Burdened with the impossible task of .drafting a Code of Practice to enable the introduction of women bishops, the Manchester Group published its second collection of material at the end of December. It has offered General Synod and the rest of the Church of England an impressive set of papers.
It would be impossible not to be struck by the skill, thoroughness and imagination that was applied by the members of the group to the absurd and confused remit they had been landed with. If nothing else, it shows that there are still intelligent people able to offer serious theological thinking within our church, and this across the divide of churchmanship, and without their advocate of the orthodox position, Fr Jonathan Baker.
It is a travesty, surely, that so much listening, reflection, study and commitment should in the end be of so little use. As they themselves make clear, it is all but impossible for a Code to achieve the task imagined for it. As they make even clearer, more serious work on a more workable solution could have been done, had they been given a better and more appropriate remit from Synod.
What are to conclude from this? What lessons can be learned from this second exercise in the impossible?
Firstly, it is clear that the Synod debate and motion on the morning of 11 February will be largely an irrelevance, and will change nothing. It is merely an unproductive requirement of the synodical process. Nothing should be expected of it, from either side of the debate.
Secondly, it follows that the real work will, therefore, have to follow this procedural and shadow motion, during the period Synod calls 'the revision stage'. This endless delay is unbecoming, and a clear indictment of the House of Bishops' inability to give proper leadership. Nevertheless, with no Lambeth Conference to distract them this year, it is imperative that they come to a common mind and make a decision and atone for their cowardice and indecision of 2008.
Theological work will have to be done; major revision will have to be realized; the wiser counsel of the Manchester Group will have to be listened to. If a Code is ineffectual, and unlikely to receive the necessary two-thirds majority at the end of this interminable process, something more serious and permanent will have to be put in its place.
Is it possible? Of course. As the Manchester Group has shown, serious work can be done, across the ideological divide. What is needed is clear leadership.
Can we expect this from the Synod? Hardly. From the bishops? Unlikely. Which leaves the Archbishops. We pray for them.
Suppose a serving bishop were to write an article about homosexuals. And suppose that after a few general comments, in which he describes people who feel a sense of the injustice at the way gays and lesbians are treated by the Church as 'snotty, dotty and potty,' he goes on to describe the career of a notorious paedophile. He concludes by suggesting that those who stick up for gay rights are living in 'la la land.'
The result would be uproar, and the bishop would be forced to apologize for any implication that there is a path which links homosexual orientation, directly or indirectly, to child abuse.
An absurd scenario? No doubt. Which bishop could demonstrate such an astonishing lack of judgement as to allow such a piece to appear in the public domain, across his signature? But the Bishop of Buckingham, the Rt Revd Alan Wilson, has seen fit to do just this (see <www.bishopalan.blogspot.com>, entry dated 22 January 2009). No, not about homosexuality and paedophilia, of course: that would be too offensive. The issue is one which ranks - rightly - alongside child abuse as a particularly stomach-churning phenomenon: holocaust denial.
And the group who, by association, are linked with this most reprehensible of opinions and about whom the article begins? Traditional Anglo-Catholics, anxious to uphold the teaching of the Universal Church in matters of faith, order and morals.
Buckingham, who has form in this area (he has previously suggested that those opposed to the ordination of women are similar to the defenders of apartheid) has written a theologically slovenly piece. The Church of England does not adhere to the purely 'baptismal ecclesiology' which he champions.
Her own teaching documents (for example, Bishops in Communion), and the ecumenical agreements with partners of all shades to which she has signed up, all aspire to the goal of visible unity expressed in and through full Eucharistic communion. But this is neither here nor there.
What is truly unbecoming is that one of the Church of England's alleged chief pastors should be blind to the insensitivity of writing an article like this at a time like this. 'Trust us,' say the bishops. Really?
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