The Rochester Report

Edwin Barnes on first impressions and lasting solutions

 

THE ROCHESTER COMMISSION, preparing its report ‘Women Bishops in the Church of England?’, understood its brief as ‘the further study of episcopacy, so that the issues relevant to the admission of women to the episcopate in the CofE are raised and addressed’. Our first response, therefore, should be one of thankfulness that they have tackled it so clearly and even-handedly. This was not, I fancy, the response of some on first reading it; indeed, it was presented first to the House of Bishops, and it is rumoured there was pressure for change because the Report was seen, by some of the ‘liberal’ Bench, as giving too much space to the views of us ‘traditionalists’. The introduction to section 5 makes a spirited defence of the original Report, and its approach. But to begin at the beginning…

Disenfranchised

Even in its Introduction, the Report has to assert the need for adequate debate. ‘Without such discussion in the light of Scripture, tradition and reason decisions will be made simply of the basis of the beliefs held by those exercising positions of power and authority’ (my italics). So the Report seeks to defend the church from the preconceptions of those who at present hold power. In a recent radio debate, Christina Rees was happy to say there were only five bishops opposed to women’s consecration. She might have also said that at the time of the Vote in ’92 there were thirteen. It is not accidental that there are so few today. Despite the House of Bishops’ assertion in Bonds of Peace (as we are reminded in Chapter 3) that ‘we now enter a process in which it is desirable that those in favour and those opposed should be recognized as holding legitimate positions’, those same bishops have almost invariably appointed as their suffragans and archdeacons priests who supported women’s ordination. The result is, just as Christina Rees admits, that we are no longer represented among the bishops. And, she went on, ‘even those five are not supporters of the Third Province.’ That may or may not be true; but, if it is, it is yet more proof, if any were needed, that the period of ‘reception’ has been anything but open, and the treatment of the minority anything but generous.

The Report then moves on to its theological considerations – What is the nature of the episcopate as the CofE understands it? Can it be right in principle for a woman to be a bishop? Would this be the right time to make such a change? And finally, what provision, if any, should be made for those unable to accept women bishops?

Once again, the temptation is to cut to the chase, and look at the last chapter first. That would be a pity, since in rehearsing once more the theological arguments the Report leans very heavily on submissions by Forward in Faith and Reform and our other friends.

Christ’s call

It is curious that Chapter 2 (Episcopacy in the CofE) begins not with scripture, nor with the ordinal or our other foundation documents, but with various ecumenical reports. Sadly, this is the way theology is often done among the Anglican ascendancy these days. How good that our own report Consecrated Women? uses a more classical Anglican approach, begins with scripture, and gives the New Testament much more weight than the ecu-babble of BEM, Porvoo, Meissen, Reuilly and all the other reports on which so much time and money has been spent over the past quarter century. To be fair, though, Rochester does eventually get down to quoting from the ordinal, albeit only after ten pages of proving the necessity of suffragan bishops from the thirteenth canon of the Council of Ancyra and quotations from BEM (the magisterial LIMA Report) concerning the corporate ministry of the whole people of God. The unfortunate and slippery language of ‘sign’ and ‘signification’ so beloved by ecumenists, and graven in stone by BEM, is used far too often in Rochester. The directness of the ordinal is much to be preferred: ‘Our Saviour Christ continued the whole night in prayer before he did choose and send forth his twelve Apostles … Let us therefore first fall to prayer, before we admit and send forth this person … to the work whereunto we trust the Holy Ghost hath called him.’ No talk of sign or signification here. Just the certainty that Christ called the Twelve, and the church calls bishops.

There is a good deal said about collegiality, and the Report asserts that ‘Because of their consecration as bishops in the Church of God, bishops in the Church of England are also members of a college of bishops that embraces all bishops worldwide.’ Try telling that to the Pope! – though the Report does admit that ‘in the fragmented state of the worldwide church there are limited opportunities for this last fact to find expression or even recognition.’

This second chapter ends with a list of how the bishop’s role is currently understood in the CofE (para 2.8) and then asks the crucial question whether the ordination of women as bishops would be ‘simply be a further adaptation of the episcopal office to meet the circumstances of our time and our changed theological understanding of the relationship between men and women in the church’ or ‘whether it would represent a fundamental break with the historic continuity of the episcopate which the Church of England has hitherto sought to maintain.’

For this is not a Report of Answers: it simply seeks to set out the problems raised by the question of women as bishops, leaving it to the Synod to find the solutions. Now just as the House of Bishops has been distorted by the events of the recent past, we need to recognize that this is equally true of the other parts of General Synod, the houses of laity and clergy. The side-lining of Resolution C parishes by deaneries and dioceses, the refusal of bishops to give senior posts to traditionalist clergy, the constant delays or refusals faced by would-be ordinands from our tradition, and the departure from the CofE of hundreds of clergy and thousands of lay people have all conspired to give us a distorted synod. The reduction in membership of the Synod will exacerbate the problem, and the church will be even more completely in the hands of the liberal elite. It is this unrepresentative elite which will determine the way the Report, and any proposals for the treatment of our minority, will be handled, and we would be foolish to expect much generosity.

