The following news story appeared Jan. 11, 2007, on the front page of The Church of England Newspaper. It is re-presented here by kind permission of the editor.

  Panel of Reference: “Women cannot be forced on parishes”  

by George Conger


Anglicans cannot be compelled to accept the ministry of women clergy, the Archbishop of Canterbury's Panel of Reference stated this week.

"No diocese or parish should be compelled to accept the ministry of word or sacrament from an ordained woman" the report released on Jan 8 said, noting that the "non-acceptance" of women priests was a "recognized theological position" within the Anglican Communion.

The Panel asked the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams to intercede on behalf of Fort Worth with the US Church, asking the US Church to clarify its canons and honor the right of conscience of opponents of the ordination of women.

Though the Panel's recommendations are advisory and deal with a complaint brought by the Diocese of Forth Worth against the Episcopal Church, the decision upholding a right of conscious for opponents of women priests over a right to unlimited access to ministry by women will affect the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion and gives American opponents of the ordination of women their first victory in 30 years.

The report further isolates US Presiding Bishop Katharine Schori a month before the Tanzania meeting of Primates. In her first press conference as Presiding Bishop last June, Bishop Schori dismissed opponents of women's orders as Donatists, unschooled in theology and church history.

Monday's report comes in response to a 2005 appeal by the Diocese of Fort Worth and its Bishop, Jack Iker. In 1974 the Episcopal Church permitted, but did not require dioceses to ordain women clergy. However in 1997 the church modified its canons stating "no one shall be denied access to the ordination process in any parish or diocese" on account of their gender, making the ordination of women mandatory.

Following the creation of the Panel of Reference in 2005, Bishop Iker filed an appeal for relief arguing that as he could not, in good conscience, ordain women to the priesthood, the mandatory acceptance of women priests made him liable to be removed from office and would prevent Fort Worth from electing future bishops opposed to women clergy.

Bishop Iker argued the rights of women who sought ordination in his diocese were adequately protected by the "Dallas Plan" he created in 1996, that transferred prospective women clergy to the neighboring Diocese of Dallas, and permitted Fort Worth parishes who sought to engage a woman priest to transfer their pastoral oversight to the Bishop of Dallas, a supporter of women clergy.

Former US Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold disputed Bishop Iker's characterization of the canons and the political climate within the Episcopal Church, saying the canon did not discriminate against traditionalists.

Fort Worth's appeal was investigated by Panel members Michael Evans, QC, the chairman of the Church in Wales Standing Committee, and retired Archbishop Walter Makhulu of Central Africa and a preliminary report was given to the Panel in May.

Panel chairman, retired Archbishop Peter Carnley rewrote the report and it was unanimously endorsed by the full Panel and released to Lambeth Palace in December. Bishop Iker was notified of the decision on Jan 3, but asked Lambeth Palace to delay the release of the report to Jan 8.

The final report backed Bishop Iker, applauded the Dallas Plan and asked Dr. Williams and Bishop Schori to commend it to the wider Anglican Communion.

Dr. Schori was circumspect in her response to the recommendations, saying "we recognize that women do have access to ordination under the Dallas plan at present, which seems to address the intent of the canon."

Supporters of women's ministry within the Episcopal Church, however were outraged.

The Panel's backing of Fort Worth and its recommendation that a litmus test of support for women clergy not be applied to future bishops "not only calls for flagrant disobedience of the constitution and canons of the Episcopal Church, but also preserves and promotes a system of institutional sexism and misogyny," Episcopal Women's Caucus president the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton said.

Bishop Iker stated he was "gratified that our conscientious position has been vindicated by this impartial, international body of church leaders."

Conservative leader Bishop Robert Duncan of Pittsburgh reveled in the snub handed to the US church establishment. "It is clearly up to the leadership of The Episcopal Church to choose either to continue pushing faithful Episcopalians who disagree with the majority on this issue out the door, or to accept the constructive work of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Panel of Reference," he said.