Oaths of Canonical Obedience

A number of conservative evangelical ordinands and clergy are concerned that the requirement to take an oath of canonical obedience could compromise their complementarian theological convictions if the bishop to whom they took their oath was a woman. To some, the commitment to “obedience” sounds very like “submission”, which seems to be contrary to our understanding of the Bible’s teaching. This concern is deepened by the language of the BCP Ordinal which specifically asks clergy to obey their Bishop, ‘following with a glad mind and will their godly admonitions, and submitting yourselves to their godly judgements’.

However, there is a strong argument that submission to a female ‘head’ is not taking place. The declaration explicitly says, in a section devoted to oaths, that ‘all ministers of the Church of England will be able, in good conscience, to take the oath’ and that ‘the giving and receiving of the oath does not entail acting contrary to theological conviction.’

How can this be?
One answer is given in the Declaration itself. It emphasizes that the obedience is ‘canonical obedience’, not personal obedience. This is a requirement of law whether or not an oath is taken. The fact that it is given to a particular bishop is simply ‘a recognition of the pattern of relationships which underpins the exercise of ministry by those who make and those who receive the oath.’

A second answer is that since the oath is about ‘canonical’ obedience, we must turn to the canons to discover what is required. Those canons include Canon C29 which specifically provides for a grievance procedure for those who cannot in conscience accept the ministry of women bishops. In other words, there is canonical recognition that theological convictions relating to gender and ministry should not be offended. 

In short, this may legitimately mean that the oath cannot imply obedience in a spiritual sphere to a female bishop. One way in which individuals can reassure themselves about this is by saying (or writing) to the Bishop that in view of the statements in the House of Bishops’ Declaration, in taking the oath that individual is not vowing to obey in any way that would entail acting contrary to theological conviction.

What about licenses?
If a person does not receive the spiritual ministry of a particular Bishop by being in a resolution parish, their license or permission to officiate is a matter of legal rather than spiritual oversight, so it is necessary for the Diocesan Bishop to issue it.  That license or PTO is explicitly necessary for the proper oversight of safeguarding, so is essential for ministry in the Church of England.

A longer theological consideration of this issue may be found in this paper: Bishops impaired fellowship and licenses.