COMMENT November 2001
The Rochester Commission on women in the episcopate will now be hard at work sifting all the submissions made to it before the deadline of October 31st. Rochester is, of course, a theological enquiry. It is not bound to be swayed by such random ‘undemocratic’ consultation. Sackloads of support, doughty opposition or surly silence are not determinative in themselves. But the political cost cannot be absent from the urgent considerations of all members of the Commission. They will be anxious to have at their disposal the most comprehensive view of the ecclesiastical landscape available. What they cannot be sure of is how much of the opposition iceberg remains resolutely submarine. Nor can they be sure of how many priests and parishes, who have been content to endure a novelty and disorder in other people's parishes, will suddenly rediscover biblical principles at the thought of its episcopal imposition.
And what of the parishes, mainly evangelical, who have passed resolutions (A and B) excluding women priests or women in headship. It may be politically possible to dismiss 300 plus parishes in alternative episcopal oversight as ‘ the awkward squad’ but what of the 1000 plus ‘ A+B parishes’ – many with considerable financial resources. Will they, in the event, hold to their principles or can the vicar be won over with a Prebendal stall ? (No one can accuse the liberal establishment of underplaying the power of patronage in the grubby game of realpolitik of the last decade.)
The overwhelming majority of the Rochester Commission’s members are in favour of women priests and therefore, de facto theologically, in favour of women bishops. There is only one conclusion they can draw without resorting to hypocrisy or repentance. The brief therefore is to achieve the feminists’ ‘Holy Grail’ without unleashing a further 20 years of torment on a Church struggling to maintain any catholic credibility and, its apparent raison d'être, political establishment.
An intriguingly Erastian game plan appears to be emerging in the minds of some of the key players. It goes thus:-
We cannot afford to say ‘NO’. We cannot afford another big division. We cannot afford another settlement. Therefore we need to separate the ‘hard core ‘opposition from the ‘reasonable’ Anglican opponents with whom we can do business. In order to do this we must find a way of having women bishops from whose oversight such ‘reasonable’ parishes can courteously opt-out. Let us call these women suffragan bishops ! This would kill two birds with one stone. Parishes who are scrupulous about their misogyny but careless of theology and ignorant of ecclesiology could relate solely to the male diocesan. (In effect, every diocese would become a Resolution ‘B’ zone). Opposition, hopefully, decimated. Even better news, the male Diocesan club would remain inviolate for a few more years while people got used to the idea of women bishops and the small remnant of episcopal opposition retired.
Such a ‘solution’ may look politically cute but it will not cohere even in the most febrile fantasies of the desperate. Apart from the outrage it would cause among the feminists, it would reveal Anglicanism to be theologically bankrupt. It would complete the logic of Porvoo in destroying any historic understanding of catholic ecclesiology and holy orders and it would reduce the Church of England's status in the ecumenical world from risible to contemptible.
GRAS (the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod) is at work again, and so, once more, it is necessary to point out that the 1993 Act is itself merely an expansion of the provisions of the 1992 Measure, and a logical extension of the assurances given in the course of the 1992 debate.
Michael Adie, in his opening speech to the debate, made it clear that women’s ordination was being proposed as an option within the Church of England, and not as a practice binding upon all its members: ‘ … the provisions for bishops, clergy and parishes … ensure that people with different views and different theologies will still have a respected and secure place in the Church… Furthermore, they are secure because they cannot be withdrawn or altered except by another Measure.
Legislation can take us only so far along the road towards space and openness, so the code of practice indicates the sensitivity with which the legislation will be implemented. I want to add to that, as a steady Church of England man (to use Dr Johnson’s phrase) that I, fellow bishops and many others will work strenuously to keep space and room in every ministry of the Church for those who for different reasons have difficulty with the ordination of women …As has been said, "The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth." Those of us who believe that it is right to take the decision to ordain women to the priesthood are determined to keep space for those of a different view Not only is the legislation generous in its provisions, but the Church must retain its traditional generosity of spirit.’ [Verbatim Record, p11, italics ours]
Schedules A and B of the legislation effectively suspended Canon A4 for the duration.
The totalitarian approach of GRAS, like the totalitarianism of Jane Dixon, is not only foreign to the Anglican ethos, but contrary to the provisions of the Measure and the spirit in which it was commended to the Synod. GRAS may not like the fact that those assurances and provisions were needed at the time to gain sufficient majorities for the legislation (and that the Act of Synod was needed to gain for the legislation the support of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament); but that is the plain truth of the matter. The 1992 Measure was in effect an enabling act, permitting bishops who were happy to ordain women to provide women priests for those who like that sort of thing. It obliged no one to ordain women, or to receive, accept or commend their ministry.
The notion that priestly women are an ‘optional extra’ in the Anglican Communion and the Church of England is naturally offensive to those whose a priori ethical stance obliges them to intolerance of those who disagree with them; but things are as they are, and will be what they will be.
It is no doubt open to GRAS and its supporters to seek to change the present state of affairs by means of any future legislation to consecrate women as bishops. But we are confident that reasonable people will be unwilling to bludgeon the consciences of others. Were the General Synod now, after so short a time, to go back on solemn assurances given – assurances without which the ordination of women would have been impossible – the credibility of the Church of England would sink to an all time low and civil disobedience amongst a significant minority of its bishops, priests and laypeople would be the certain outcome. A Church close to bankruptcy cannot afford to alienate up to a third of its members and a tenth of its parishes.
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