Geoffrey Kirk explains how the threat of institutional intolerance requires the establishment of a Free Province

AS I HAVE OFTEN pointed out, the logic of the campaign to see women ordained to the priesthood and the episcopate is ultimately totalitarian in its implications: witness the withdrawal of conscience clauses in Canada and the United States. In the useful words of Daphne Hampson, it is an 'ethical a priori position'. That is to say, it permits of no theological exceptions.

Reviewing her role as a fighter for women's ordination in the Scottish Episcopal Church from her present position as a post-Christian academic, Hampson writes: 'What was I doing in the late twentieth century, arguing that what happened in the first century was of relevance to whether or not I could become a deacon? I had never had to argue that as a woman I should have an education, become a theologian, own a house, or anything else...I thought we had to be much bolder, taking an a priori stance on the fact that there could be no discrimination against women...'

A great deal of the argumentation for women's ordination in England took just such an a priori stance (though, as in Bishop Adie's speech to the 1992 Synod, it often masqueraded as a concern for gospel values). The independence of (and antipathy to) scripture which such a position involves is revealed in its concern for 'inclusive language'. When the chips are down there is always a preference for post-Enlightenment notions of equality over Judaeo-Christian principles and precepts. It is salutary to remember that these are people who, for the most part, sincerely believe that there is rejoicing among the angels in heaven (metaphorically speaking, of course) when a single male pronoun is policed out of a Bible translation.

It would be foolish to expect from such people any lasting sympathy for the principles of the Act of Synod and the Bonds of Peace, for they will always be inclined to dismiss as troglodyte patriarchalism the very theological positions which those documents seek to respect. As long as there remains a single member of the Church of England who refuses to accept the validity of female ordinations they will consider their work unfinished. And in fact the signs are that support for the Act is already beginning to weaken. Three 'consultations' have been held at St. George's College, Windsor Castle over the last year or so, all of which, with varying degrees of vehemence, have demanded the removal of the Act.

'Is the use of the Act of Synod exacerbating and institutionalising the opposition to the ordination of women?' asks the Consultation for Women Clergy in Positions of Responsibility (September 1996), 'In 20 year's time will we still have PEVs, separate ordinations and separate oils and reservations? How can we ensure that this does not happen?'

The Consultation for Recently Ordained Women Clergy (April 1997) is rather more forthright. 'The Church of England is now a church which ordains women. Those who object to this are not compelled to join its clergy...There are grave doubts about the purpose of ordaining those who are in disagreement with canon law.' And among its aims and objectives for the future it baldly includes: 'An end to the two integrities'.

The third Consultation, the recommendations of which have yet to be published, resulted in a Rural Dean in Chelmsford putting before his Deanery Synod a motion for the withdrawal of the Act of Synod ' December 31 1999 at the latest'. The motion was passed by a large majority and has now gone to the Diocesan Synod.

For opponents of women's ordination, whose continued allegiance to the Church of England is dependent upon the provisions of the Act, all this concentrates the mind quite as much as the less immediate threat of women bishops, and draws attention once more to the necessity of a Free Province.

I wrote last month of a Free Province in general and theoretical terms. I dealt, amongst other things, with accusations of disloyalty and schism (such a province would affirm the majority opinion of world Anglicanism, and theological insights which the present legislation of the Church of England safeguards); with the idea that such a creation would be unprecedented (the existing Autonomous Provinces in the British Isles have, for the most, part been carved out of one, previously united, Anglican Church, against its own will); and the idea that overlapping or parallel episcopal jurisdictions are somehow un-Catholic or inconceivable (they are well known in many spheres, including within the Anglican Communion).

But I sense that, even among those who see that the doctrinaire attitude of the proponents of women priests and bishops will give them no permanent place within a church increasingly imperialised by the new ministry, there is a residual reservation. What would the new Province look and feel like? Would it be identifiably Anglican? How would it order its communal life? These are questions which can readily be answered.

It would, of course, adopt (with certain, but strictly limited, exceptions) the Canons and organisational patterns of the Church of England at the time of its inception. Anglican Provinces are free and autonomous; they can reinvent themselves at will. It follows that the General Synod of the new Province would have something of the character of a Constitutional Convention - but then every Synod or Convention of every Anglican province now has that style and character.

A Royal Commission would probably be needed to facilitate the creation of the new Province. The Commission would establish by what democratic process parishes would be enabled to enter the Province and establish guidelines for relationships between parishes of the Free Province and neighbouring parishes which remained in the Archdioceses of Canterbury or York. (The analogy would be with parishes of the Church in Wales contiguous to parishes of the Church of England). It would decide whether it was appropriate for either of the separated parts to remain Established, divide property and assets equitably, and instruct the Church Commissioners accordingly. No doubt precedents set and experience gained in the Welsh disestablishment of 1914-20 would prove useful.

Parishes which, by the agreed majorities, opted into the new Province, would be located within deaneries and dioceses, decided by a boundaries commission authorised as part of the programme of amicable separation. Elections to the new General Synod of the Free Province would take place. The new General Synod would adjust canons and other legislation as it saw fit, and the resulting regulations and doctrine would be those of the new Province, as they are in other Provinces of the Communion.

The episcopate of the Free Province would be made up, in the first instance, of the PEVs at the time of its inception (just as its parishes are likely to be those who have already passed resolutions A, B and C). This would allow a considerable degree of pastoral continuity.

If the Free Province were to continue some relationship with the Crown, then the Royal Commission would indicate procedures for the appointment of subsequent bishops. If the State connection were to be severed, those procedures would be established by the General Synod of the new Province, whose bishops would elect a Primate from among their own number, who would attend the relevant meetings of the Anglican Communion world-wide in the usual way.

Because the Free Province would have been established in order further to facilitate the open process of reception of women's ordination, measures would be needed to secure the possibility of free entry to (and exit from) it, just as parishes are now able to pass or rescind resolution C. There would need to be agreement that clergy stipends in the Free Province and in the Archdioceses of Canterbury and York were pegged at the same level, so that extraneous, non-theological factors would not influence this movement.

Far from being unimaginable and inconceivable (as some have maintained) the process by which such a Free Province could be created would be orderly, measured and relatively simple. Its constitution would not need to be the legal monolith which the Welsh separation produced - and mercifully it would need to be published in only one language. The Province when created would relate to the other Provinces of the Anglican Communion in the British Isles in precisely the way in which they already relate to one another. The parochial system (whereby every inch of the United Kingdom is located in an Anglican parish with reciprocal arrangements with every other) would remain undisturbed.

What is unimaginable and inconceivable, however, is what the Windsor Consultations and the Epping Forest Deanery Synod are proposing - which is that those in favour of the ordination of women should use the Church of England's position, as an Established Church, to institute State persecution of those who, on theological grounds, disagree with them.

Geoffrey Kirk is the Vicar of St. Stephen's Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark

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