Cost of an exodus

In 1994, predictions of the numbers of clergy who would leave turned out to be unduly pessimistic, but, writes George Austin, this time the situation is different and the risk is greater

 

When in 1992 the General Synod gave its assent to the proposal to allow the ordination of women, it was not the end of the story. Like all such Measures it had to receive the assent of both Houses of Parliament which had no power to amend it - that is for the Synod - and they could only accept or reject it. In preparation for this, it was necessary for it to be considered by the Ecclesiastical Committee, who insisted that compassion be shown to those clergy who opposed the Measure and might feel it necessary on conscientious grounds to resign from the active priesthood.

Within the Synod there were those, led by Archbishop Habgood of York, who believed that provision should be made for those who would remain but who could not recognize the orders of women priests. This resulted in the creation of Provincial Episcopal Visitors and that bete noire of the members of Gras, the Act of Synod.

In the Nineties, clergy leaving the active ministry were given a resettlement grant - I think, 3,000 - and all were given compensation of one year on full stipend, a second year on three-quarters stipend, and a third year on two-thirds stipend. For those under the age of 50, compensation then ended. For those 50 and over but under 60, the two-thirds stipend continued until they reached the age of 60 and they then received the same pension to which they would have been entitled had they continued in office until that age.

This was an act of compassion and understanding which reflected the Christian attitudes of the Church of those bygone days. Now it seems highly unlikely that the Synod will easily agree to any form of accommodation or compensation for those now in a similar position.

It is believed that about 1,000 clergy will leave when women are able to be made bishop - about the same estimate as last time; and members of Gras and Watch will be quick to point out, scornfully, that similar dark prophecies were made in the Nineties when only about 400 in fact resigned. But that was quite simply because provision was provided that made it possible for the remainder to stay. I know because I was one of them.

This time the situation is quite different. It is one thing to work alongside women priests, say in the same deanery, and quite another to have to accept the authority of a bishop whom one does not consider to be a bishop. So more will certainly leave, and not just those who are paid-up members of Forward in Faith. I have spoken to non-members whom I know to be opposed to ask if they would stay or leave. In each case there was a look of astonishment that I could even ask the question and the same reply: 'Of course I will leave!'

The cost would be crippling - just under 50 million in the first three years alone, as well as a further 3 million if the resettlement grant remained only at the 1994 level. Undoubtedly there will be attempts to refuse such compensation, with accusations that it was being given to those who deliberately practise discrimination against women.

There would be more sympathy now in Parliament for this, such is the advance of secular principles to the detriment of the religious in the intervening years. But the law has changed too, and the question of constructive dismissal is already being examined. After all, priests believed they were being ordained into a Catholic priesthood in an apostolic succession, unchanged from the earliest days of the Church, and this is now, in their eyes, being abandoned.

It could be argued that those who are incumbents in freehold livings would be safe from such dismissal. Even for freeholders though, unscrupulous bishops might find a way to get rid of them if enough parishioners could be persuaded to make complaints to their bishop. For those without a freehold the possibility of constructive dismissal' becomes more of a grey area.

The press and media interest would, of course, be enormous and the Church authorities might be wary of the effect of turning faithful clergy and their families out of their homes and on to the streets without any visible means of support. Though maybe not: given current attitudes, as displayed for instance in the Synod debates of last July, any price might seem worth paying - save of course for the financial.

So is there a way forward? Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has made the vital point that any provision made in the legislation to allow women to become bishops must primarily be acceptable to those for whom it is designed. It has been made crystal clear that a Code of Practice simply will not be enough, nor can episcopal assurances ever be trusted that it would be fully honoured.

As for even-handed appointments to bishoprics, suffragan or diocesan, this has happened on very few occasions in the past 15 years so we could hardly believe it would happen now as the corruption of power follows its course. A senior figure within the appointments process recently told one senior priest that he would only have a chance of episcopal preferment if he would change his views on women's ordination - that is to say, if he would sell his birthright for a mess of purple pottage.

This will not change, but even so there is still time to retain a measure of unity within a Church of England that once prided itself on its comprehensiveness - a Church in which those of differing views could walk together as friends in the House of God. In a divided world it is surely essential that a Church offers this alternative.

Time will tell whether the choice will be generosity or rejection. But in the long term, rejection will be far more costly for the Church than any amount of financial compensation. 

Church authorities might be wary of turning faithful clergy and their families out of their homes without any visible means of support

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