Keeping the college

Stuart Seaton has been considering the sort of compromise solution that might emerge from the Guildford Group, and finds than any such proposal, by undermining the collegiality of all bishops, is likely to satisfy nobody

 

It appears that the bishops have set their faces against a new province. It is still unclear exactly what they will recommend instead, but it seems likely that traditionalists will receive bishops of their own in some form. This would mean that traditionalist parishes will not find themselves serving under a woman bishop: they will be in the care of a traditionalist bishop, who in turn is accountable to a male archbishop. Sounds reasonable, so what’s the problem with it?

The problem is that Rochester makes it clear that if traditionalists are legally and in good conscience to be able to remain within the Church of England, there must be provision for them to ‘opt out from having to accept the ministry of a woman bishop or recognize the validity of her episcopal actions’ [7.3.17]. But at the same time, Rochester also says that a ‘basic ecclesiological principle of the Church of England’ is that ‘all bishops in the Church of England are in communion with each other’ [8.1.18].

If this latter principle applies to our traditionalist bishops (as it logically should with this provision), they would have to be in communion with women bishops. This would mean that there would be no provision to ‘opt out’ from women bishops. So on Rochester’s grounds, traditionalists will have to leave the Church of England. But theologically and morally, that is something the Church of England simply cannot afford.

Division

Clearly, the House of Bishops cannot just recommend provision of this nature. If, within this provision, there is to be any way of traditionalists legally and in good conscience remaining members of the CofE, the bishops will also have to accommodate sacramental schisms among themselves. In the very least, the traditionalist bishops will not be in communion with the women bishops. As a consequence, the college of bishops would no longer be a single visible body; instead it would be dissolved. ‘The House of Bishops would become a church leaders’ meeting rather than an episcopal college’ [Rochester 7.3.12].

If the bishops recommend this move then frankly, it will be an indication that something is seriously wrong with them as a body. A bishop is not simply the senior manager of a diocese. An integral part of his office is that he is a bond of unity between local parishes and the wider church by virtue of his membership of a common episcopal college. In a real sense, if there is no college of bishops, then there are no bishops. Few things would make bishops more irrelevant to the life of the parish than eroding this bond of unity by dissolving the college of bishops.

Unsuitable for all

For the same reason, this provision should be unacceptable to supporters of women bishops too. If, as a result of the dissolution of the college of bishops, no bishop is able to function in a proper collegial sense, it would follow that no female bishop would ever be a bishop in the way in which men have been bishops throughout the centuries. Certainly, women would end up in positions of power that they have hitherto not had, but if they really wish to be bishops (rather than managers) and exercise real episcopal ministry (as male bishops have done for centuries), it would be utterly self-defeating to accept provision of this nature. Indeed, if they supported it, it would be an indication of their lack of theological seriousness and sincerity.

Moreover, it is hard to see how all this division would be acceptable to the wider Church of England. It is with good reason that Rochester says that the reducing of the college of bishops to a ‘church leaders’ meeting’ would be ‘an extremely grave situation.’ ‘The collegiality and inter-communion between the bishops has been one of the means by which the Church of England has been held together as a single Church rather than each diocese constituting a church in its own right’ [7.3.12].

Imagine the problems of discipline that would arise from all this division. Supposing a group of liberal bishops decided they wanted to form a bloc around very liberal teaching on homosexuality, ordination and the blessing of homosexual unions. How would it be possible to stop them? If the archbishops tried to dissuade them by saying it would cause division within the Church, they would surely be met with the retort that it was all right to divide the Church over women bishops, so why is it wrong to divide it over gay people? After all, the liberals could justly point out that, after the dissolution of the college of bishops, there is not even an episcopal college to divide. Clearly, provision of this sort would not leave the CofE with the institutional strength to face the immense problems of the future.

And would this provision really make it possible for traditionalists to remain members of the Church of England? It does not seem to me that it would. For dissolving the college of bishops in this way would be very largely to abandon catholic order. Catholics oppose women’s ordination because it violates catholic order. It would hardly be coherent for Catholics within the Church of England to oppose women’s ordination but then accept provision such as this.

The real solution

It seems then, that logically, theologically and pastorally the bishops are stuck. If they want to make women bishops they must either dissolve the very episcopal body to which the women would be elected, or they will expel all traditionalists from the Church of England. The latter move doubtless appeals to some of the less charitable supporters of women bishops. Nevertheless, from a moral and theological point of view, it simply is not a runner.

It is such a shame that most bishops appear to have set their faces against the new province, for if they would only take it seriously, they would see that it could provide a coherent, disciplined and charitable way for supporters of women bishops to get what they want and for traditionalists to have what they need. If the members of this college of bishops needlessly sacrifice so much to achieve so little, one can imagine the verdict of the historians: rarely in the history of the Church of England was so much lost, for so many, by so few!

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