Comment

 

February’s major General Synod debate, opened by the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the way forward over women bishops following the suggestions of the Guildford Report, proved more gracious and generous to opponents than most people expected.

Robert Key, the MP for Salisbury, put forward a wreking amendment calling for a single clause measure. His strident advocacy had most of his allies cringing with embarrassment, and his proposal was roundly rejected.

Far more moderate was another amendment, from Fr Crocker, asking that further work be done on the possible details of a single clause measure alongside the work being done on Transferred Episcopal Arrangements. In the terms of the debate it was an eminently reasonable proposal, just about the gentlest way of introducing the single clause option that could be devised. Nevertheless it was defeated in the House of Bishops and in the House of Laity, and passed in the House of Clergy only because of the presence of women priests.

The single clause route has been rejected by General Synod; and it will not come back in the foreseeable future. We should take encouragement from this. The majority are not looking for a fight and we have every reason to be glad of this fact.

To quote Synod’s motion, ‘an approach along the lines of "Transferred Episcopal Arrangements", expressed in a Measure with an associated code of practice, merits further exploration as a basis for proceeding in a way that will maintain the highest possible degree of communion in the Church of England.’

If TEA is to be further explored, this means it must be strengthened. If one of the members of the Guildford Group spoke of its current formulation in their report as ‘a solution that only goes half way,’ what he meant was that the task is to take it the rest of the way: it would be nonsense to weaken TEA.

The only purpose of TEA is to make proper provision for conscientious opponents of women bishops. To succeed, the initial sketch must be fleshed out into something that will work, not just in the short term, but in the medium term, and potentially even the long term. It must be filled in, spelled out and beefed up into a proper structural solution that will enable both integrities to pursue their calling.

TEA is neither a sop to public opinion nor a bargaining tool to avoid paying compensation. If some hoped it might be the framework for a smoke-and-mirrors exercise in fudge, they must by now be sadly disillusioned. General Synod voted decisively to take TEA seriously, and although many, who have until now failed to understand the requirements of opponents, will be surprised at what it will look like when properly worked out, nevertheless we can have every confidence that they will continue to take it seriously.

How can we be so sure? It was the intervention of the Bishop of Lincoln that revealed most strikingly how serious General Synod has become. In a short speech that sounded strangely anxious, from a member of the Guildford Group, he insisted of TEA that ‘this was the very limit of what I could personally accept.’ We have to say, with all due respect, that it is no longer a matter of trade union style bargaining, nor is it a political battle between two sides negotiating for as much as possible for themselves. It is not a matter of what individual shop stewards will accept, but a simpler, shared task – of providing an adequate structural solution for opponents, so as to enable proponents to proceed with their innovation.

The Chief Rabbi, Sir Jonathan Sacks, the suave, emollient, reasonable voice of Judaism on Radio Four’s Thought for the Day might be mistaken for the more intelligent sort of Anglican bishop. Certainly he is more given to horse whispering than horse frightening. It takes a lot to get him riled.

Sir Jonathan’s reaction then, in a forthright piece in the Jewish Chronicle, to the General Synod’s decision to disinvest in Caterpillar came as something of a shock. The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote to him with assurances that the vote did not signal that the Established Church had re-embraced anti-semitism. But British Jews in general seem not to have been reassured.

In the circumstances this is not surprising. Middle Eastern politics are nothing if not volatile, and recent events (the illness of Sharon, the election of a Hammas government in the Palestine territories, international reaction to the security fence, increased Iranian militancy) have made those sympathetic to the State of Israel unusually jittery.

Was this the time, then, for the General Synod to adopt such a policy? Investment in Caterpillar by the CofE is hardly a decisive factor in determining that company’s policy, in Israel, in the Palestinian Authority or elsewhere. The usual suspects (Colin Slee and Stephen Lowe) have of course defended the action. But reasonable people, we are sure, will see it as an exercise in gesture politics which has cruelly misfired.

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