Whom to appease?


There are three distinct groups who oppose the innovation of women bishops. Anthony Saville wonders which group the draft Code of Practice is intended to satisfy

General Synod, with or without the guidance of the House of Bishops, will make the fateful decisions over the coming years concerning the introduction of women bishops to the Church of England. They are the actors; we are the spectators.

Perhaps not entirely. Both Synod members and bishops spend most of their lives in ordinary church circles: for most of the time they understand and experience this issue in a context very different to that of synodical papers, debates and motions. What is the general problem they are seeking to solve, of which the synodical process is but a symptom?

Women bishops are not the issue: this innovation, as we know, has already been accepted. The big question, which has occupied the mind of the church for some years now, is what to do with those who cannot in conscience accept this change to Church Order. Should any provision be made by the majority for the minority, and if so what sort of provision?

It does appear, now that the Manchester Group has devised a draft code of practice, that the bishops and Synod members are still not clear as to what sort of people make up this minority. There are, at the very least, three quite distinct groups.

First, there are the Catholics, who need sacramental assurance and a coherent ecclesiology; for them a Code of Practice clearly will not do, as the Manchester Group acknowledges. Second, there are the Evangelicals who need on biblical grounds a godly man as a bishop. Thirdly, there are the conservatives, who do not like change and innovation and cannot welcome a woman in the sanctuary, in virtually any role.

This last group, the conservatives, whom we might in more uncharitable moments wish to label as misogynist, will find that the Code satisfies all their needs at virtually no cost. It would allow them to avoid seeing a woman in their sanctuary, while in no way cutting them off from any other aspect of the life of the Church of England. Everything remains as it was, no theological questions have to be faced or answered; they simply don't have to encounter a female bishop in their own church.

The principal objection to the first group, the Catholics, is that they are such vile people. As everyone 'knows' it is Forward in Faith that has been the spanner in the works for the last two decades, and in simple terms, 'It's all our fault.' This visceral loathing, however, masks a more difficult truth, namely that the Catholics are at one and the same time both the best group to keep and the worst.

The presence of this group, as 'loyal Anglicans', is a constant reminder to the majority that, just possibly, they are wrong in what they are doing; and this by their own judgement, not ours. We remain an uncomfortable and accusing presence, and yet to get rid of us (by providing the mere worthless token of a code) would be to turn away from the Church of England's historic self-understanding to be one, holy, catholic and apostolic. If you throw out all the members of your church who hold to a Catholic ecclesiology, it would be very difficult, that is to say impossible, to maintain the historic claim to be Catholic.

You might say that the principal objection to the third group, the conservatives, is the same only more so. Surely misogynists are even more vile. Actually, no, they have a real usefulness. If you are claiming that the need for women bishops is a simple justice issue; if you are telling others that this final barrier to sexual equality must be removed, in the same manner that slavery was abolished or apartheid destroyed, then clearly it helps to have a few opponents who are manifestly reactionary.

If your enemies are not merely wrong but evil (though being English this may not be quite the word we should use), does this not suggest your cause is right and good? To satisfy the needs of Catholics would be to lay yourself open to the possibility that you are wrong; to satisfy the needs of misogynists maybe a little too generous (though only for a decade or so) but it cleverly heightens the righteousness of your own position.

A Code, to satisfy those who do not like the idea of women bishops because they are women, is not, therefore, a concession wrung unwillingly from the majority. It is, rather, a clever and intentional procedure that underlines the worthiness of the cause. By defining the opposition, it provides an implicit and most useful approbation of the innovation.

The dream scenario for the liberal majority would be so to dress up the misogynist Code in Catholic clothing that the latter group could be tarred with sins of the former. A fantasy? I don't think so. We must acknowledge, to our shame, that there are too many misogynists hiding within our ranks (within FiF, for example) for this to be an impossible outcome.

What, then, of the second group, the Evangelicals? A Code, on the face of it, should satisfy them, being deliberately individual in application, and clearly to do with gender. Will it be enough? This is surely the question the bishops are asking.

To lose the Catholics would not be the end of the world, especially if they could be labelled conservative, reactionary and misogynist. But to lose the Evangelicals as well, that would be a disaster, if they took with them their young laity and their money. It may be (I speak as an outsider) that what they need most of all is structural separation from openly gay bishops, a CofE problem still in the future. What they are looking to see is whether the bishops can make provision for Catholics. If they won't for us, what hope will there be for them?

Misogynists are no allies of ours, but Evangelicals most probably will be.

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