Popular?

Chapter 3 asks how we should approach the issue of whether women should be consecrated. It begins with four ‘popular approaches to the issue’. First, that it is self-evident that it should happen, and responds Why should what seems to be self-evident to some Christians today be seen as decisive, when this involves a rejection of what has seemed self-evident to most other Christians?

Then, that the move has widespread support. Daringly, the Report quotes Bishop Jewel (safely out of harm’s way in the sixteenth century) ‘there was great consent among them which … cried out against our Saviour, Crucify him.’ GRAS please note it was Bishop Jewel who said that, not Forward in Faith!

Thirdly, it takes the argument from the experience of women ministers and those who have benefited from their ministry. Again, it answers that relying on people’s personal sense of vocation ‘runs the risk of putting forward an excessively narrow understanding of how the Holy Spirit guides the Church.’ It also responds to the argument that ‘these women have the right gifts’ saying ‘the issue is whether, in the light of the order God has established … it is right for women to exercise the gifts that they have as bishops or whether they should employ them in some other sphere of Christian service.’ That answer, of course, is one which is developed very fully in Consecrated Women?, making it even more important that our own Report should be studied alongside Rochester.

There is, it should be added, one little gap in the evidence taken in this section: we are asked to consider those who have benefited from women’s ministry. Nothing is asked of those who have suffered from it. But perhaps in charity we should let that pass.

Justice, the great Shibboleth of every ‘liberal’ cause, comes fourth. God is a God of justice, therefore of course he would want women to be bishops. Again, the Report gives one of the answers to this easy assumption: ‘this move tends to equate the biblical concept of justice with the contemporary understanding of the rights of the individual. It may not necessarily be correct always to identify the two.’

Bible

Eventually, late in this chapter, the question is asked where should we begin, if none of those first four approaches is decisive; and so at last the report asks about the significance of the Bible. There is a great deal here of ‘on the one hand, and on the other’. Various biblical scholars are enlisted, some wanting to make scripture fit our contemporary context, others wanting to weigh present-day society in the scales of scripture. Then, we move on to consider tradition and reason. Of the first it is asserted ‘under the guidance of the Spirit the traditions of the church have constantly to adapt … we have to ask whether we need to adapt the traditions concerning the role of women in order to meet the demands of our culture.’

Concerning the exercise of reason, first it is contingent and therefore changeable, and secondly it is fallen. The conclusion here is ‘the Christian theologian has to take the middle path’ (what was that about the Middle of the Road being a dangerous place?). So, we are to take into account the insights of contemporary culture concerning the role of women, but we also have to ask where the thinking of contemporary culture needs challenging in the light of the biblical witness.

Development of doctrine and the theory of reception are then gone over, and it is good to be reminded that where reception is concerned, ‘the Anglican use described the process of discernment by which a development could be either accepted or rejected’ (that from the Eames Commission). Also (here quoting from the Anglican Primates’ Grindrod report) ‘it also entails a willingness to live with diversity throughout the "reception" process.’ Perhaps someone should underline this part of the Bishop of Salisbury’s copy of the Report. It was our own beloved House of Bishops in Bonds of Peace which said that ‘the Church of England needs to understand itself as a communion in dialogue, committed to remaining together in the ongoing process of the discernment of truth within the wider fellowship of the Christian Church.’ Nor is that fellowship just about Anglicans; as the bishops said five years earlier in yet another report, ‘Even if the reception is completed by the Church of England, the decision still has to be accepted by the entire Anglican Communion and indeed by the universal Church before it can be deemed to be the will of God.’ So at least we can be reassured that God has not yet made up his mind about women bishops!

Ecumenical effect

We are encouraged to submit decisions to ecumenical consensus – while admitting that our church happily ignored the responses of Rome and Orthodoxy concerning women’s ordination. We are also asked to consider that even with women bishops, we might still be in an open process of reception – at which point I expected to look up from the text to see a squadron of pigs overhead.

Chapter 4 gives a brief account of the development of women’s ministry in the church, and gives some percentages of parishes which have passed votes, concluding with ‘we need to recognize that a number of clergy and lay people have left the CofE over this issue.’ No mention is made of the very many priests who are unhappy with women’s ordination, yet are in circumstances where they cannot seek the care of a PEV. In one diocese where I ministered, for example, there were only 16 parishes which had petitioned for my care; yet at the traditionalists’ Chrism eucharist there would be sixty or more priests present to renew their priestly vows. For all that, it is good to see in an official Anglican Report the admission that ‘since the ordination of women as priests … opposition has not died away.’

