All feel guilty

Mark Stevens is irritated by Dr Williams’ even-handedness fearing that it is little more than an instrument for delay

Am I alone, I wonder, in growing increasingly tired of the even-handed and well-meaning admonitions of Rowan Williams to the General Synod and the Anglican Communion? In language less pellucid than it might be he sets about persuading us that we should feel guilty for not being as percipient and generous as he is. And worse than that: he assumes that if we did have a ‘three dimensional’ vision of things like him, the problems of the CofE and the Anglican Communion would be resolved in God’s good time.

I find that frankly irritating. If it is a matter of being able to see both sides of the case (for example, in the matter of women in the episcopate) I reckon I have done a pretty good job at it. I would go further. I think I could put the case for women bishops more coherently and persuasively than many of its advocates, if I were so inclined. But that is not the point. The point is that I believe, on grounds which are fundamental to the way I view Christianity, faith and the nature of the Church, that to ordain women is wrong. And what is more, I am convinced that those in favour have reasons, which appear to them to be just as fundamental and conclusive.

Of course it is the fantasy of liberal academe that deeper understanding and further dialogue will always bring about agreement – or at least compromise. But in this instance that could not be further from the truth. The grown-up thing to do, now, is not to treat the protagonists like fractious children in the playground who need to respect each other’s integrity and autonomy, but to accept that their differences are genuinely irreconcilable. There is no way in which those who believe that the Church has no authority to make this change can be reconciled with those who suppose that there is an a priori ethical demand that they should make it. Only by accepting that fact can either side be respected and honoured.

What needs also to be grasped is that the two sides are not symmetrically disposed: what would satisfy one would aggravate the other. A parallel but separate jurisdiction for opponents would be radically unacceptable to proponents, for the very reasons which oblige them to pursue the innovation in the first place.

Rowan, of course, is absolutely right to see that there are ironies in the present position of a Church which seeks to defeat the Equalities Bill in the House of Lords and yet intends to proceed with women’s ordination on similar grounds of equality and human rights. Let the words of his all too lively predecessor ring in his ears: ‘We are in danger of not being heard if women are exercising leadership in every area of our society’s life save the ordained ministry. If that was an argument for ordaining women (and it swayed many votes in 1992), then it is an argument for gay marriages, gay clergy and gay bishops in 2010, as Harriet Harman might well feel obliged to point out.

But Anglicans, it will be said, have never been logical and have no need to be. The Church of England functions on a fascinating amalgam of wilful short-sightedness, unprincipled pragmatism and cloying sentimentality. That may well be he case. But logic is not an optional extra: it catches up with all of us in the end.

The Revision Committee of the women bishops’ legislation knows this. The only thing that they have not grasped is that the protracted timetable is to no one’s advantage. In the words of Macbeth, ‘If ’twere done when ’tis done, ’twere well it were done quickly

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