Locked out!

Stephen Marsden wonders why the bishops are so keen on closed doors and why they are working towards a structural solution without any apparent reference to or discussion with those for whom it is intended


‘And what is to be done to secure the rights and liberties of minorities in a context of significant religious or ethnic diversity, where a majority vote may be the accurate representation not of arguments won but of a demographic advantage?’ The Archbishop of Canterbury, University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, 29 September 2005

A few months ago, my undergraduate son got a parking ticket. It is not the first time he’s got one, and it probably will not be the last, but what was different about this one was the fact that he received it for parking in a space which a traffic warden had told him he could use with impunity. Filled with indignation, he wrote to the address on the ticket to appeal against this stain on his character and, eventually, he received a letter from the police, telling him that he had been illegally parked and that he must pay the penalty. The only alternative was to have his day in court.

Filled with bravado, he opted for the latter course, until, a day or two before the hearing, he realized that the system was such that he stood little chance of winning the argument, and every chance of being more out of pocket than if he simply rolled over and handed his persecutors their £30. Reflecting on his experience as I wrote the cheque to clear his name, I was comforted by the fact that our legal system is such that those accused of an offence still have the right to defend themselves in open court, if they so choose. How different, I mused, from those ‘other countries’ – past and present – where what passes for justice is dispensed behind closed doors.

It is not only a principle of English law that gives the parties in an argument their day in open court, of course. It is also surely the English ‘way of doing things.’ Consider recent events at Heathrow Airport. An industrial dispute between an airline food supplier and some of its employees led to 110,000 passengers being stranded, costing British Airways some £40m. Eventually, conciliation meetings, brokered by the TUC, took place between all the parties and sufficient resolution was achieved to re-open the airport. The answer to the argument may have been found behind closed doors, but all the parties to the dispute were to be found on the same side of those doors. It was, if you like, a day in open court, at least for those involved – a very English way of resolving the argument.

All of which makes it all the more striking that the House of Bishops have chosen such an un-English way of solving their particular problem. The consecration of women as bishops is firmly on the agenda; on the one hand, there are the proponents, who want to see an end to what all agree is a piece of sexist discrimination, and on the other the opponents, who ask simply to be allowed to believe ‘what has been believed always, everywhere and by all.’

At first sight, it is easy to be deluded into thinking that only one side of the argument can prevail. But, as Consecrated Women? made clear, it really is possible for both sides to have what they desire. In that book, Forward in Faith placed upon the table, so to speak, a road map to peace, a blueprint which showed how it was possible to make proper, equitable provision for those who dissent. That blueprint has now been on the Church of England’s table for just over twelve months. The Bishop of Guildford and three of his brethren have sat around that table for some months and, more recently, the rest of the bishops have joined them. They have sat around the table, behind closed doors, and they have consulted with… well, certainly not with Forward in Faith. Nor have they seen fit to articulate in which ways the blueprint falls short (or, perhaps, goes too far!)

Of course, meeting behind closed doors is all very well, but sooner or later they must be opened, if only so that someone may take a leak. Or, in this case, make one. Before the House of Bishops had even gathered to discuss the Guildford Group’s proposals, we were reading in the Daily Telegraph what those proposals were to be. The buzz word was ‘TEA’ (a very English word, which belies the un-English methodology) which seems to stand for ‘Transferred Episcopal Authority’, or, perhaps, ‘Transferred Episcopal Arrangements’. The fact that the ‘T’ seems really to stand for ‘Terminal’ seems to many of us to demonstrate forcefully that the bishops have singularly failed to engage with FiF’s very reasonable proposals.

Interviewed by the BBC in February this year, the Bishop of Rochester said: ‘We can put in place a system of care, involving bishops to look after such people in a way that satisfies them.’ Not a way that satisfies WATCH, mind, nor even a way that satisfies the General Synod, or the bishops; a way that satisfies those for whom the provision is intended. Bishop Nazir-Ali instinctively realized that the only competent arbiters as to whether any given provision would be satisfactory are those unable in conscience to accept the ordination of women. So, let us speak with clarity: nothing less than a new province will suffice.

So what is to be done? Especially if, to quote the Archbishop of Canterbury again, ‘we are to avoid the self-defeating definition that law is what a majority says it is.’ The answer, of course, is simplicity itself. The bishops need look no further than the courts or the meeting rooms of professional conciliators and follow their example. They should open the doors and invite the protagonists to the table. They should listen to them, engage with them, and even be prepared to be persuaded by them! By this simple device, behind open doors, could the argument be settled in a very English way, to the satisfaction of all. Leaving the doors closed, as though the Church of England was a foreign country, is a recipe for the sort of chaos which only the courts might resolve.

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