THE WOMEN BISHOPS DEBATE

Andrew Burnham looks forward to Judith Rose's motion in the Synod.

ASKED BY the then chairman of the Catholic Group, Fr Robin Ellis, to write a position paper on Women Bishops for the Catholic Group in General Synod, I published 'On Not Voting for Women Bishops' in New Directions (November 1996). The view taken then was that, in the event of a vote in Synod on Women Bishops, the Catholic Group would have to choose between two tactics. One would be to oppose women bishops on the grounds that Scripture and Tradition do not permit women to be consecrated bishop. The second would be to abstain from the vote.

The argument for abstention had several virtues. Firstly there was the matter of principle. Anglo-Catholics cannot understand the argument that would admit women to the priesthood without allowing them to participate in the episcopate, which is the fullness of priesthood. Catholics have no wish to collude with those who would practise sexual discrimination by admitting women so far but no further in a hierarchy of employment opportunity.

Another virtue of abstention, and a related one, would be that the Church would be obliged to admit that Anglo-Catholics cannot always be the scapegoat for sexism. It is not unusual for women to say that, emotionally and functionally, they can deal better with the explicit refusal of Anglo-Catholics to acknowledge female priesthood than with the latent sexism of many of those who theoretically are so enthusiastic about women's ministry. Yet another virtue of abstention would be that, in political terms, it would speak louder than opposition. Abstention means 'this is not our concern'. Opposition can often seem to be the inability to be in anything other than a negative minority.

Things have moved on since November 1996. We are now on the third private member's motion calling for women bishops. The first, proposed by Nick Bury, was deemed to fall when he left the Synod to become Dean of Gloucester in 1997. Addicts of the conspiracy theory suspected foul play. One particularly paranoid view was that Nick Bury had been kicked upstairs to rid Synod of this untimely motion.

Another view, equally unsubstantiated, was that a private member's motion does not fall just because a private member ceases to be a member of Synod. I am no Standing Orders Anorak and I am strictly unable to comment on that, though I suspect that it would be a very odd kind of motion whose proposer were not entitled to be present to propose it.

The second motion was proposed by Geoffrey Kirk. Word went round that this was an act of mischief by one who was determined to radicalise the situation. Whereas Forward in Faith members had signed the Bury motion precisely to help bring the situation to the boil, no one seemed to want to sign the Kirk one. Supporters of the consecration of women bishops did not wish to be indebted to a hostile private members motion. The Forward in Faith members who had signed the Bury motion now hung back. It was far more interesting to see whether anyone else really wanted women bishops than to lend credibility to the notion that the Kirk motion was simply hostile.

And now we have the third one, proposed by the Archdeacon of Tonbridge, who, I am sure will not mind me saying, is sufficiently senior as to be unlikely herself to benefit from a provision which, by any reckoning, would take several years to bring in. This is not a self-serving motion but a careful and responsible one, discussed beforehand with people of various opinions, and asking for study of the issues surrounding the consecration of women bishops. My opinion was (and is) that this motion should be proposed and, with certain safeguards, deserves to succeed.

My task, as Chairman of the Catholic Group in General Synod, is to ensure, on as many issues as possible, that the Catholic vote is principled and visible.

Since 1992, despite the valiant efforts of succeeding chairmen of the Catholic Group, the voting of the Group has been very often invisible. For the three years, 1992-1995, members of the then Group either melted away or, in a principled fashion, sat in the public gallery, leaving the defence of the Catholic Faith to the House of Bishops ('whose job it is anyway', they snorted). The message to the Synod was clear. You have departed from the Catholic Faith and Catholics therefore have become observers.

The question had to be faced in 1995 whether there was any place for a Catholic Group in General Synod. The 1995-2000 Group, with nearly 100 members, is less than half the size of its predecessor. It will no doubt be larger once more after 2000. In the meantime, a very good group of people, with many able laity and priests, are learning how to punch above their weight.

The Women Bishops motion is the next challenge. At our Lenten conference in Oxford, we brought together Bishop John Hind and Fr Kirk to lead a debate on how the Catholic Group should proceed. The speakers surprised us. Though their long term view of the future of Catholicism in the Church of England (or, rather, the future of the Church of England as part of the Catholic Church) sharply diverged, they were agreed on what should be done now.

The Catholic Group conference thus decided unanimously to support a series of amendments of the Judith Rose motion. Most of these amendments are capable of winning general support for, in insisting that any move to consecrate women bishops should be understood within the wider Catholic and ecumenical framework, the amendments are simply common sense.

Is this solution not simply anodyne? Not in the least. There will be those who oppose the amendments and show themselves to be uninterested in the wider context. (One of the surprises about General Synod is how frequently speakers show little or no awareness of the wider context of the Church. Some talk about the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, for instance, as if only the Church of England use them.)

The House of Bishops, in the enquiry that they set up as a result of the Rose motion, will be obliged once more to look hard at what our Catholic and Orthodox ecumenical partners have said about the ordination of women. They will notice that it is the voice of the Catholics in General Synod that has once again reminded the Church of England that ecumenical obligations include relationships with the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Orthodox.

They will also recognise that the temporary settlement, Bonds of Peace, will not survive the admission of women to the episcopate. No one is naive enough not to realise that, once the orders of bishops are in doubt, an episcopal church is a house built on sand.

 

Andrew Burnham is Chairman of the Catholic Group in Synod

 

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