JULY 1999 THE WAY WE LIVE NOW

OF SHOOTING AND OF FEET

THERE CAN BE no doubt that repeal of the Act of Synod is now flavour of the month with the revisionists. Old war-horses like Jean Mayland and younger war-horses like Judith Maltby are gaily caparisoned and ready to enter the lists. One can see why.

Women's ordination, because it was always, for these people, primarily a matter of natural justice and not of theological probability, condemns them to an absolutist position. They inhabit a private world where people who do not spontaneously acknowledge self-evident truths must be legislated into submission.

It seems, then, almost cruel to point out that the real world is not like that But point it out we must, before a fatal error is made.

The first thing we are obliged to point out is that it is not the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, 1993 but the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure, 1992 to which they ought to be raising objection. The Act of Synod merely amplifies and objectifies the principles of the Measure; it offers a means whereby the diversity of opinion which the Measure frankly acknowledges, can be regulated and orchestrated. It is the Measure (which as an Act of Parliament outflanks and overrules the Canons) that suspends Canon A4 and permits private judgement on the matter of women's orders. That, surely, is the heart of the matter.

The problem, of course, is that the revisionists themselves drew up the legislation. It was their legislation and they voted for it. We voted against it, not least because it introduced into the Church of England a concept of orders inimical to its ancient polity and uncatholic in its fundamentals.

It was not, however, a new concept. The 1992 Measure simply applied in England (effectively as Parochial Autonomy) the ecclesial principles which had been introduced into the Anglican Communion at large as Provincial Autonomy.

The Big Idea - on the back of which women's ordination has captured half the Communion - was the notion that Bishop X of Y could properly and legitimately act in way which he knew would be repudiated by Bishop Y of Z. The rest, as they say, is history - except that in this case, of course, there is more of it. The genie is out of the bottle and looking for mischief!

The second thing we have to point out is that it ill-becomes those who codified this bizarre ecclesiology (and are its sole beneficiaries) to complain about it now. They made their bargain with history; and they will have to live with the consequences of their own foolish choices; just as we will. Anyone could see that private judgement in the matter of orders was the reverse of what they wanted; but it is what, at their behest, Parliament enacted on their behalf. The one thing they cannot reasonably do is blame us for it.

The third thing we have to point out is that, quite as much as women's orders themselves. the Act of Synod is irreversible. The sick joke of 'reversibility', with which they tried to beguile us, has come home.

I wonder what Dr Maltby and Ms Mayland think would be the practical consequences of repealing the Act of Synod?

Do they suppose, I wonder, that we still live in the era of the Test Acts and the Penal Laws? Do they believe that the enforcement of conscience is any longer tolerable? And whom do they suppose would take notice of such a repeal?

The Provincial Episcopal Visitors? They have never struck me as turkeys who would vote for Christmas. The 'C' parishes? By definition they are bodies with a higher degree of independence of mind and unanimity of doctrine than is usually found in the Church of England. Forward in Faith? It is whole-heartedly committed at a grass-roots level to extending the provisions of the Act, by one means or another, to form a Third or Free Province.

The fact is that in a world where the conventional wisdom is not to legislate what cannot effectively be policed, such a repeal would be unenforceable and little more than an incitement to civil disobedience.

It is strange to have to point out to liberals the virtues - or at least the necessity - of voluntarism in religion; but it is a lesson which they will sooner or later have to learn.

They will have to learn that, in a free society, women priests (like Anglicanism itself) can operate only among people who like that sort of thing. People who do not like that sort of thing cannot be made to swallow it. There are no absolute truths any more (except in the privacy of one's own home) - and the Church of James Pike, Jack Spong and David Jenkins should know that better than any other!

In the present inclement religious climate our revisionist friends need to learn to be grateful for anyone who is still, however residually, attached to the Anglican brand name. To drive out one lot of tenacious and fee-paying Anglicans, as Maltby is suggesting, in order to replace them with a smaller (and rapidly diminishing) band of Methodists will seem to most people very like spitting on your luck.

American bishops may well drive orthodox congregations out of their church buildings, seize their assets, and depose and replace their priests - as they are doing and have done. But persisting in what is not cricket is no longer a credible way of building up the Body of Christ. Nor can a Communion go on indefinitely persecuting its own members for upholding a position espoused by both its principle ecumenical partners.

It surely cannot be long before a Church which declares itself ready to accept the 'gift' of the Roman Primacy, whilst persecuting to its own periphery all those who might give the Petrine Office respect, obedience and authority, becomes publicly risible.

I am genuinely sorry for the proponents of women priests. They have painted themselves into such a corner that it is hard to see how they can get out of it.

They want, for example, to be able to criticise the provision of Provincial Episcopal Visitors as uncatholic (which in some respects it may be), and as divisive (which is how it may end up). But they cannot do so with a clear conscience for the simple reason that Provincial Autonomy in the matter of orders, and the suspension of Canon A4 (which, after all, are the very means by which they got where they are) are themselves in every respect uncatholic and unquestionably divisive.

They want to condemn as schismatic proposals for a Free Province - but they have to acknowledge that the ecclesiology which makes such a development possible is their own invention.

They want to be seen to be openly and generously pursuing the ecumenical agenda. But all they have succeeded in doing is debasing the ecumenical coinage. The goal of 'visible unity' has been compromised by the acceptance of impaired communion. (So, for example, under the Porvoo Agreement there are no less than six categories of Norwegian ministers whose orders are not accepted in the Church of England (or part of it): women bishops, women or men ordained by women bishops, women or men ordained by those not in episcopal orders, women priests howsoever ordained; not to mention lay celebrants!)

It remains to be seen how inventively and extensively the same concepts will be applied in the present Methodist conversations. For my money the seeds of a Free Province will be sown in the federalist ecclesiology which those talks will spawn. Come back Mary Tanner, all is forgiven!

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