The last rites?

George Austin reflects on the July motions in the light of the many peculiarities and idiosyncrasies of General Synod process that have grown up over the past several decade

 

At Trinity this year I celebrated 50 years in the priesthood, and on 16 July my 75th birthday. In between those two events, the General Synod made the decision to go ahead with the consecration of women as bishops. I wondered if I could now, as an orthodox Catholic, have still offered myself for ordination; and if I will live long enough to see the tortuous process grind to a conclusion so that I may attend the requiem for the Church of England before I am present at my own. Or is it not like that at all?

There is a primary tendency in the more contentious of synodical debates to approve motions that will apparently satisfy all sides. The worst example of this was in the proposals for Anglican–Methodist unity in the early 1970s, when even the promoters of the Report admitted a deliberate ambiguity, with words and phrases meaning one thing to Anglicans and sometimes the contrary to Methodists.

Open to interpretation

An example of the tendency to attempt to bat for both sides comes in the amendments added to the July motion on women in the episcopate, on the one hand endorsing the Lambeth resolution ‘that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to the ordination to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans’ while on the other hand demanding that any additional legal provision is ‘consistent with Canon A4.’

On the surface it appears to provide some comfort for orthodox Anglicans that they will still be welcome as ‘loyal Anglicans,’ while the reference to Canon A4, with its requirement that those who are ordained ‘ought to be accounted, both by themselves and others, to be truly bishops, priests, or deacons’ comforts those who would seek to interpret ‘ought’ as ‘must.’

Unfortunately, the same promises of recognition as ‘loyal Anglicans’ together with solemn assurances that there would be no discrimination in appointments, parochial or episcopal, against those who could not accept the ordination of women have never been honoured by the majority of bishops. This gives little hope for the future.

As for Canon A4, it could be argued that opponents have never accepted that such ordinations were lawful and no action has been taken against them, but its inclusion does hint that with the onset of women bishops, this could be used against opponents in a legal and persecutory manner. Given the understandable lack of trust orthodox clergy have in the episcopate, it is hardly paranoid to wonder if action will be taken against them under the new Clergy Discipline Measure.

Ecumenical proposals in Synod also provide examples of the manner in which one ‘innocent’ decision can produce fundamental changes not envisaged in the outward wording of agreed motions. The most acute example of this was in the Porvoo agreement, ostensibly about relations with the Lutheran Churches mainly of the Baltic region – churches that is with a Catholic tradition of episcopacy, but not always with bishops in the apostolic succession.

By the agreement, the fourth constituent of the Lambeth Quadrilateral – the historic succession – was effectively abandoned and as a result the discussions removed, whether deliberately or in all innocence, a major hindrance in on-going discussions with the Methodist Church. The examples of synodical history show that it is always necessary to read between the lines.

Nature of vocation

Two other factors must be taken into account. First, there is the tendency to meet reasoned argument with vulgar abuse, and to make that abuse appear to be reasoned argument. Hence those who oppose the ordination of women do so not because they hold sound theological arguments but because they are misogynist. Similarly the ‘gay’ issue has been distorted by classing as homophobic all who seek to uphold certain biblical standards.

The second factor is rather different and requires a secular understanding of the nature of vocation. It is reflected today in such phrases as ‘breaking through the glass ceiling’ in arguments in support of women bishops. There have of course always been ambitious clergy, but Michael Ramsey was more typical of an earlier age. An acquaintance saw him in 1952 muttering gloomily, ‘Hell! Hell! I am to be Bishop of Durham.’

For men like Ramsey, vocation was to do, to the best of their ability, whatever opportunity God gave them, even if it was unpalatable. The seeds of change were sown in the 1980s as a result of the Runcie archiepiscopate, when preferment came only ‘for men of a moderately Catholic style which is not taken to the point of having firm principles.’

While the elitism has now thankfully disappeared, the style has inevitably become entrenched, infecting so much of the church’s life. And non-episcopal speakers in Synod see to it that if they wish to advance they do not rock the episcopal boat.

Secularization

What is clear – and what has always been clear to those of us who have suffered the developing process since the early days of the General Synod – is that the issue of ordained women is not the cause of the sickness afflicting the Church of England in particular and the Anglican Communion as a whole, but rather a symptom of a deeper malaise.

This is the secularization of the Church, whereby the guiding principle in decision-making is neither theology, nor the continuation of a practice stretching back to apostolic days, but rather what is acceptable to the spirit of the age. The history of the 36 years of the General Synod epitomizes not only that development but also the disastrous effect it has had on the Church of England. But what is also clear from the history of the Church of God since its earliest days is that, whatever folly its members incite, it is God’s Church and he prevails in the end. Athanasius contra mundum – 1700 years later we still need Athanasian obstinacy against those who undermine the Scriptures.

I began by wondering if I would today have offered myself for ordination; and if we have seen the last rites of the Church of England. I hope I would have had the courage of those many young orthodox men who, knowing the pain that will surely come, still accept God’s call. The last rites? Maybe. But it is not the end of God’s purpose, and he will prevail.

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