A very modern Root and Branch Petition*

David Clues on MP Frank Field’s Early Day Motion and its potentially far-reaching ramifications for the relationship between Church and State

I suppose it was too much to hope for that after the early departures for the Ordinariate, to considerable media interest, and in the absence of anything even mildly cautious from the leaders of SWiSH, there might be a period of relative quiet, enabling those of us who are still in a difficult place to weigh up where we are. The Church of England is intent on opening its episcopate (and its whole self) to further divisions and rancour by the ordination of women as bishops. Whatever the elaborate psephological projections of the Synod cognoscenti, at some point near to or just a little further from July 2012, the Church of England will have women bishops. Having been referred to the Dioceses, the draft measure might have disappeared from view – just for a time.

An ingenious device

But then, a Member of Parliament, in the shape of a member of Parliament’s Ecclesiastical Committee, which served some so well twenty years ago, one Frank Field, has crafted an ingenious little device to frighten the horses and to drive them and their accompanying coach through the fragile and oft-tested truce between Church and State that has obtained probably since 1928 and all that.

Mr Field’s Early Day Motion reads thus:

‘That this House welcomes the current moves by the General Synod of the Church of England to pass legislation permitting women to be bishops; notes that the Synod is currently engaged in consulting the Dioceses on the Women in the Episcopate: draft bishops and priests (consecration and ordination of women) Measure; further notes that General Synod expects to debate the final approval stage of the Measure in July 2012; encourages the House of Bishops to commend the Measure as currently drafted; and calls on Her Majesty’s Government to remove any exemptions pertaining to gender under existing equality legislation, in the event that the Measure has overwhelming support in the dioceses but fails through a technicality to receive final approval in General Synod.’

Greater significance

Nanny Field has recruited 39 so far (14 Feb.) from across the political divide. As with all Early Day Motions (EDM), there is very little likelihood that it will be debated on the floor of the Commons. But the EDM has more significance than mere posturing. The ramifications of their sabre-rattling are more far-reaching than any faction of the Synod would wish to contemplate.

Article 37 of the 39, Of the Civil Magistrates, denies such arrogation by the Temporal Power: ‘We give not to Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments’. Lord Phillimore in the debate in the House of Lords in July 1919 on the Bill to establish the Church Assembly recognized and reminded their Lordships of the limit of their authority:

‘Having given [the Church] temporal status and security, and even power, Parliament is entitled to control the exercise of the power which it gives, to see that it is properly exercised and within due limits, but if it interferes with the administration of the Word and Sacraments, an interference which is expressly disclaimed by our Thirty-Nine Articles, it spoils the very delicate organization which it touches and attempts roughly to handle’ [Hansard, 1 July 1919].

Breathtaking arrogance

The consequences of spoiling ‘the very delicate organization’ will leave the Church of England in the extraordinary position of being the only faith denomination where the tenets of belief and practice can be trumped by the whims and preferences of the 650 men and women, some of faith of various kinds, some agnostic, some stridently atheist, who comprise the present House of Commons.

Some have argued (some as long ago as 1833) that we have been here all along, but only now the opinion that dared not speak its name in the precincts of the Palace of Westminster is beginning to gain a confidence which would not only demolish the fragile and peculiarly English symbiosis of Church and State but, with the breathtaking arrogance of parliamentary dictatorship, set about moulding a blasphemous pseudo-religion to advance ‘the progressive agenda’. The Roundheads are rampant.

Some of us have argued that the Church of England has no authority to order its bene esse. But we have been seeing things from a broader ecclesiological perspective. Imagine our horror at finding support for our view not from the ecumenical irenicist but from the militant secular aggressor.

Field’s work is done, before a word is uttered in debate. The gauntlet has been thrown down. Rank has been pulled. ‘This House... encourages the House of Bishops to commend the Measure as currently drafted’.

Robbed of its right

The Dioceses have been robbed of their right freely to discuss the draft measure referred to them by the General Synod. The General Synod has been robbed of its right (no matter how much some of us take issue with its claim) freely to decide how it will order the life of the Church of England. The truth is out.

Those who perceive that an obscure parliamentary device could only strengthen their cause need to reconsider. The political allegiances of your best women candidates for vacant Sees might offend Downing Street. Prepare to take up the Buchanan baton to rid us of these turbulent representatives.

*a reference to the 1640 attempt to abolish episcopacy ND

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