Chapter 5 begins very defensively, arguing why it begins with the arguments against rather than those for women’s consecration. This surely reflects criticism (probably within the House of Bishops) when the first draft of the Report appeared. It is cheering that Rochester stands its ground, and in the first half of the chapter sets out both catholic and evangelical arguments against the principle of women as bishops. There are gaps in the argument, and some emphases which we would want to make, but provided this report is reinforced by our report Consecrated Women? the arguments against are overwhelming. Indeed, the counter-arguments in paragraph 5.3 and following read as very special pleading indeed when contrasted with the first half of the chapter. In re-iterating Ute Eisen’s ludicrous contention that ‘women were active in the church in the first centuries … (as) apostles, prophets, teachers, presbyters’ the Report really does have to scrape the barrel of outlandish ‘scholarship’.

Timing

Chapter 6 then asks, ‘is the time right?’ Once more, it is good that when the ecumenical arguments are set out the Report admits that with regard to the Anglican Communion, ‘the vast majority of the Communion does not have women bishops and has not accepted them in principle.’ It is in this chapter too that Roman Catholic and Orthodox arguments are set out more fully. We might complain that they should have been treated earlier, especially in Chapter 2 where so much is made of the views of Northern Protestantism, but it is good that at least they do appear in the Report. Again, the arguments for going ahead are very thin. For instance, ‘ordaining women bishops would remove an anomaly in our relationship with the Lutheran Churches in Norway and Sweden’ and ‘would remove an obstacle to … Anglican-Methodist relations.’ Surely these are trivial compared with the more permanent rift it would set up between us and the great Communions of the East and West?

It is in Chapter 7 that the Commission begins to face the reality of what would happen were women to be consecrated. ‘It is likely that there would be male bishops in the CofE who would be conscientiously unable to recognize women bishops … Then the communion of those dioceses would be very seriously impaired.’ In this section the Report quotes at length from Forward in Faith’s submissions and from Reform. So the Report concludes if no provision were made … to opt out from having to accept the ministry of a woman bishop … those opposed would be left with three options:

Refuse to recognise the legislation and break Church law

Leave the CofE

Act in ways they conscientiously believed wrong

It is in this part of the report that one of the most shocking questions is raised: whether supporters of women’s ministry would be willing ‘to pay the price of delay in order to achieve the prize of the appointment of women bishops with no restrictions.’ Unbidden, the image of Barbara Harris gleefully crowning herself with the mitre at her consecration in America springs to mind. Consecration is a prize to be snatched at – not the gift of God to his church.

Provision

So what provision might be made for us who cannot accept women as bishops? A code of practice? ‘The point has been made very strongly to the working party that this … would not be sufficient for many of those opposed.’ ‘They simply do not believe there is sufficient goodwill.’ Well, at least we have been heard on that – even if the experience which has led to that conclusion has been given far too little credence.

Then how about more ‘extended or alternative episcopal oversight’? But this too depends on agreement by diocesan bishops to relinquish power; and the experience is that they will not. Besides, women themselves argue against it. ‘Could [the CofE] bear another extraordinary anomaly?’ ask Faull and Tetley, and conclude it could not; for it would question the authority of women bishops in their own dioceses.

At length the Report comes round to our favoured solution, a Third or Free Province. It is clear even in the Report that this would face huge opposition; but the point which is not taken is that this is the cheapest solution. At this time of financial pressure, it may well be this argument, rather than any theological one, which will carry the day. If no provision is made at all, the church will lay itself open to charges of constructive dismissal, and it would not take many cases to succeed for dioceses to be bankrupted. Industrial tribunals are likely to be a great deal more generous than any voluntary provision of ‘compensation’; and the Report notes that ‘in its present financial state the CofE (could not) afford such financial provision.’

At the very end of Chapter 7 is a list of questions to be faced. For my money, the Third Province is the best solution to all of them – and for the sake of gaining the ‘prize’ of women bishops soon, it is a solution which reluctantly the CofE might have to adopt.

After all, women’s ordination was argued on the Gamaliel principle; if it is of God, it will succeed. So, if the majority are certain we are wrong, they will be equally sure that a Third Province would soon wither away – just as we are convinced it would grow, eventually to replace the feminized ‘liberal’ church.

Backtracking

Chapter 8 looks suspiciously like an afterthought, added when the House of Bishop had considered the first draft. It asserts, for instance, that ‘the calling of the CofE is to pursue the path of justice’ – the very line taken by every supporter of novelty in every part of the church, and a line which Chapter 3 of the Report had so clearly debunked. Again, the basic ecclesiology of the CofE is summarized as

All bishops in the C of E are in communion with the Archbishops and with one another (which has been patently untrue ever since the ordination of women priests began)

Diocesan bishops … retain oversight of the whole of their dioceses (well answered in ‘Consecrated Women?’ but plainly the major article of faith of most English diocesans.)

All clergy and laity are in communion with their bishops. (But who is our Father in God, and who only our father-in law? And are we really in communion with him or he with us?)

The Report, for all its faults, is better than we might have hoped. If Synod gives it proper weight, then we should have nothing to fear. But if it acts in a mean-spirited and partisan manner, ignoring the arguments and acting on prejudice, then we shall have a fight on our hands. But what else have we been doing for the past twelve years but fight? Don’t worry – the truth is great, and it will prevail.

 

Edwin Barnes was formerly Bishop of Richborough.

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