How to agree to differ

Dr Martin Davie on the preparation of the Rochester Report

A vital issue for the Church of England, as for any church, is how to handle those matters on which the members of the church disagree.

This is, of course, not a new issue. In the earliest days of the Christian Church there was passionate disagreement on the question of whether Gentiles who became Christians needed to be circumcised and obey the Jewish law in its entirety. St Luke tells us that in order to resolve this issue, which was threatening to divide the Church, a council was held in Jerusalem (Acts 15. 1—35) at which the issue was debated and the will of God was discerned.

What the story of the Council of Jerusalem points us to is the truth that if collective discernment of the will of God is to be achieved, then there needs to be a godly discussion of contentious issues. As the ARCIC report The Gift of Authority notes:

In changing situations producing fresh challenges to the Gospel, the discernment, actualization and communication of the word of God is the responsibility of the whole people of God. The Holy Spirit works through all members of the community, using the gifts he gives to each for the good of all.’

 

People of God

In order that the people of God can discharge this responsibility it is necessary for discussion to take place, so that there is the opportunity for the voice of the Holy Spirit to be heard through the different contributions made by those taking part.

However, for debate to be fruitful it needs to be informed debate. The voice of the Holy Spirit is heard not in spite of, but most often on the basis of, careful study and reflection of matters under discussion.

In Acts 15, for example, we see a decision being made after careful consideration on the basis of three factors: the theological argument from St Peter that the basis of salvation was by grace through faith and not through observance of the Jewish law (Acts 15.6—11), the testimony of St Barnabas and St Paul as to what they had seen God doing among the Gentiles (Acts 15.12) and an exposition of Amos 9.11—12 by St James (Acts 15.13—21). There is an interplay between a general theological argument, the testimony of experience, and the exploration of the meaning of specific biblical texts, and it is on this basis that a letter was sent out saying ‘... it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us’ (Acts 15.28).

The question of whether there should be women bishops is one on which there is currently disagreement in the Church of England, and it was a concern that the debate about this issue should be a properly informed one that underlay the motion by the Archdeacon of Tonbridge, Judith Rose, which was passed by General Synod at its meeting in July 2000:

That this Synod ask the House of Bishops to initiate further theological study on the episcopate, focussing on the issues that need to be addressed in preparation for the debate on women in the episcopate in the Church of England, and to make a progress report on this study to Synod in the next two years.

 

Working party

The House of Bishops responded to this motion by setting up a Working Party under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Rochester to undertake this study and both the composition of this Working Party and the way it has gone about its work have been intended to ensure that its report will help the debate that will take place in General Synod and in the Church of England more widely to be as well informed as possible.

The members of the Working Party were deliberately intended to represent a broad cross-section of the Church of England. The membership has consisted of bishops (both diocesan and suffragan), and both male and female clergy and lay people with a wide range of academic, pastoral and ecumenical experience. In addition, there have been two ecumenical representatives, one Roman Catholic and one Methodist, and two consultants chosen for their academic expertise. Administrative and secretarial support has been provided by staff members from Church House, Westminster.

In addition to the forms of diversity already mentioned, it also needs to be noted that those on the Working Party have reflected a wide variety of different forms of church

tradition and theological approach, and a spectrum of different opinions on both the general issue of the ordination of women

and the specific issue of their ordination as bishops. In this way, they have reflected the diversity of approaches within the Church of England as a whole and have helped to make sure that a range of different points of view have been heard.

The ability of the Working Party to reflect on a range of different convictions and approaches has been further enhanced by the fact that it has received over seven hundred submissions which have come from Anglican provinces, partner churches, parochial church councils, church organizations and individuals. All these submissions have been worked through and they have formed a valuable contribution to the Working Party’s work.

The Working Party has also met with seven individuals and representatives of six groups during the course of its meetings. The individuals have included Bishop Basil of Sergievo representing the Orthodox tradition, the Rt Revd Victoria Matthews from the Church of Canada and the Revd Professor Eric Brod from the Church of Sweden. The groups who sent representatives have included Women and the Church, Forward in Faith and the Third Province Movement. These meetings have given an opportunity for an open exchange of ideas, experiences and opinions and much of the material that was presented to the Working Party at these meetings has been included in its final report.

 

Exploration

From the outset of their work it has been clear to the members of the Working Party that their task has not been to anticipate the outcome of subsequent debates by recommending whether or not the Church of England should ordain women bishops.

Instead, their task has been to try to assist these future debates by providing those who will take part iii them with the information they will need in order to hold the kind of properly informed debate referred to earlier.

In specific terms this has meant trying to help people to think in an informed fashion about three key questions.

In the course of its work the Working Party has explored these questions in as comprehensive, thorough and objective manner as possible. It has listened carefully to the arguments on all sides of the debate, and in drawing up its report it has drawn both on the submissions and presentations made to the Working Party and also on the extensive literature that relates to the issues under discussion. In particular, the Working Party has looked with great care at the literature relating to key biblical passages such as Genesis 1 and 2, 1 Corinthians 11.2—16, Gal 3:28, and 1 Timothy 2.9—15 that are at the heart of the debate about the ministry of women.

 

Development

In order to set these questions in a proper context the Working Party has also considered how the bishop’s role is understood and exercised in the Church of England, how women’s ministry has developed in the Church of England, and the central issue of how we should assess theologically a proposed development such as the ordination of women as bishops in the light of scripture understood with reference to tradition and reason.

As has already been explained, the Working Party has represented a spectrum of views on the issues that have been under discussion. This has meant that there have been genuine and deeply felt differences of opinion within the Working Party and the process of exploring these differences together has sometimes been a painful one. Nevertheless, at the end of their work the Working Party has been able to produce a unanimous report, and what they have also been able to model for the wider church is a process of discussion and debate in which genuine and serious disagreements can be aired in a context of prayer, mutual charity, and a shared commitment to discern the will of God and pursue the welfare of God’s people.

It is the hope of the members of the Working Party that this model will be followed in the debates about the ordination of women bishops in the Church of England as a whole in the years to come.

  Dr Martin Davie is the secretary to the House of Bishops Working Party on Women in the Episcopate.

  Endnote

The Gift of Authority London, Toronto and New York: CI’S, Anglican Book Centre and Church Publishing Incorporated 1999 p17

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