How to be cheerful

Anthony Saville finds that time and reflection show the Synod vote not to be quite so irredeemably awful as it first seemed, that there may still be generosity in the Church of England and the basis for a structural solution

Let us not fool ourselves, nor go into denial. On Monday, 7 July the General Synod, meeting in York, engaged in an ill-prepared, badly-organized, over-complicated, poorly-chaired debate on how to make good on its earlier promises to make provision for those members of the Church of England who cannot in conscience receive the innovation of women bishops.

Against the clear advice of its two Archbishops, against the judgement of the Manchester Group it had set up to advise it, against the pleas of many of its most senior bishops, against its own earlier resolutions, the Synod finally voted to make no proper provision for traditionalists at all.

It could hardly have been worse, either for Anglo-Catholics in particular nor the Church of England in general. There is every reason for traditional and faithful Anglicans to feel saddened, hurt, depressed and anxious. Nevertheless...

Is it possible, without being delusional, that the blackness of that day was not quite as black as we originally supposed? Since you ask, yes. There are a number of reasons to be (moderately) cheerful.

1.  We have stayed firm. Despite much mischief-making from the press, there has not been a rush to Rome, nor serious calls to abandon ship. Clergy and laity are continuing as before to worship and pray as members of the Church of England. We are not 'threatening to leave' as opponents suggested, but promising to stay. There has been no panic, nor histrionics. The public responses have been calm and measured, and certainly not rushed.

What happens in the future is still in the future, but for the moment traditionalists in general and Forward in Faith in particular are staying, are united and will continue to fight for proper provision. The second sentence of the short FiF resolution in July is worth repeating, 'The Council remains determined to respond to the needs of its members by securing a structural solution comprising discrete dioceses for those in conscience opposed to the ordination of women as bishops.'

It is worth giving thanks to God for his blessings over the past fifteen years. We have learned to work together, to share a common purpose, and to maintain a unity of action, which we might have hoped for, but could not reasonably have predicted in the aftermath of the 1992 Synod vote. We may be a smaller group within the CofE, but we are a stronger and more united group. God has indeed blessed us.

2.  Lay opposition is growing. The figures are so small as to be almost insignificant; nevertheless it is a worrying and unexpected trend for those hoping for total victory. The Synod figures we hear cited are 32% against in 2005, 36% in 2006 and 38% in 2008. They make no difference at this stage, where only simple majorities are required in the initial votes.

If repeated, however, at the final and decisive stage in 2014 (according the current predictions), it suggests the real possibility that the necessary two-thirds majority might not be achieved among the laity, in which case the entire edifice collapses and a decade's work in Synod is for ever wasted.

As we know, there will be an election for a new General Synod in 2010. It is possible that the hardline liberal agenda will persuade, steamroll or otherwise weaken this opposition among the laity. Nothing is certain, except that this existing percentage is no certain ground for hope for traditionalists. But it is grounds for real worry for liberals.

Could ten years' work towards women bishops really be lost on the vote of a few lay members of Synod? The answer is yes, and many bishops are well aware of this. Of course they would like to see traditionalists disappear, but is it really worth sacrificing the great prize just for the sake of being ungenerous to opponents?

The Church in Wales, you will remember, only this year, failed to win the same prize, all because the House of Bishops was too mean in its provision (or rather lack of it) for those with whom they disagreed.

3. The laity are generous. More than a third voted against the final motion for a single clause measure; but of the nearly two-thirds who voted in favour, a large majority did so in the belief that a code of practice would be enough to provide what traditionalists need.

Bishops and priests, with a direct professional interest in these things, may well have been aware that any code, statutory or otherwise, was an irrelevance and an illusion; but this was not true of the lay members. The House of Laity voted in favour of the Bishop of Ripon's last minute compromise: this was a deliberate attempt to make provision, when the initial suggestions from the Manchester Report had been rejected.

In the confusion and complexity, they found themselves late at night with only the final motion before them, accompanied with the spurious promise that statutory provision would be so much stronger and more helpful than a voluntary code. Many of those who voted for this code did so - we cannot see into people's hearts but the figures confirm this - out of a genuine and generous hope that it would satisfy the needs of opponents of women bishops.

Watch members may have been voting for a single clause measure, but many ordinary members were voting, albeit mistakenly, for a statutory code. This vague generosity may be somewhat formless, but it is strong enough to make the House of Bishops take notice.

4. They lack courage. The move to women bishops relies almost entirely upon the justice argument, as all reports of the Synod debate in the media have made clear. Proper provision cannot, it is suggested, be made for those who cannot accept this innovation because it would be a form of discrimination. A code of practice is by no means free of the same accusation - a statutory instrument that provides for a man to masquerade as a woman, for those cannot accept her ministry is not the most obvious expression of justice.

