Open questions

Frustrated by the silence of the bishops, Anthony Saville
suggests a range of questions, the consideration of which
would surely help us find more substance in the
possible structural solutions being prepared for the future

 

What is not open to question is the simple truth that nothing less than a structural solution by measure will be adequate, to enable the rest of the Church of England to proceed to the consecration of women to the episcopate. In popular terms, that means there will have to be a new province, even if it may prove politic to give it another name.

This does not mean, however, there are not many questions left to ask. Some are not so much questions (as those who attended the FiF National Assembly will know) as matters for serious investigation and consideration, by working parties of those with some experience in the matter, things such as schools, vocations, lay training, and so on. Much of this may be decided by negotiation after General Synod has done its work. And, of course, there will be plenty of financial planning.

This still leaves a whole range of questions, important or trivial, easy or difficult to answer, the consideration of which gives some idea of the challenges and excitement of what lies ahead. The mere listing of the questions themselves is not without interest, all the more so when we are faced, so it seems, with a closed door from those in the House of Bishops who are presuming to decide our fate.

Try this one. ‘Will there be cathedrals in the new province?’ Simple question; the simple answer to which is No; but the loss of affiliation with one of our historic cathedrals is something to ponder. Some of the newer, smaller ones were probably going to lose their status anyway, irrespective of what happens with women bishops, but Salisbury, Gloucester, York, and all the other greats? I suspect it may prove for many lay people one of the telling emotional arguments against joining a new province, that they would lose their association with their medieval gothic masterpiece. One could reply that we may have little membership and access even now: but deep-rooted attachments cannot be peremptorily dismissed.

Will we have our own theological college? Will our access to the important theological libraries be restricted? What role will we be able to play in universities and their chaplaincies? Such questions ask us to consider carefully the fundamentals of Christian education and formation, which is an important exercise in itself and not to be left solely to the experts.

Presumably clergy in a new province would have no access to the mythical Methodist Pension Fund, the supposed driving force behind the Anglican desire for reunion. In which case, would the CofE Pensions Board make separate arrangements for us? That is not for us to answer, but someone must, since the requirement of permeability will allow some clergy to move across the provincial boundaries, as they now do with Wales and Scotland.

Will we have archdeacons? Yes, though they will probably, following traditional practice, be parish priests as well. Will we have diocesan boards? Diocesan Advisory Committees? Church officers for this and that? Hmm. If the answer to these is Yes, then the prospect of rebuilding an entire duplicate bureaucratic structure would surely be one of the strongest arguments against a new province. If the answer is No, then we have to develop an understanding of how the necessary work will be done. The existing models from FiF seem to me excellent ones, but this must be put to the test. We may laugh at human resources officers, but modern legislation virtually requires them.

One of the more fraught questions will concern probably no more than a dozen individuals, and yet could prove the most contentious of them all, for it is one that we alone will have to decide, with no input from the other side. Will there be women deacons in the new province?

Some questions cannot properly be expressed, and yet carry a heavy burden of worry and anxiety. The Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham? It is too disturbing even to pose the question, but it matters greatly to very many of us, lay as well as clerical. A surprisingly similar question is, Will there be any of our bishops in the House of Lords? In practical terms, there may be no bishops at all if the so-called Minister for Constitutional Affairs ever gets down to work, but what it asks in general terms is, Are we still to be part of the Church of England?

This leads us into several crucial questions. How will we stop ourselves becoming no more than a continuing church or a new denomination? What will we share with the other two provinces? What institutions will be common to all three provinces? We will be greatly helped by the process of retrenchment and rationalization that is beginning to take place. If the twentieth century was marked by the rise of dioceses and diocesan power, the twenty-first may see a corresponding fall. If diocesan bishops in Canterbury and York are to see their power and control diminished, it may be easier to remain part of the Church of England, to keep and cherish the tradition we have received, while still being free of the ecclesiological madness and related infections of those two provinces.

Finally, for this haphazard list, if the new province is to be part of the CofE and not a separate church, then we have to find some answer to the question, What missiological advantage for Canterbury and York will come from the existence of the new province? The immediate answer is that they too will be free to have the type of bishops they wish. But what continuing advantage might there be, or will we forever be the enemy? Such a relationship would not be healthy, not for them, nor for us. Somehow, we will have to get along with each other, if only to ensure that the borders are permeable, that we still hold together as members of one church.

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