Gently turning tide

Andy Hawes notes a change in the air which suggests that the momentum of the liberal bandwagon has weakened noticeably over the past decade so that earlier assumptions no longer have the force they once had

Something must be happening. The recent contributions by Christina Rees and the Bishop of Lincoln to New Directions must signal some kind of change. It was not so long ago that one labelled ND ‘anti-women’ and the other called it ‘undergraduate rubbish.’ Now graciously they see themselves being in dialogue and making afresh the case for the ordination of women. Is one factor that has brought about this change the breakdown in momentum of the liberal bandwagon being dragged through General Synod by those twin horses ‘justice’ and ‘equality’? Twelve years ago they were thoroughbreds, but now they have gone a little lame.

The political reality seems to be that proponents of the consecration of women to the episcopate have neither the moral, theological nor synodical authority to press on to the final solution – a single clause measure and the exclusion of those opposed. We are back at the start, with the drawing up of legislation and another period of theological reflection. Part of this new beginning is that relationships once thought superfluous are now necessary. The toning down of rhetoric (on both sides of the debate) speaks of a fresh approach. No one should be mistaken: there is a long way to go before the woman bishop sings.

The main problem for the proponents is that the opposition has not waned. True, there has been the parting of many friends, and the whole church has been diminished by the process. However, the parochial base of the opposition is growing slowly, and it is well-organized and well-distributed in geography and demography. FiF as an organization dwarfs any other set-up in the Church of England bar the Mothers’ Union. The worrying thing for the liberal is that FiF is only a representative organization – for every signed-up member there are several sympathizers; FiF has never run a membership or advertising campaign. There is a lot of slack to take up. Despite the never-ending attritional action of the establishment, opponents are still in pretty good fettle. The Mrs Rees and John Saxbees of the church are quite right when they judge that the Act of Synod was a bad thing (for them): for the orthodox it held out the seeds of possibilities and those seeds have born fruit a hundred fold.

The problem for the liberal is that the theological argument was lost a decade ago. As the report Consecrated Women? demonstrated, the theological weight is with the orthodox. New insights into the nuptial imagery of Scripture, the theology of ‘gracious patriarchy,’ the study by liturgists of the relationship between temple sacrifice and eucharistic theology all begin to pile up.

Underlying all this are the developments in the field of philosophical theology, particularly under the banner of ‘radical orthodoxy.’ John Milbank in his book Theology and Social Theory has holed the liberal ship below the water line in his convincing thesis that

modern theological method is not theological in any true sense, because it does not begin with the revealed word of God; its starting point is social theory. Contrast all this with the Dan-Brown-type use of the ‘Magdala–Junia’ arguments in the July Synod.

The perspective of a decade shows that the leadership of the Church of England that pushed the Ordination of Women Measure through Synod were largely social theorists, ideologists who surrounded their aspirations with theology. The keynote speech of Dr Carey made this crystal clear: ‘How can the church talk of justice to society when it is unjust to women?’ The situation now is very different; the House of Bishops has rather more men moved by theology and less by ideology. The Archbishop of Canterbury is such a man. His own inclination is to follow the pursuit of equality and justice – he did dub himself ‘a long haired leftie’!

When in the February session of Synod Dr Williams observed that opponents of women’s ordination were seeking to be ‘obedient to Scripture and tradition,’ the game was up. A man of prayer and integrity could not resist the witness to orthodoxy in front of him; it could not simply be ditched. It was a brave thing to do. The political and theological map has changed, socialism has run its course, and feminism might just be going the same way. As the Blairite vision of a ‘People’s Britain’ begins to crumble, so does the hope for a ‘People’s Church.’

The Archbishop must be haunted by The Episcopal Church. In the USA, where the liberal ideologists have held sway, the Anglican Church is in meltdown and has become an ideology-laden institution of satirical proportions. The consequence of TEC ’s flagship policies has been a change in the political epicentre of Anglicanism which has shifted to the southern hemisphere. The Anglican Communion is no longer the project of the liberal Anglo-Saxon. Every action and decision of General Synod has far-reaching consequences for worldwide Anglicanism. There is a mood of caution about, that was not present ten years ago. Perhaps the orthodox were right in their warnings after all?

Then there is money. The ordination of women proved a timely innovation at a time of financial crisis for the Church of England. A vast army of non-stipendiary women priests, some house-for-duty, some part-time, keep the parochial system afloat. But for how much longer? The economic conditions that permit early retirement, part-time work or living of one salary are a thing of the past. The next ten years will see longer working lives for men and women. It remains to be seen how popular full-time, life-long stipendiary ministry will be to women.

The Church of England is now in dead water. The tide that swept the liberal agenda before it has reached a high-water mark. The tide is beginning to turn. A new landscape is being revealed that will have different obstacles and dangers. It might be, God willing, that the good ship CofE will remain afloat and of the rocks.

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