Loyal opposition?

 

Mark Stephens has heard rumours about the proposed "structural solution" and the apparent central role to be played by a General Synod, and has grave doubts whether it could ever be made to work in practice

It is generally agreed that the task before the Guildford Group is to make provision for opponents of the innovation whilst allowing the CofE to proceed to the ordination of women as bishops. It is remarkable then that the Group is coming to the end of its task without ever having formally consulted anyone opposed, about what provision they would find adequate and acceptable – not the officers of Forward in Faith, not the PEVs, no one.

Rumour has it that the Four Wise Bishops (as they will no doubt come to be known) are likely to favour what Rowan Williams has dubbed a ‘structural solution.’ But just as persistently it is rumoured that they will not allow for any separation of opponents from the General Synod. ‘To be part of the General Synod,’ one diocesan is reported as saying, ‘is the litmus test of authentic Anglicanism.’ A separate Provincial Synod would be a structure too far.

We need therefore to ask what it means to retain opponents of women bishops as part of the synodical structures of the church, and whether their continued participation in the General Synod will help either side in the dispute.

Demos and Theos

Democracies, of course, generally function adversarially and require a robust opposition. They work on the assumption that decisions made can equally well be reversed. One party favours higher taxes, the other lower; one is for trade tariffs, the other for free trade. When they come to power each has its way.

But it is hard to view the orders or core doctrines of the Church in this way. Most Christians have regarded those things as a donné, an unalterable gift. The canon of Scripture, the ecumenical creeds and the apostolic ministry have heretofore been thought to be beyond the competence of local synods, and perhaps even of ecumenical councils, to change.

Anglicans, moreover, have traditionally found their common identity, not in membership of a democratic body, but in the appeal to Scripture and antiquity. It was to Scripture and antiquity that the Reformation appealed. It was to the same antiquity, differently understood and interpreted, that the Catholic revival of the nineteenth century deferred.

But if one of the elements of the third century consensus – the apostolic ministry – is now to be allowed to be modified in a local synod by majority vote (contrary, what is more, to the purpose and function of Orders as an sign and instrument of unity) a significant, indeed a momentous, change has taken place. Orders, and much else besides, have been subjected to the constant ebb and flow of synodical debate. The notion that authentic Anglicanism is to be defined in terms of participation in that debate is, I suggest, inimical to the interests of both sides in this dispute.

A priori

The partisans of women’s ordination have made it abundantly clear that they do not regard the decision, once made, as negotiable. For them opposition to women in orders is not like flat-level taxes (a notion which, at some future time may have its day) but like homicide, which is properly condemned by all civilized people. To reinforce this a priori assertion, they have made their own imaginative appeal to antiquity. From ‘Junia Apostola’ to ‘Theodora Episcopa’ (with a few mitred abbesses thrown in for good measure) they have claimed that women priests and bishops are an authentic continuation of antiquity, which a reprehensible male conspiracy had sought to obscure and undermine. The last thing they will acknowledge or admit is that the orders of women in the Church have no authority beyond the synodical, and that their history does not extend beyond 11 November 1992.

Principled abstention

Opponents of women’s ordination, it will immediately be seen, have no interest whatever in participating in the life of an institution which has perpetrated what they wholeheartedly repudiate. Indeed, it might be said that the tragedy of the opponents is that they took part in the synodical debate in the first place – so adding credibility to its final conclusion.

In retrospect, all those who opposed the 1992 legislation should simply have withdrawn from the chamber, leaving the liberal majority to decide whether, with so many conscientious abstentions, they could reasonably proceed. The tragedy was that opponents voted in a debate which they believed to be beyond the competence of the Synod, a debate one outcome of which they knew they could neither respect nor accept.

If participation in the 1992 debate now looks like foolishness, to participate in the life of such an institution after the ordination of women as bishops has to be construed as suicidal. A primary issue in the whole debate has been the competence of local synods to make changes which affect the unity and well-being of the world-wide Church. By permitting the ordination of women as bishops, the Synod will have rendered this change in the nature of Holy Orders effectively irreversible. How can those opposed be expected to participate in a democratic body two of whose Houses – those of clergy and bishops – will in their view no longer be anything of the kind?

Unwanted opposition

The truth is that a ‘loyal opposition,’ acting as a brake on its deliberations and constantly questioning its credentials, is the last thing the General Synod really wants. There are great steps to be taken: the blessing of same sex relationships, the admission of the first openly gay bishop to the House. Why further institutionalize the dragging of feet?

If the CofE is to boldly go into this brave new world, it does not want a rump within the General Synod constantly reminding it that the changes it is making were never envisaged by the founding fathers of synodical government as even remotely within its remit. Nor do the women bishops on the bench want a party in the Synod whose primary programme is their removal. That, truly, is the way of democracy; but for the Church of England it is the way of madness.

It may well be that there are those who suppose that participation in the General Synod is the litmus test of Anglicanism. One can see why they would say that. But for many of us the litmus test remains a faith in the ecclesial sufficiency of Scripture and, in all other matters, an appeal to the determinative authority of the Church of the first three centuries. Call us old fashioned, but…

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