A third open letter from Geoffrey Kirk to Michael Nazir-Ali

Dear Michael,
It was only as I was drafting the Forward in Faith submission to your Commission on Theology and Women in the Episcopate that I got round to thinking what an absurd process we are all engaged in. We are making points, arguing cases, marshalling facts, as though we were part of a dispassionate academic exercise.

Nothing, as I am sure you and your commissioners have grasped, could be further from the truth.

In the first place (as everybody knows), later if not sooner, the CofE will have to get round to ordaining women bishops. We are long passed the search for truth; we are now simply into the management of change. So it is inconceivable that your commission could (or, considering its make-up, would) come out with a battery of arguments against. The Standing Committee of the Synod, I am told, has already pencilled in a date for the final debate. I hope they told you.

In the second place – and here is the irony! – the ordination of women to the episcopate is what your Commission is required by the circumstances of its inauguration to endorse, but it is precisely what the General Synod cannot deliver.

The ingenious logic of the Eames Reports, taken up by the 1992 Measure and the 1993 Act, has moved the Church of England beyond the looking-glass, and into the post-Modernist world. That is a world of shifting relativities and on-going processes, where nothing is what it seems. Women are priests; but those who suppose them not to be priests have an ‘honoured place’. Women’s ordination is ‘consonant with scripture and required by tradition’; but ‘people with different views and different theologies … are secure.’ Very little of the language used is open to honest scrutiny. No wonder Monica Furlong is grinding her teeth.

In that world of ‘impaired communion’, ‘degrees of provisionality’ and the rest, a woman could not be the focus of unity of a diocese, a symbol of the world-wide unity of the communion or a pledge of apostolic continuity. All the General Synod could create, following on from its creation of ‘provisional’ priests, would be ‘provisional’ bishops. In short, the women so ordained would not be bishops in any previously accepted sense of the word. They would at best be synodical functionaries, Parliamentary palimpsests.

All this is obvious to anyone who reads the verbatim account of the 1992 debate and consults the Measure. Michael Adie famously claimed that women’s ordination was ‘required’. But in the event, women’s orders proved to be less a requirement, and more an optional extra.

‘I, fellow bishops, and many others, will work strenuously,’ said Adie, ‘to keep space and room in every ministry for those who have difficulty…’ And he recognized that those ‘difficulties’ might spring from something more profound than mere misogyny: ‘the provisions [of this legislation] … ensure that people with different views and different theologies will have a respected and secure place in the Church.’

Groups like GRAS, who deal preferentially in broad brush stokes rather than fine print, will obviously want to avoid the plain meaning of those words and blame the Act of Synod for all their imagined ills. But the truth is none the less clear.

In commending the 1992 legislation, its very proposer gave assurances that there would continue to be diocesan bishops opposed; that the ‘different theologies’ of the opponents would be respected; and that those who continued to argue for, and act upon, those ‘different theologies’ could be confident of long continuance in the Church of their baptism (that is, they would be ‘secure’).

All that, as the chief architect of the 1993 Act of Synod, John Habgood saw clearly, renders women bishops all but impossible. In a radio interview marking the fifth anniversary of the ordination of women as priests, Dr Habgood was asked whether the notion of ‘two integrities’ was compatible with women bishops:

Liz Carney: So while the two integrities exists, is there any possibility that a woman will be consecrated bishop?

John Habgood: I think that I’m probably out of line here and I’m not in any case in any position to do anything about it, but I would have argued against it.

LC: But isn’t this natural justice? If you allow women to be ordained as priests, in the course of events some women could be ordained as bishops. Hasn’t this system denied them that right?

JH: Well, perhaps it has, but this is a part of what has to be paid for maintaining the unity of the Church.

There is, of course, one line which your Commission will obviously be tempted to adopt. Instead of removing the glass ceiling for women completely, they may be tempted simply to raise it a little – women suffragans rather than women diocesans.

One can see the attractions. With any luck the opposition could be divided by persuading a crucial group of Evangelicals (on the infinitely flexible ‘headship’ principle) that a female suffragan would not be not the ‘Head’, and a psephologically significant minority of Catholics that they could continue undisturbed as long as the ‘focus of unity’ was a male. A few dodgy theological quibbles (and the complete absence of any financial package) would probably swing it. But the cost would be enormous.

No one can fail to have noticed the CofE’s inexorable drift away from the historic three-fold ministry (the last Synod came within an inch of abolishing the diaconate!). An order of female bishops who could never become diocesans would put the final nail in the coffin. Not only would forty-three diocesans each with an harem of perpetual Episcopal curates be a comic spectacle in itself; it would also render the appointments system a veritable nightmare. I look forward with enthusiasm to the reaction of the right-on sisters to the offer of episcopacy without jurisdiction!

Anyone can see that all this is a ghastly mess from which it will take time, and not merely a House of Bishops Theological Commission, to effect deliverance.

The General Synod could, of course, go ahead and ordain women bishops in any unprecedented fashion it chose. (As I understand the Lightman judgement in the case of Williamson vs the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, the General Synod is free to do almost anything it can get the House of Commons to agree to.) What it could not do, however, is to make those who already have its solemn assurance that their position in the Church is respected and secure, receive or accept those bishops. Horses and water come to mind.

With all good wishes,

Geoffrey.

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