Women bishops: why ‘respect’ will not do
John Richardsonoffers an evangelical perspective
Part of me is genuinely inclined to wish we could get it all over with, and move on to more important issues – the conversion of England for starters. But the report
which championed that long-ignored task in 1945 also recognized that the Church must be up to the challenge. Put simply, the proclamation of the Gospel to the nation would have to go hand in hand with the spiritual reformation of the Church through the Gospel. And that is why we cannot simply take an ‘anything goes’ attitude to the proposed legislation, for if it in any way sets the Church back, then it also sets back the mission of the Church.
Now I personally do not think absolutely everything hangs on not having women bishops. There are branches of Anglicanism, such as in Kenya for example, where women are ordained, but where the Church is far more spiritually healthy than anything experienced in this country in the last half-century of male-only clergy. For us, however, the doctrinal latitude already present in the denomination means that a false step at this point could quickly have dramatic consequences that do not apply elsewhere.
Furthermore, given the way that English bishops are appointed, the number of English women bishops is likely to outnumber the global total very soon. Between 1989 and 2010, only twenty-six women bishops had been appointed in the entire Anglican Communion. It is hard to imagine that the Church of England will not see at least a dozen such appointments within a decade.
Therefore, whatever the impact of introducing women bishops, it is likely to be greater here than in any other part of the Communion. We therefore have to get this right. And that is why I am of the opinion that the proposed legislation is inadequate. The initial introduction of Clause 5(1)c was itself a clear recognition that the legislation was unlikely to get approval as it stood. This itself was a significant admission.
However, the reaction of Watch and others was equally important. Having misread the proposal as a guarantee that traditionalist views would be guaranteed a place in the episcopate, they immediately launched a political campaign – to some extent successful – to persuade the bishops to withdraw the amendment. This, and the intemperate language used, made it absolutely clear that, if anything, the guarantees to traditionalists needed strengthening.
Almost inevitably, however, the House of Bishops came back with something milder. Not only that, however, but the focus of the Clause had shifted significantly. The old 5(1)c looked primarily to the nature of the ministry (though not, as many initially assumed, the beliefs) of those selected to serve petitioning parishes.
The new Clause, while retaining the same number, shifts the focus entirely. The relationship addressed by the new amendment is no longer that between the bishop and the minister, but between the bishop and the parish. And this is entirely unsatisfactory.
First, it puts the stress on the weakest link in the chain.
Few parishes contain people confident enough of their
theology, let alone ecclesiastical rules and regulations, to stand their ground against a bishop or archdeacon determined to get their own way. Secondly, this stress will often occur at one of the points where parishes are least ready to stand their ground, namely during an interregnum.
Thirdly, and most importantly of all, it depends on a display of respect where hitherto little has been shown: ‘the selection of male bishops and male priests in a manner which respects the grounds on which parochial church councils issue Letters of Request under section 3.’ Those parishes will basically be those which currently have passed Resolutions under the existing legislation.
Far from being ‘respected’, however, such parishes, and the clergy running them, have regularly been the object of misunderstanding and suspicion (I speak from experience). And where clergy have moved on it is not unknown for members of the hierarchy to begin looking at ways to circumvent the position established under the previous incumbent.
With genuine respect for traditionalist parishes being such a rare commodity now, what hope is there that the security of the traditionalist position can rely on respect between bishops and PCCs in the future? And if even the existing bishops have found respect such a difficult thing to show, what hope will there be of respect being sustained ten or twenty years from now?
The House of Bishops clearly hopes that the Appleby amendment will do the trick. And they genuinely seem to think they are up to the task. Sadly, they are wrong, for while individually they mean well, there is already an institutionalized disrespect for traditionalist parishes. In an ideal world, respect would do, but in the real world of the present, it simply will not.ND
Return to Trushare Home Page
Return to Home Page of This Issue