Discerning the form

 Paul Benfield shares a large measure of agreement with what the Bishop of Guildford Road last month. In particular, he insists on the permeability of many New Province, and gives a simple description of how this would work

I share the view of the Bishop of Guildford (ND September) that ecclesiological nonsense is embedded at the heart of the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure 1993, and I imagine readers of New Directions will agree with most of his analysis. But I am bound to question his assertion that the Church of England must now move forward or back. If it was right, for political reasons, to pass into law the ecclesiological nonsense which the 1993 Measure plainly is, what has changed to make it necessary to remove that ecclesiological nonsense now?

After all, the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches still refuse to countenance the ordination of women and within the Church of England the significant minority who cannot accept women’s ordination still exists. The political situation still demands (in the words of the Act of Synod) that ‘discernment in the wider Church of the rightness or otherwise of the Church of England’s decision to ordain women to the priesthood should be as open a process as possible’ and ‘the integrity of differing beliefs and positions concerning the ordination of women to the priesthood should be mutually recognized and respected.’

That said, Bishop Christopher is probably right to say that since the Church of England has now taken the initial step towards ordaining women to the episcopate (in the amended York resolution of July) the question now is ‘how do we move forward in as inclusive a way as possible?’

He says that he, personally, has doubts about an independent, autocephalous church or province, fearing the fate of ‘continuing’ Anglican churches in the USA. But the new province proposed in Consecrated Women? is not to be some continuing church. It would remain part of the Church of England by law established. The Queen would remain its Supreme Governor. Parishioners of parishes within the new province would continue to enjoy the rights and privileges that they currently enjoy. This would not and could not be the case if we were proposing to set up a continuing church.

The Bishop rightly goes on to say that we need ‘permeable’ borders. The proposed new province does have permeable borders and the constituent parishes of the new province will not be determined for all time when the province is created. The draft Measure that would bring into being the new province provides that parishes would be free to enter or leave the new province after it had come into being.

Parishes would enter or leave by a vote of their parochial church council. Four weeks notice of any such vote would have to be given and the meeting would have to be attended by at least half the members entitled to attend. The only restriction on moving into and out of the new province is that once in the new province, a parish could not vote to leave it within five years.

This period, the working party thought, would give enough stability within the province without preventing a parish from participating in the discernment of the rightness or otherwise of the Church of England’s decision to ordain women priests and bishops.

Let us consider how two parishes might take part in the discernment process if the new province we envisage came into being.

Parish A (in the South) might be led by a militant Forward in Faith priest who marched his parish into the new province on day one. But after he had retired the parish began to realize that they had never really been opposed to women’s ordination at all, but loved Father so much that they just did what he wanted. So, after due notice and discussion, the PCC voted to return to the Province of Canterbury from which they had come. The parish now welcomes women priests and bishops to minister there.

Meanwhile, Parish B (in the North) might be led by a lovely pastoral priest who never wanted to upset anyone by raising the questions of resolutions about women priests. So the parish remained in the Province of York when the new province came into being. But as the priest approached retirement the parishioners realized that unless they did something they might end up with a woman incumbent. Resolutions A and B no longer existed in the Provinces of Canterbury and York and so the only way of avoiding a woman vicar was to join the new province. So after due notice and discussion the PCC voted to join the new province. The parish can now only be ministered to by male bishops and male priests ordained by male bishops.

Similarly, deacons and male priests and bishops (if they were ordained by male bishops) could move into and out of the new province. Thus we can see permeable borders, which is exactly what the Bishop of Guildford wants.

He correctly understands that jurisdiction and the oath of canonical obedience are at the heart of the question. When considering these matters the only workable solution that the working party could come up with was the new province.

The Bishop says that the Church needs to look hard at three options – a code, a structural solution and a province. Now Consecrated Women? was always meant to be a contribution to the debate, but to date public debate about provision for those who cannot accept women bishops has not really begun.

If the advantages and disadvantages of the three options can be discussed as clearly, as openly and as honestly as he has discussed the weaknesses of the 1993 Measure, then there is hope that the Church of England can move forward in an inclusive way. But my fear is that all the discussions will be held behind the closed doors of the House of Bishops, and we will simply be told what provision we are to be given.