Ending and beginning

Jonathan Baker gives an overview and assessment of the two General Synod motions and the accompanying debate on women bishops and how to acquire them and finds himself completely disorientated but not entirely disheartened


In her excellent novel, The Time Travellers’ Wife, the American writer Audrey Niffenegger describes a romance with a difference. Clare (aged 6) meets Henry (aged 36), and they go on to marry – she when she is 22, he when he is 30. Impossible? No: for Henry suffers from a rare genetic defect known as chrono-impairment which causes him to travel, at random, to moments in his past and in his future. The effect, unsurprisingly, on Henry’s own life and the lives of all who know him, is disorienting in the extreme. There is something similarly disorienting, similarly topsy-turvy, about the way in which the General Synod of the Church of England handles its business. One could not have experienced the recent group of sessions at York without wondering whether past, present and future had not somehow become entirely out of joint.

By the conclusion of its meeting in York from 7–11 July 2006, the General Synod had voted a) that to ordain women to the episcopate is consonant with the faith of the Church as the Church of England has received it; and b) to establish a drafting group to draw up legislation which would enable women to become bishops. More needs to be said about each of these motions: but that, in essence, is it. How did we get here? This is where some time-travelling seems to have been going on. We left the Synod in February with that overwhelming vote – by 348 to 1 – in favour of a motion asking for more work to be done on TEA: the proposals for transferred episcopal arrangements which had, broadly, received the endorsement of the ‘Guildford Group’ whose report had been commended to the Synod with enthusiasm, with relieved, and genuine, hand-shaking on the platform by the report’s authors, and with gratitude that a way forward might well have been found expressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury who proposed the February motion.

Now, six months later, TEA was nowhere to be seen. Why not? Because, we were told, it had ‘emerged’ that (despite the overwhelming Synod vote), TEA was not really acceptable to anybody after all. Forward in Faith had pointed out its defects (while agreeing that it constituted ‘a sincere attempt to meet the needs’ of those opposed to the ordination of women); Watch and Affirming Catholicism had produced a statement listing a number of ‘non-negotiable’ principles which would render TEA, or anything like it, a non-starter. Members of the General Synod on all sides of the debate – who are not, after all, coterminous with FiF, Watch or any other campaigning organization – might well want to know what had happened to the work which they had asked to be done, and what had happened to the many excellent, irenic and encouraging speeches made in February. The ‘Guildford and Gloucester’ report – the work of the two bishops charged with implementing the February decision to do further work on TEA – was not even on the agenda for July. Instead, the General Synod was presented with two motions, the first on the theological principle of whether women should (could?) be made bishops; the second, a further motion on process.

So to the first debate. On the morning of Saturday, 8 July, almost fourteen years after the Synod gave final approval to legislation which approved the ordination of women to the presbyterate, but explicitly excluded the episcopate, the same body came to devote a little over two hours to the theology of ordaining women to the episcopate: a question which, as the Archbishop of Canterbury again made clear, is not simply an extension of the former one. Anglo-Catholics (the former Archbishop of York among them) have argued consistently that the question has always been, can women be bishops? and we have been supported in that argument in Synod by ecumenical observers from East and West.

The motion was proposed by the Archbishop of York, who divided his remarks into two. The first half of his speech rehearsed the story of female ordination in the Church of England over almost a century. The facts, as the Archbishop presented them, were incontestable, but the underlying assumptions were those of the Whig version of ecclesiastical history: this has been coming for generations, the tide of history cannot be resisted. Anglican women who had ‘kept the faith and remained loyal to the Church of England for 90 years’ were thanked – where, many wondered, were the thanks to catholic Anglicans who had similarly kept faith with the CofE? In the second half of his speech, the Archbishop took the opportunity to challenge the address given by Cardinal Kasper to the House of Bishops. Here were the considered thoughts of a distinguished representative of our largest ecumenical partner, given at the invitation of the House, being disputed by the second most senior member of that House. Dr Sentamu spoke of the Synod of Toledo in 447 and the addition of the filioque to the Creed; of Papal infallibility and the Marian dogmas; and (in a telling observation which strayed, perhaps unintentionally, into the realm of moral theology) of Roman Catholic teaching on artificial contraception. All of these examples of unilateral action on the Roman side were cited in an apparent attempt to justify, or excuse, equally unilateral action by Anglicans – a kind of ‘anything you can do, I can do better’ version of ecumenism, and hardly consonant (to coin a phrase) with the methodology of ARCIC.

In my speech, which followed that of the Archbishop, I asked the Synod some questions. Whence does the Church of England ‘receive’ the faith? How can we propose a unilateral change in something (the gift of the episcopate) which we have received from the Church Catholic, and share with the Church Catholic? Have we heard the appeals of our Roman Catholic friends – and if we have heard them and are prepared to ignore them, on what grounds? How does doctrine develop? Why do we assume that the Gospel can be preached only if we make this change? Fr Thomas Seville cr drove home the point about our ecumenical undertakings, and asked the Synod how other churches could possibly trust what we said on any issue, when we were able to take a decision which clearly failed to honour what others had heard us say, in good faith, on previous occasions. Lorna Ashworth, from the Chichester Diocese, in an outstanding speech, invited women on the Synod in particular to reflect on how – having been something of a ‘wild child’ in her youth – she had come to find freedom in living according to the ‘wonderfully designed creative order of headship’ which she found in the Scriptures.

