization of older ones—it leaves out, for example, the bride’s charge to “obey”), to the dotty eccentrics of many varieties for which this Church is so famous, to those who reject women’s ordination principally because they are homosexual misogynists, to the odd clerical ducks for whom departure from the Episcopal Church gave them the chance to become bishops (the Volo Episcoparis and their numerous episcopi vagantes), to sober, reasonable, and catholic-minded Christians who loved the beauties of the most liturgically traditional, least sectarian-minded, and most cultured of Protestant churches.

Many of the latter (almost 1,000 parishes) have been shaken down now into yet another continuing Anglican establishment, the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), which, however, cannot make up its collective mind about the original reason for the modern day schisms among the churches of the Anglican Communion, namely, women’s ordination. To effect the unification of the new denomination, a compromise similar to that used by the Evangelical Presbyterian Church has been used: whether women can be ordained to the presbyterate is decided locally; in the case of ACNA, who may be ordained is governed by the canons of the individual dioceses, which vary.

Presiding Bishop Foley Beach, who is himself opposed to women’s ordination, notes in favor of the arrangement that “a lot of the women priests in ACNA have stood side-by-side with a number of our bishops and clergy who are against women’s ordination when they were in the Episcopal Church. These women argued for the right of these bishops to have the freedom to not ordain women. Women’s ordination is a very complicated issue, because we’ve got people who have given their heart and soul on each side. And, these people are sincere; they’re godly”

This is the center of the mess. The sort of people who should be in authority in the churches should evince the kindness, loyalty, and reasonableness seen in Bp. Beach. Here we have no evident crotchetiness, misogyny, queerness, vain ambition, pigheaded resistance to reasonable change, or simpering, lacy, power-addicted prelacies. The women priests are doubtless superior Christians of deep sincerity, and when considered functionally, pastoral competence.

But they are not men. As worthy as they may otherwise be, they cannot stand in the place of the man, with all the theological, sacramental, and symbolic significance of the male who is Christ, the head of the church, and in whose place the officiant at pulpit, altar, and the father of the congregation stands. The conservative priestess does not mean to, but she denies Christ by denying the testimony of his maleness as the incarnate Son, and stands where she does with and because of egalitarians who set the sex of the Lord at nought by teaching that the significance of his incarnation and Lordship lies only in his humanity and not in his sex. Translated into the convictions of the mediating churches this means that women priests, being fully human, are for that reason seen as just as qualified for the presbyterial office as men are—and in the case of the leaders of ACNA—that the denomination as a whole, in its generosity, good temper, reasonableness, and patience, is willing to give forth an uncertain sound on the “oughtness” of women’s ordination.

Who will deny that many women presbyters have the most pious intentions and aspirations?  But what does this matter when the question of whether they may hold this office is essentially theological, and calls for a yes or no conclusion?  I would ask ACNA in particular whether their toleration of women priests can stand up to serious examination in light of the doctrines to which they profess to hold, reflected in the symbolic life of their church, and whether a negative response to this question can sustain adequate ground for including in their communion those who answer it positively. The issue goes to the heart of the doctrine of Christ (that is why egalitarian theologians are so concerned with leveling the Trinity to comport with their views), and because of this it is a matter of “essentials” that cannot be treated as adiaphora or an article covered by exhortations to charity.

This confusion is of the least eradicable kind, for it is found where there is much solid thinking, good will, reason, courage, and integrity, so that addressing the problem properly looks like the pettiness and compulsiveness of inferior versions of continuing Anglicanism from which many of the member churches of the ACNA have made a long and painful escape, and in which this seemingly small measure of liberality is a valued–and necessary–part of a new identity.