A useful contradiction
David Nicholl hopes to exploit the inherent contradiction of proponents of women bishops
It does seem extraordinary, but it is true nevertheless. When it comes to the present debate over women bishops, the orthodox minority should stick to the official line put out by the House of Bishops. Outnumbered by six to one in most church surveys, with a hardly better proportion in either General Synod or among the bishops, if you exclude our PEVs, it does seem extraordinary that we and not the unorthodox majority should benefit most from the formal position of the House of Bishops, of the Rochester Report, and so far as one can tell the structures of Synod.
The official line is unequivocal, it is not mealy-mouthed, it has never wavered for the last twenty years. It is that the issue of ordaining women to the episcopate is one of real significance, and therefore demands serious theology, careful reflection and measured debate. It is, and this is the key phrase that has been used since 1991, a matter ‘of both faith and salvation’.
The extraordinariness of this position is itself of real value. Taken that virtually the entire secular world and the overwhelming majority of the CofE regard the issue as both trivial (on a par with women judges or doctors) and obvious (equality, justice, and so on), it ought to come as a surprise that the House of Bishops has rejected this easy route and continues to insist that it is a matter of real importance.
It reveals a contradiction in the heart of the unorthodox camp. Theologically the leaders admit that it is a matter ‘of faith and salvation’, on a par (as they originally suggested in 1990) with the doctrine of the Most Holy Trinity. Politically it has been accepted that a synod of the CofE (from a mere 43 dioceses) has the capability of deciding such a matter.
I realize I am only stating what has been pointed out many times before, but what is different now is that the contradiction has worked its way into the very heart of the liberal camp. As the stakes get higher and higher the contradiction becomes more and more striking. Take it to the absurd extremes. On the one hand, they say this is a central issue of the Christian faith in the early twenty-first century, on the other, deanery synods in church halls up and down the land will be voting on it, and passing their solemn judgements back to Saturday diocesan synods.
The contradiction is theirs. Let it break them asunder. If the majority votes in favour of this great matter of faith and salvation, then they will come face to face with the fact that they are in a tiny minority compared with all other Christians in history and across the world.
Will it stop them in their tracks? I doubt it. The game has gone too far for it to come to a halt now. But they will be forced to acknowledge the wider context. And this is where our hope (for proper provision) lies. We should always stick to the official line (that it is an important theological issue) and reject the popular understanding (that it is too simple and obvious even to become a theological issue).
The higher the status of the issue on which General Synod will decide (and this by a good margin is the highest status issue it has ever seriously considered), the harder it becomes for the proponents to justify, or rather the more difficult it is for them to dismiss those who simply keep to what has been the practice and tradition for two thousand years, and the more difficult it will be for them to deny us a free province.
If the matter were trivial, then a simple code of practice would be quite enough to satisfy the minority who disagree. If the matter is important (and never cease reminding them that it is important), then such a code is manifestly inadequate. They must either throw us out of Christ’s Church as damnable heretics, or… Let them work it out.
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