In fact, it is worse than this. It is not simply the substance of a code which is highly questionable, it is the very existence of a code. If the women bishops issue is a matter of justice, then it is reasonable to have a single clause measure: there is no room for equivocation in matters of human rights. But if there is no room for equivocation over human rights, where on earth is the justification for a code of practice to deal with those who object to the implementation of these human rights?

Now, it may be that some of the more wily church politicians are using the pretence of a code to bamboozle the opposition. In which case, you would expect the more straightforward campaigners to call for a single clause measure with no code whatsoever. For a moment, it looked as though there was an amendment in the Synod debate calling for exactly that. Not so. It only suggested there could be alternative, local arrangements, without the need for a legislated code.

It is extraordinary - though surely most encouraging - that no one has publicly called for simple, unequivocal legislation for women bishops. Not one person has dared to proclaim the clear logic of the justice argument.

5. What did they vote for? It is important to leave this as a question, because it is one which has not yet been properly answered. General Synod, within its own labyrinthine rules and procedures, can change its mind as often as it likes. Yet, for all that, it does not quite see itself like the little Church in Wales Governing Body. It claims, not unreasonably, a certain gravitas. Modelled as it is upon the Mother of All Parliaments, it seeks to live up to a higher calling and a greater consistency than its baby sister.

How then will it cope with the fact that it has voted against a single clause measure three times before? How can it explain, to itself, that it voted in 2005, in this same process, to accept that we the minority have a full and honoured place as Anglicans, and then vote against these same words when proposed by a senior bishop in 2008?

Obviously, if you are wanting to overturn the practice of the universal Church for the past two millennia, you will not be that worried about decisions made in the past. Nevertheless, the justifications for the big change - the trajectory of Scripture, a new understanding of gender and justice - are precisely what make the little changes of mind look like uncertainty, waywardness, or perhaps even incompetence.

If the General Synod does not know its own mind, it becomes rather more difficult for it to justify imposing its own mind (whatever it happens to be) on the wider Church of England. What exactly did they vote for? The question still remains somewhat open, for all the apparent finality of the vote. Contradictory voting is perfectly legal, procedurally acceptable, and quite capable of altering the church for ever, but it is still unfortunate and embarrassing.

Its most important implication is the uncertainty it imposes upon the bureaucrats. Synodical civil servants are supposed to be servants of the Synod, but it is not easy to serve a master that is in two minds.

6.  The crisis is not about us. As a principled but tiny minority, we are a problem that the Church of England has to deal with. But the far greater problem is what the introduction of the new measure/measures will do to the Church of England as a whole.

If you add up all the parishes who have passed all the resolutions, and add in all those parishes you think would do so if only circumstances were right, you will still not reach 5% of the parishes in this country. We may be a principled minority, but we are a small one. Provision for our future cannot, therefore, be a major problem in itself.

It is not what happens to us that matters most, either to us or to the majority. It is what happens to the Church of England, and to the proclamation of the Gospel in this country. If the Church of England does not matter, there is little to worry about; but if it does, then we must be very careful not to destroy it, and its history and witness of tolerance and comprehensiveness, its reasonableness and generosity.

A code of practice sounded helpful and reasonable to many - which is why it commanded the necessary majority - but more sober reflection will reveal it to be a dangerous option for the church. Something that appeases misogynists while rejecting faithful Anglicans has a nasty smell to it.

Worse still is the prospect that a first Great Ejectment, of those who cannot accept this particular change, would be followed by another. Witch hunts encourage witch hunts. Would it be Evangelicals next on the list, on another issue? And who would follow them?

7. Promises are not easily broken. The whole basis for the experiment in womens ordination has been based upon an open reception. The Church of England seeks neither to deny its past nor what it sees as the imperative of the present. Both the Catholic tradition, if you like, and the liberal enlightenment are to be given their due place. Hence the fundamental promise that undergirded the introduction of women priests, that both sides of the issue would have a full and honoured place within the church.

It was this that was so brutally torn apart and thrown out in the July debate. It is understandable if those who have been so shabbily treated, who heard or read about the animosity of the victors, who sensed, in the horrible phrase which has become common currency in descriptions of that Monday evening, that 'the Synod smelled blood and went for the kill', should now be feeling angry and bitter.

One cannot deny nor undo a vote, but is it not true that the Bishop of Dover's intervention at the end was closer to the truth about the Church of England than the final motion? Promises are not easily broken. How the House of Bishops are going to square the circle and undo the mess they initiated by their failure to give leadership back in May is a mystery.

They will certainly try. We pray they will succeed. Until they fail, we have a responsibility to support them. Do we have reasons to be optimistic? Probably not. But a single (albeit monumental) synodical accident is not excuse enough to take our bat home. Our commitment to the Church of England is not so easily set aside. 

Return to Home Page of This Issue

Return to Trushare Home Page