By John Ellis
Constance Todd, shortly to become Constance Coltman, was ordained to the ministry of word and sacraments in the Congregational tradition in 1917. Another milestone on the same journey was reached when Libby Lane was consecrated a bishop in the Church of England and it was a privilege to be one of the official ecumenical guests participating in the service. Indeed Jackie Embrey, our Mersey Synod Moderator, and I led the ecumenical procession down the long nave of York Minster. In truth this was for the purely practical reason that the Head Verger was a confident we knew where we were meant to go in the complex seating plan, but maybe a few of the 1,000 in the congregation thought it symbolically appropriate that where those in the Congregational tradition lead, the rest eventually follow.
Of course not everyone in the Church of England shares the conviction that the Holy Spirit is just as likely to call a woman to Church leadership as a man. When the Archbishop of York asked the congregation whether it was their will that Libby Lane should be ordained a bishop a cry of “It is” was followed by a lone protester coming forward and objecting. The Archbishop calmly read a prepared statement in response, focusing on the legality of the occasion. It made a distinctively Anglican argument, drawing on his obligation to do what the Queen as Supreme Governor of the Church had, by the Royal Mandate read earlier in the service, commanded him to do.
Libby Lane was ordained to the episcopate as over one hundred Anglican bishops from England and beyond joined in an act of laying on of hands. A few, such as the Lord Bishop of Chichester, chose to be present but not to join in on grounds of conscience. Nevertheless, within the more profound unity that Christ gives us in the Eucharist, it was possible for me to share the Peace with him and that felt like an important moment too. Amongst much else, this grand occasion was a case study in ways of handling difference.
Grand and historic it undoubtedly was and amongst the questions put to the new Bishop of Stockport was “Will you strive …. for the visible unity of Christ’s Church?” to which she replied “By the help of God, I will”. We must pray that this appointment and the new norm it represents will not just refresh the Church of England but remove one of the blockages to closer ecumenical engagement in England.
The Archbishop invited some of us to lunch afterwards at Bishopthorpe Palace, a home somewhat larger than the average URC manse, where a blazing log fire in the State Banqueting Room was an effective antidote to the Yorkshire winter weather. Cardinal Wolsey, absentee Archbishop of York, looked down on us from his portrait and we were glad that there is more to Henry VIII’s Church of England than Wolf Hall.