Constrained to speak

The Rt Revd Lindsay Urwin acknowledges his avoidance of controversy but feels compelled to share his unease over the proposals of the Guildford Report and urges his fellow bishop to act like bishops

I do not feel comfortable writing an article about the Guildford Report. I am naturally hesitant to involve myself in ecclesiastical controversy; partly cowardice, and partly the rule of life of my religious order, which commits the brethren to a ‘love that makes for peace,’ exhorting us to avoid harsh judgements about those with whom we disagree. It is so easy to demonize the other, so like many others I have tended to avoid the fray. In any case, at the time of writing it is not quite clear what the House of Bishops is actually suggesting to Synod.

I am also an area bishop in a diocese, and this involves me in the appointment and pastoral care of women priests, many male priests who welcome their admission to the presbyterate, and congregations that, inasmuch as they think about such things, do not see much of a problem. I am aware that my own quiet but public and firm reservations about the Church of England’s decision to ordain women as priests causes as much disappointment to some as it does encouragement to others. Augustine’s description of a bishop hangs like a rebuke on my study wall as it concludes, ‘And O to love them all.’ I try to.

Striving for unity

Nevertheless it is that love that constrains me to speak. For the same rule that requires me to avoid harsh judgements also speaks of the ‘mutual love that has been the essence of life in the Catholic Church’ and exhorts me to ‘help to restore the unity of all Christian people in the spirit of charity and peace.’

Though the attempt by the Guildford Group to provide appropriate legislative options for the ordination of women as bishops is a noble effort, it has not, as far as I can tell, offered any option that will lead to more mutual love between us all, more peace among us all, or more unity among us all. In this context when I use ‘all’ I do not simply mean the Church of England. How could the word ‘all’ ever just mean ‘us’? And if the history of the Church and the growth of denominationalism mean that we hardly know which way to turn as we seek to rebuild what we have divided, when it comes to the particular question of the ordination of women as bishops, the ‘all’ must mean a humble attending to other Christians who share this model of oversight.

While the New Testament indelibly links unity and effective evangelism (John 17), and Paul stingingly rebukes the Corinthians who think nothing of making separate meal tables for the like-minded (thereby diminishing the Eucharist and the Body of Christ as sign of the Saviour’s reconciling work) all that Guildford does is remind us that to ordain women as bishops now would be to divide us further, and continues the sanctification process of ‘impaired communion’ as a way of life to be accepted and legislated for.

Do people not see the sad irony? We are trying to find a way to admit people to be the focus of unity, both individually in their diocese, and collectively in the college of bishops, knowing that at least at present they cannot be so. So to manage this, a tortuous and inadequate opt-out system is being devised that just won’t do.

Double transfer

The Report suggests a system of ‘Transferred Episcopal Arrangements,’ two transfers being involved as I understand it. First the transfer of a petitioning parish from the oversight of a diocesan (who is either a woman or a man who approves of, or shares in the consecration of women) to an archbishop (assuming that office is held by a man, otherwise an alternative will need to be named) and then the ‘transfer’ of day-to-day care and oversight from the archbishop to a nominated ‘traditional’ bishop whose devolved jurisdiction would not be dissimilar to that of my own as an area bishop.

It seems to be the fashion in the Anglican Communion at the moment to see the poor Archbishop of Canterbury as the answer to our problems. If in doubt, refer it to him. This is an unrealistic burden. He simply could not have, for example, the same day-to-day relationship that is necessary between a diocesan bishop and his area bishops, not only to ensure effective administration, but to demonstrate the ecclesial reality of devolved rather than separate, still worse, competing jurisdiction.

In an attempt at safeguarding the place of ‘traditionalists’ and I suppose to give a feel of ecclesial independence to those who would in an ideal world perhaps prefer a ‘provincial’ solution, the Report suggests the designated bishops be given enhanced authority and influence, including for example the sponsoring of ordinands and more of a say in matters of appointment and pastoral organization.

Requirement of trust

Aside from so many other unanswered questions, like what happens to individual clergy and lay people who remain opposed but whose circumstances preclude them from opting into the system, or the issue of the breakdown in the common life of a College of bishops, such a system could only work if there was real trust between the parish and the diocese and its personnel, who under the new system continue to be in day-to-day relationship.

It has taken me almost twelve years to admit, from the relative comfort of the Diocese of Chichester, that stories about archdeacons, pastoral committees, rural deans and others behaving badly and manipulatively towards parishes that have passed the resolutions might be true.

Traditionalists are not blameless, but parishes and priests have been made to feel disloyal, denied curates, ordinands have been seen off, livings suspended without good reason. This treatment is not universal but it has been enough to mean that sadly, no system that depends on trust will be enough. A messy system, which it will inevitably be (and grown ups have to learn to live with a measure of mess), requires trust.

It is all too obvious that there are at least some diocesan bishops who will resent any legislation that impinges on their jurisdiction even if they vote for it. The Guildford Group sees the problem and leaves open the question of what should be embodied in a Measure and what might be in an enforceable Code of Practice, but warns against embodying too much in a Measure. However, an ‘enforceable’ Code would require a corporate change of personality. We are not and have never been an ‘enforcing’ Church.

More than that, area bishop though I may have been these past twelve years, I cannot imagine a workable and affordable process of enforcement. Should, for example, the ‘area’ bishop and the parish he cares for consider that a decision about pastoral reorganization or parish assessment has been made unfairly or inconsistently by the diocese, to whom shall they go in practice? It is not always easy to prove unfairness or inconsistency, real though they may be. The inevitable vagaries of the bishop’s, the priest’s and the parish’s relationship with the diocesan and the policy and administrative bodies of the diocese is surely a recipe for confusion and further mistrust.

The real sadness

But my real sadness is this. The rejection of any ‘separate’ provision, by Guildford and many others, as nigh on schism seems less to do with the heartbreak it would cause to either party (though it jolly well should) than the mostly unspoken but widely hoped for view that this is a temporary problem that needs a temporary solution. The creation of a discreet system whether it is a ‘province’ or entire diocesan structures for the minority view that might just thrive; the provision of a structure in which opponents need not be relentlessly defined or define themselves on the basis of this issue (even to the extent that they might be able to stop obsessing about it) would be to create a possibly permanent state of affairs. Or at least the permanence will rest only on the authenticity of the Christian life and the evangelistic vitality of such a grouping.

The truth is that many no longer really regard having reservations about the ordination of women as an acceptable long-term Anglican position. Most do not want to drive us away, but they only want to provide a temporary shelter. But no full-blooded, mission-hearted, gospel-loving Christian opposed to the ordination of women could live in such shadowlands.

Secretly blaming Synod

So what to do? The danger is that the Synod will accept the TEA suggestion as enough to justify going forward to the next stage. It isn’t in my view. What would be better in this episcopally-led but synodically-governed church would be for the bishops to lead. With respect, it feels like they are not.

Secretly blaming the synodical process for the unholy rush, in reality it is more that they have paralysed the Synod. Private members’ motions stand in the wings like perpetual demons. Some bishops think Guildford goes too far, some not far enough. Most know it will not do, and a goodly number, even those who are well disposed to the ordination of women bishops, realize that at the very least we need, as a church, to reflect more about the Rochester Report, about what the admission of women to the episcopate will mean not only for us but for our relationships in the Universal Church. The love that makes for peace and their high calling demands that they say so.

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