Comment, December 2001

The Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod (GRAS) has had a good month in the media spotlight. It has managed to persuade the broadsheets that, inter alia, women clergy are being persecuted by opponents and that those who object to women clergy are misogynists and closet homosexuals. The journalist, Anthony Howard, a man of no known previous theological convictions, was wheeled out to pen a rant for The Times, full of basic errors of fact and historical ignorance, in which traditionalists were casually compared to the Taleban.

For those of us engaged in the long battle up to 1992 such tactics are all too familiar. We are about to be wreathed in another fog of emotion, guilt and pain. Accusations of discrimination, injustice and prejudice will abound almost entirely free of checkable fact.

The accusations do not stand up to a moment's scrutiny. Women priests, if and where they are badly treated, must suffer at the hands of their own male supporters and employers. Orthodox, after all, have very little contact with them at the workplace. Homosexuals, active and lobbying, have long been on the side of the feminists, recognizing that if you can change scriptural teaching for one well-organized lobby, you can do it for another. Discrimination in employment? Try telling that to orthodox priests who have seen the appointment system consistently favour collaborators.

The alternative to this ‘queer and smear’ campaign is honest theological engagement. But that, above all, must be avoided by the proponents or further and schismatic change as both Holy Scripture and the tradition of the Church contradict their case. Propped uncomfortably on the one-legged stool of ‘reason’ (and late twentieth-century feminist reason at that) GRAS will also want the Church to avoid any real examination of the consequences of 1992. The incredible shrinking Church bears little relation to the revival we were promised.

But orthodox should not take this campaign too personally. The campaign is not to change orthodox minds. GRAS knows that those who have not bowed the knee after ten years are unlikely to do so now and have, in any case, little political clout in the General Synod. The target of this campaign is General Synod itself and, in particular, the House of Bishops. GRAS is all too aware that many of their supporters in the episcopate have been unimpressed by the results of 1992. They are less than keen on women bishops and would be only too glad to put off such an exciting development until after their retirements. Many of them recognize the permanent damage they have done to ecumenism with the great communions and have little wish to enlarge the rift.

With all this potential for political wobble and waver in the key house, it is vital that the emotional storm surrounding any final decision should convict any episcopal backsliders, by implication, of anything from secret depravity to wife beating. Those weak men who have only become bishops by acquiescing in women priests must understand that they dare not leave the chamber with a ‘NO’ vote.

We can, on current form, look forward to a campaign that owes more to Josef Goebbels than St Paul.

 

‘Team spirit vanquishes Leicester motion’ So ran the Church Times headline over an account of one of the most interesting debates of the last session of the General Synod.

The Archdeacon of Leicester, a Synodical neophyte, was putting forward a motion from his diocesan Synod for modest revision of Schedule B in the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure, 1993 to allow women to be appointed to individual parishes in a multi-parish team ministry. The motion involved the consideration of those legal technicalities in which some synodspersons delight, but which send others to the tearoom.

The Catholic Group, which had no inclination to go to the barricades on so small a matter, held its breath. The Synodical manipulators (represented in this instance by the well known duo of David McClean and Penny Granger, with the able assistance of the unexpected John Saxbee) came out all guns firing. This was, said Granger, ‘the wrong motion at the wrong time’. It opened the floodgates to further amendments to the Measure, said McClean. The whole package – on which the peace of the Church presently depended – might start to unravel.

Christina Rees (who had obviously had wind of a conspiracy which included her usually close ally the Bishop of Ludlow) was a lonely voice in favour of the motion. Patience Purchas was the reverse of eponymous. But she was never called.

No one could deny that as a piece of synodical manoeuvring the defeat of the Leicester motion by a vote to ‘move to next business’ (so effectively ruling out a return to the subject in the life of the present synod) was magisterial. What is doubtful is the ultimate significance of the manoeuvre.

If this was the ‘wrong motion at the wrong time’, what will be the right time and the right motion? If the 1993 Measure in its integrity is needed to maintain the unity of the Church, at what time and by what legislation can it be superseded?

The question is a crucial one, because women bishops are hurtling towards us. Rochester, like fate, is beating at the door – vigorously aided by the impatient Patience and the ardent Christina. If it is the case that the Church of England cannot presently envisage the removal of the provisions for opponents in the current Measure, then surely it must conclude that it cannot have women bishops at all – or, at least, not yet. For what earthly use is a provisional episcopate – either to the women who want to be equal, or to a Church which wants to continue maintaining its catholicity?

Only a group of desperate Anglicans who had painted themselves into a corner could have the gall to manufacture for themselves an order of ‘provisional bishops’ and call them Apostolic.

 

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