COMMENT SEPTEMBER 1998

A COMMITTEE set up by the House of Bishops of the Church of England under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Blackburn is at present undertaking a review of the Act of Synod.

This is a singular event. Never before has a House of the Synod, acting independently of the other houses, set up a review of legislation. Synod buffs may well wish to ask where in Standing Orders such a course of action is authorised, and whether similar reviews of synodical legislation might be undertaken by other Houses, acting separately.

The singular nature of the review, of course, underlines the extent to which the 1993 Act of Synod was peculiarly the creature of the House of Bishops. Like mothers they laboured over it, they conceived it, and they wept over it when conceived. They now naturally look to the health of their baby.

The good news is that the offspring of this unexpected maternity is doing very well. The newly announced Bishop of Ebbsfleet is a forty-niner, whose ministry could legitimately continue until 2019.

One can see, however, why the bishops should wish to revisit their Act. In practice it has operated in ways which those who framed it clearly did not intend.

The 1993 Act provided for three kinds of extended episcopal care: local, regional and provincial. In fact the failure to appoint diocesan, suffragan or assistant bishops opposed to women's ordination has meant that the greater part of the burden of extended oversight for parishes seeking it has been borne by the Provincial Episcopal Visitors. This has resulted in a coherence and fellowship between those parishes in a given area or province. Opponents of women's ordination have much valued this; and proponents have generally feared and regretted it.

There seems now to be a feeling among some bishops that the present arrangements (which have arisen largely from the appointments which they made, or failed to make) is unfortunate and needs to be reviewed.

Whilst those of us opposed to women's ordination always welcome the appointment of those who share our views to positions of influence in the wider church, it is too late to undo what has been achieved in terms of the solidarity and coherence of this constituency. Parishes, we believe, will strenuously resist any attempt to limit the role of the PEVs - whose work among them they have come to value and esteem.

It is true, however that the Act has been unevenly administered across the dioceses of the Church of England. The evidence which comes to hand from parishes and clergy chapters is necessarily anecdotal, but it all adds up to widely differing examples of both good practice and bad.

There is, therefore, obvious sense in the recommendations of the group which met at St George's College Windsor under the auspices of Prebendary Paul Avis's Centre for the Study of the Christian Church. The time is probably ripe for highlighting examples of best practice, so that the benefits of the Act can be felt equally throughout the Church of England.

Though Fr. Geoffrey Kirk's private member's motion on women bishops has now lapsed from lack of support, we do not believe that the issue itself (particularly after the warm reception given to women bishops at the Lambeth Conference) has in any sense disappeared. Women Bishops are an inevitability in a church which ordains women to the priesthood. We believe that by seeking to delay their appointment violence is done to the essential openness of the 'process of reception'. There are already clergywomen in the Church of England whose experience, talents and curriculum vitae would, in other circumstances, be thought to merit their consideration for preferment.

It is nevertheless clear, from any reading of the 1993 Act of Synod as it stands, that women bishops will render it ecclesiologically incoherent and inherently unworkable. Impairment of communion with male priests ordained by women bishops will create recurrent problems in the day to day life of deaneries and dioceses. Clergy and parishes opposed will be unable to function under the episcopal care of one who is in unimpaired communion with a woman bishop or bishops (even if PEVs who will enter upon such a relationship can be found, which we doubt).

It therefore makes sense, in any review of the 1993 Act with a view to its alteration and improvement, to take account not only of past experience, but also of future and inevitable developments. How can the Act be strengthened in such a way that the period of open reception which is its heart and raison d'etre can be extended to account for the new difficulties and opportunities which women bishops will necessarily create? That is the fundamental question which any review must address.

Resolution III.2 of the recent Lambeth Conference recalls that 'reception is a long and spiritual process' (Grindrod Report), whilst at the same time voicing its commitment to 'the overall unity of the Anglican Communion, including the unity of each diocese under the jurisdiction of the diocesan bishop'.

The 1993 Act of Synod is an as yet imperfect attempt to uphold both those principles. It remains to be seen whether, in a Church which ordains women to the episcopate, they can both continue to be maintained.

The Bishop of Blackburn deserves our support and prayers. This is a review which will not be easy; and its outcome will, in all probability, satisfy no one.

THE LEADER of the Conservative Party is making a pitch for the church vote. He is certainly correct in perceiving that, for a long time now, it has been a prevalent view in the senior ranks of the church that one cannot be a Christian and a Conservative. It is sensible, therefore to tackle this prejudice by informed dialogue.

Mr Hague's aims may, strangely enough, be easier to achieve with liberal Christians than with those he might naturally think of as political bedfellows. He has shown himself to be a secular libertarian in matters of personal morality. His apparent personal support for premarital sex at the Conservative Party Conference and his public backing of the lowering of the age of homosexual consent will not have endeared him to his natural constituency. Long term, and much more significant, the Conservative Party would do well to ponder why it is so widely disparaged in the upper echelons of the church. One of the most obvious answers is that it, foolishly, went along with the Callaghan Settlement (which still obtains) on Episcopal appointment largely allowing the liberals to appoint each other. In 17 years of Conservative government one could count on the fingers of one hand the number of genuine doctrinal conservatives appointed to the bench.

Mr Hague may not be in a position to do anything about this for some time yet. But if he wants to recapture his heartland, he should encourage some politically acute traditionalists in his counsels before the whole project misfires.

READERS of New Directions will remember an interview earlier this year (June 98) with Father Michael Houghton, parish priest of St Peter's Folkestone. Michael has long been respected within our constituency and way beyond it as a disciplined man of God, a good pastor and a faithful parish priest. He was one of the first into the field for Forward in Faith and has done much to build up the orthodox in his area and beyond. All who know Michael were delighted by the announcement, in mid- August, that he is to be the next Bishop of Ebbsfleet.

The Archbishop promised us a full and proper consultation and he has fully honoured that promise in making this appointment. Our thanks are due to him for securing this vital pastoral office and filling it wisely and well. Our prayers are with Father Michael, his wife Diana and their family as they prepare themselves to serve in this great ministry.

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