Comment

On the very morning of our press deadline it has finally been announced, to no-one's very great surprise, that Dr Rowan Williams is to be the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.

Williams is a man of scholarship and prayer. He is also known for his care as a pastor and for his generosity of spirit. He was the major player behind the provision of a 'flying bishop' in Wales, for example. He has, almost uniquely among the Anglican leadership, managed to retain and reciprocate the affection of opponents.

We wish him well and encourage our readers to pray for him and his wife Jane and their family as he faces up to the enormous task before him.

Today we publish the second instalment of the results of the Cost of Conscience survey entitled, 'The Mind of Anglicans'. Conducted by the leading independent research company, Christian Research, its initial findings, on women bishops, made headlines in the national secular and religious press alike. Today's revelations (pp) are a startling insight into the beliefs of members of the Anglican Church. The survey spells out, with shocking clarity, where the faith is strongest and where it is weakest. We reserve comment until the final section of the survey's findings is published next month. Suffice it to say that this month's instalment is essential reading for anyone wanting to understand the crisis and decline of Anglicanism in this country and will be very uncomfortable reading for many of those in the seats of authority.

 

Your numbers up? According to the latest statistics issued by the Church of England they should be. Less than 1 million worshippers (1998) has miraculously become 3 million in an apparent revival that dwarfs all previous English experience and puts our churches on the recruitment level of a dynamic Third World ministry. Has this been achieved by powerful nationwide evangelism, dynamic spiritual leadership or redoubled parish and personal prayer? Sadly not. It is simply that head office has finally introduced its new method of counting. Gone are the dreary old average Sunday attendance figures – these were judged to be a false indication when they dropped below 1 million at the end of the Decade of Evangelism. Now we are to rely on figures from 'church-based services' and the 2.9 million attenders at Christmas services.

With baptisms down one-third since 1990, church weddings only accounting for twenty per cent of the national total and funerals increasingly going to freelance clergy at the crematorium, parish priests will regard these figures with justified suspicion – and so will everyone else.

We are used to Government departments changing the method of counting in order to put their efforts in a better light. We have recently witnessed the commercial world plunged into crisis by 'creative accounting' leading to wholly false expectations. This is no game for the Church of Jesus Christ to be playing. The only figures that matter are comparable figures – like for like. If they are uncomfortable, then we need to address the reasons for them honestly and begin to tackle the root causes of decline. Retreating into the comfortable fantasy world of misleading figures is the short route to bankruptcy, financial and spiritual.

 

Festina lente, it seems is the motto of the Rochester Commission on the theology of women in the episcopate. The General Synod meeting in York was treated to a presentation on the progress of the Commission’s work that emphasized the thoroughness of its investigations, as well as their range and depth.

Four comments need to be made.

The first is that of Simon Killwick who, in an incisive speech, asked why the Commission had not, as its first piece of work, addressed the question of the nature and purpose of the episcopate. The reply of the Bishop of Rochester was less than adequate. The Commission, as Dr Christina Baxter made clear, is basing itself on the Cameron Report of 1980 where the bishop is said to operate on three planes in the Church’s life – horizontally as the focus of unity of a diocese and between dioceses; vertically as a link with the Church through history. It is clear to the most casual observer that in the Anglican Communion and the Church of England, as presently constituted, a woman could fulfil none of those roles. To accommodate the ladies will require a change in the basic job description.

Secondly, the point made by the Bishop of Worcester: that the Commission itself is so fundamentally divided that it cannot hope to reach internal agreement. The presentations at the Synod by the Bishop in Europe and the Dean of Leicester were an eloquent testimony to those divisions. Ms Faull’s was an ethical a priori argument which brooked no contradiction – any expression of opposition to it was deemed offensive and probably sinful. Dr Rowell, on the other hand, continued to maintain that the onus of proof, theologically, rested with the proponents, and that ecumenical considerations weighed heavily against innovation. Even from their body language it was easy to predict that there will be no significant meeting of minds.

Thirdly, there is the manifest advantage of the delay that comes from ‘thoroughness’. It is in the interests of those who want women bishops to have a smooth ride to delay the decision for as long as they can. Ten years – a dozen if it could be managed – would allow natural wastage to dispose of intransigent bishops (David Hope’s retirement home is purchased and furnished), and encompass the retirement or death of most of the more vociferous opponents. (It must be borne in mind that the inevitable atrophy of opposition has almost credal status among proponents.)

Finally, there is the matter of the complexity of the legislation required. As the Bishop of Chichester reminded listeners, the 1993 Measure to ordain women is more seriously problematical than the ensuing Act of Synod. If women bishops are to function as a ‘focus of unity’ on the three planes of the Cameron Report, they will have to be imposed from above with all the rigours and sanctions of statute law. There can be no provisions similar to those in the Schedules of the Measure, and those Schedules themselves will need to be amended by the new legislation. How this can best be done without the Church authorities seemingly unconscionably draconian will expand the income of many a willing legal consultant.

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