Comment October 1996
THE PROBLEM with Vox populi vox Dei, the recently adopted doctrinal principle of the churches of the Anglican Communion is that it obliges God to frequent changes of mind. When the Governing Body of the Church in Wales rejected the ordination of women to the priesthood no-one for a moment expected that matters would rest there. Indeed the Welsh House of Bishops indicated its clear intention of bringing the matter back at the earliest opportunity. They did; and like the widow in St. Luke, they were heard for their importunity. By one vote the decision was reversed.
That one vote was costly. As members arrived in the hall for the debate they found on their seats the heads of proposals for a settlement not unlike the Act of Synod in England. They had been hastily drawn up at the behest of the Bishop of Monmouth (and not, as he has admitted, without a good deal of table-thumping on his own part). It remains to be seen what will come of them, and whether the bishops, who were so reluctant to agree them, will stand by them in the event.
Welsh opponents of women’s ordination will need to tread warily. For there are problems of sustaining dissent in a small church which are only too apparent from the experience of Ireland and Scotland. In Ireland the proposals for the respect of conscience, put to the General Synod by John Paterson, Dean of Christ Church Dublin, were treated with offensive levity, and no formal undertakings were ever given. In Scotland the Primus himself was foremost in proposing them and most conspicuous in their neglect.
Wales is a larger province (about the size of a sizeable English diocese), and opposition to the innovation in Wales has been spirited and tenacious. But the proposals of the House of Bishops, as they stand, seem to offer the worst of all possible worlds. A single flying bishop who sits by right in the House of Bishops will be a lonely man under intolerable peer pressure. His ministry, if it is restricted to the pastoral care of the clergy and if parishes are unable to opt for it, will be curiously limited and circumscribed. And Credo Cymru, if it is to become an officially recognised provincial body, as has been suggested, will surely be manipulated into acquiescence before very long. The fact is, as the English experience goes to demonstrate, that opposition on this matter can only be sustained when a sufficient distance is maintained between the two parties. Credo Cymru would be ill-advised to become the client body of a House of Bishops which is at best half-hearted about its own proposals.
No reasonable person will doubt that the way forward for opponents of women’s ordination in Wales, Scotland and Ireland is in the closest co-operation with Forward in Faith in England We are all in this together. The historical accidents which have produced three independent dogma factories (for that is what Anglican Provinces are proving to be) in the three least populous quarters of these Islands is absurd in itself and has the effect of weakening the common witness to apostolic truth. The lesson of the United States is that opposition to the liberal agenda can all too easily degenerate into fissiparous squabblings between separated parties, each striving for a ‘pure’ church, and eager to sustain its own cultural or regional identity.
Forward in Faith must now surely seek, through the fullest possible co-operation with colleagues in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, a common, nation-wide ecclesial solution to the problems which beset us in whatever country or ‘province’ we live. The introduction of women bishops (which however delayed, is certain and inevitable) will put an end to all the compromise arrangements which have so far been reached - the Act of Synod in England as well as the Williams proposals in Wales and any residual goodwill in Ireland or Scotland. The only expedient for our survival will be the establishment, by Parliamentary means, of a new, legally constituted and quite separate Province of the Anglican Communion in the United Kingdom and Ireland.
As Welsh churchmen have reason to know, the dis-establishment and separation of a part of the Church of England is not unprecedented. As Scottish churchmen have reason to know (from the settlement reached in the Free Church of Scotland, by what is sometimes called the Overtoun Case) Parliamentary arbitration of disputed properties and assets in a non-established church is not unprecedented.
Doctrinal devolution - the creation of a Province, which like all others in the Communion is fully autonomous in doctrine, discipline, order and ecumenical relations - is a simple solution to the problems which women’s ordination (and consecration) have created, both for those who support and those who reject them. The establishment of an independent Province, moreover, would surely be a proper course of action for a secular Parliament, which cannot and should not rule on matters of Christian Doctrine, but which has a duty to protect and defend the rights of conscience in matters of religion of all the Queen’s subjects, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Islamic or Hindu. Doctrinal devolution would uphold in a practical and sensible way the very principles of ‘reception’ and ‘provisionality’ articulated by the Eames Report, the Act of Synod, and the various expressions of respect and honour to be shown to contrary opinions which have been voiced in many provinces, and honoured in few. Doctrinal devolution is the very development towards which the agonised thinking of Anglican church leaders has been gradually moving, almost without them realising the fact.
Together we must help them grasp the nettle.
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