The Archbishop of Canterbury rose to reassure Synod about the future of ARCIC, and to suggest that, since the beginning of the ARCIC process, the Roman Catholic Church had elevated the question of the ordination of women to a much higher status than had formerly been the case. Could it not be argued, rather, that during the last pontificate, the Roman Catholic Church clarified and elucidated the Tradition in this respect? Neither did we hear about the 1982 ‘Observations’ from the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (over a quarter of a century ago, in other words) which noted that the ‘new canonical regulations which have recently been introduced on this point [the ordination of women] in some parts of the Anglican Communion…are formally opposed to the ‘common traditions’ of our two Communions.’

Of the remainder of the debate, two speeches, those by the Bishops of Durham and Chester, are noteworthy: the former because of its daring elevation of both Mary Magdalene and Junia to decisive significance for proponents of the innovation, thus demonstrating that even the most orthodox biblical scholars will cheerfully assert speculative and contentious readings of the text with complete confidence; the latter because it was so heartening to hear an Evangelical bishop pursuing the ecumenical argument, and (a telling irony) defending Cardinal Kasper.

What was the significance of the vote? The motion was carried in all three Houses: Bishops 31–9, Clergy 134–42, Laity 123–68. In the House of Laity, it failed, therefore, to achieve the two-thirds majority necessary to secure Final Approval required for legislation. Nine bishops voting against (with a couple of notable abstentions) was more than most members of the Synod had expected. Finally, the debate had been formally declared not to be ‘Article 7’ business – that is, it did not touch on the doctrine of the Church of England. A majority then – around 70% – expressed an opinion in favour of women bishops: or to put it another way, 30% of the General Synod is still unconvinced.

The following motion on ‘process,’ which was passed overwhelmingly on a show of hands on the Monday morning, was amended three times. Two of these are of particular significance. The first successful amendment – proposed by Fr Houlding – introduced into the text the Lambeth resolution of 1998 which states that both those in favour of, and those opposed to, the ordination of women are equally loyal Anglicans. Then later, Canon Jane Sinclair’s amendment requiring that any draft legislation which includes provision for opponents must be ‘consistent with Canon A4’ was accepted after a division by Houses – but by only a handful of votes in the House of Laity (103–93) and with eleven bishops voting against. The aim of the amendment was clear, and indeed presented with commendable transparency: it was to prevent opponents of the ordination of women from lawfully doubting the validity of their orders – and so, by extension, the validity of their sacramental actions.

The spectre of the possible re-ordination of those ordained by women bishops hovered over the debate. The Bishop of Chichester nailed the key point in his speech on the amendment: were it to be passed (and interpreted in the manner which its proposer intended), then it would no longer be possible to say that one legitimately doubted that women could be priests or bishops, but only that one wished to avoid their ministry – an institutionalization of sheer sexism which no catholic Christian could possibly embrace.

So what does Canon A4 really mean? A number of things are clear. First, while the Canon is undoubtedly qualified by Resolutions A and B of the 1993 Priests (Ordination of Women Measure), it has – of course – itself never been amended nor repealed; in that sense, the Sinclair amendment changes nothing. Second, there is a strong case for saying that suddenly to privilege one Canon above all others in a legislative process is highly questionable. Third, there is the history of the evolution of Canon A4 itself, which, in its origins, is all about the form of ordination – the validity of the Prayer Book Ordinal – and nothing at all to do with the matter of the persons so ordained.

After this brief summary of the Synod debates, one observation and two questions remain. The observation concerns the nature of the Synod itself. The agenda for the York sessions was a busy one. There was the usual mixed bag of housekeeping, some more important, some less so: just the sort of business which (as Henry Chadwick once told us), a provincial synod is there to transact. Amidst all this, we were asked to take a decision on something as fundamental as a change in the episcopate: by any reckoning, something which should properly be addressed beyond that provincial level. The question is always put: how should decisions be taken in a divided Church? Even if we do not (yet) have a clear answer to that question, surely we can say: this is not the way.

The questions are as much spiritual as political. Do catholic (and conservative evangelical) Anglicans want the Church of England? And does the Church of England want us? What is clear after the large majorities in favour of ordaining women to the episcopate (and the assent, therefore, to the theological propositions about consonance and development contained in the motion, however little they were addressed in the speeches), is that there is no future – spiritual or political – in being a protest movement on this one issue. Where there may well still be a future is in the existence of a vigorous orthodox body of Anglican Christians in this land, possessing ecclesial coherence, clear that the catholic life embraces faith and morals, committed absolutely to mission, and set unequivocally on an ecumenical journey which has ‘gathering up the fragments’ of Western Christendom as its aim. Nothing which has happened at the General Synod in July has made realizing that vision impossible.

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