Thursday, 3 April 2008

When Synods 'fail'

Yesterday (2nd April) the Church in Wales narrowly voted down the consecration of women as bishops. For some, this will have come as a relief, for others, it clearly came as a disappointment. What is hard to understand, however, is the attitude of those in the Church, both there and elsewhere, for whom it has come as an outrage.

The Articles of the Church of England accept the fact that the Councils of the Church sometimes get it wrong, even in matters of faith: “when they be gathered together, (forasmuch as they be an assembly of men, whereof all be not governed with the Spirit and Word of God,) they may err, and sometime have erred, even in things pertaining unto God” (Article 21).

However, it must equally be admitted that Synods and Councils sometimes get it right. Indeed, the presumption must be that they generally do, otherwise there would be every reason to disband Synodical government entirely.

More than that, however, the act of gathering together with others and, above all, of taking decisions collectively (whether by voting or by some other means) is an important admission that I, or even I and people who think like me, may have got it wrong. That is why such gatherings, whether they be General Synods or Parochial Church Councils, ought to be prayerful, and open to hear not just the voice of their members but the voice of God.

And hence, also, when the vote goes against me, or against my viewpoint, I must accept it graciously — unless, that is, I can show that the body concerned is not, or at this point at least, was not, “governed with the Spirit and Word of God.”

Apparently, though, from reports in the press, that is precisely how some in Wales and elsewhere feel about the Synod's decision. The Revd Giles Fraser, not himself a Welsh resident, declared the decision an “absolute disgrace”. The Archbishop of Wales, the Rt Revd Barry Morgan, confined himself to saying he was “deeply disappointed”, whilst Canon Mary Stallard, chaplain to the bishop of St Asaph, said, “'The moment will come back.”

Each of these, and others, however, ought to ask themselves if they seriously believe the Synod made a wrong decision, and if it did, why.

Surely, the point of a Synod is to discern what is right, and the presumption, as I have outlined above, must be that it usually does. In that case, the proper response to the vote on Tuesday by the proponents of women bishops ought to be wholehearted acceptance, even if this is tinged with personal disappointment. This should be accompanied with a determination not simply to bring the issue back at a later date but to ask whether the proposed action is right at all. If the Synod says no, the presumption must be it has said no to the right thing.

The only alternative is to say that the Synod got it wrong, but as I have again outlined above, this is a very serious conclusion to reach, for it says, in effect, that the Synod was dominated by people who are “not governed with the Spirit and Word of God” — at least, not at this point. Of course, that may be true, but it would be a strange state of affairs if it turned out that every time the Synod voted against my views it was because the Synod was not open to God!

Of course, one suspects — correction, one knows for sure — that had the Synod voted in favour of women bishops, those same voices decrying its decision-making would have hailed it as listening to the Spirit. But if that is how they feel then they reveal that actually they have no real faith in the Synodical process, but only in their own decision making processes which the Synod, were it composed of people like themselves, would have nodded through.

I am reminded of the words of a famous politician and statesman who was similarly frustrated by the ‘parliamentary process’:

Has there ever been a case where such an assembly has worthily appraised a great political concept before that concept was put into practice and its greatness openly demonstrated through its success?

He, too, mused about the consequences of failure:

What shall the statesman do if he does not succeed in coaxing the parliamentary multitude to give its consent to his policy? Shall he purchase that consent for some sort of consideration? Or, when confronted with the obstinate stupidity of his fellow citizens, should he then refrain from pushing forward the measures which he deems to be of vital necessity to the life of the nation?

That statesman was Adolf Hitler, which should, perhaps give us pause for thought.

Revd John P Richardson
3 April 2008

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  1. (Chelmsford)

    So, if the General Synod of the Church of England accepts women bishops with no provision for conscientious objection, or requires you to preach that homosexual intercourse is entirely acceptable, or something else which goes against your conscience and your personal understanding of God's will (and yes, I would probably agree with you on the homosexual issue), will you accept such decisions graciously and without outrage? You have to be prepared to take this both ways.

  2. It is interesting how we see this work on a smaller scale.

    Take resolutions A&B for a PCC. If it has been discussed, say 15 years ago, the attitude of some on the PCC (all those pro-ordination of women) always seems to be, "this has been discussed and decided". When it is to make a change from a received view, as is the case here people will bring it back time and time again - usually the same people who are quick to say, "it has been decided".

    I suppose the thing about Synod (which is why Peter's comments might not be fair) is does it have the right to over turn 2,000 years of interpretation and practice by the show of hands?

    Revisionists only have Synod to give them authority. Without they have no leg to stand on. Traditionalists can point Biblically and historically in how Synod has erred.

    Darren Moore (Tranmere)

  3. Darren, you are right to bring conformity with tradition and biblical principles into the issue here, in a way which John did not clearly do. The problem is that on issues like this both sides can appeal to their own interpretations of tradition and Scripture.

    So who is the arbiter in disputed cases? Your individual consciences Or the Synod? Or your conscience when the Synod vote goes against you, but the Synod when it accepts your position?

  4. Let me be quite clear: I am not saying Synods never get it wrong. The point of Article 21 is that they do. However, the Article's position is, and our presumption should be, that when they do so this is because of a lack of obedience to the Spirit and the Word of God, particularly when they do this in "things pertaining unto God" (rather than in, say, passing the budget, instituting a new administrative policy, or taking an initiative in mission). Mistakes are made in all areas, including (perhaps especially) merely matters of administrative policy, but our response in the latter case should be at most exasperation, not outrage.

    Here, however, the Church was dealing with a significant shift in doctrinal understanding - something which ought always to be undertaken, if at all, in 'fear and trembling'. Moreover, the vote was to continue doing what the Church has always done - not consecrating women as bishops.

    Outrage, in this case, demonstrates both an absolute conviction that one is right and an equal conviction that the Synod is, collectively, wrong precisely in a thing "pertaining unto God". Indeed, it must be assumed, further, that the Church has been wrong in this regard for some time past - perhaps always.

    This ought, at very least, to evoke more than a resolve to try again later. Rather, there should be self-examination: "Have I got this right?" And if the answer is still in the affirmative, then there should be an equally honest appraisal of the Synod and the Church. In this case, the proponents of change should state clearly, "The Synod has erred and the Church is being led into unfaithfulness."

    However, as the Articles of the Church of England make clear, one had better be well-equipped with evidence for one's own position from the Word of God. Not having heard or read the debate in Wales, I do not know to what extent the Bible was used in support of the change, but I would be willing to engage with whatever positive arguments were put forward.

    In the end, personal conscience must be one's own guide, but always bearing in mind Oliver Cromwell's dictum: "consider you may be wrong." This is not, however, what I am hearing from those whose proposals the Synod of the Church decided to reject.

  5. Activists always express indignation when their cause is defeated, but they never give up. As a former TEC women priest who has come to her senses, I applaud the Synod's decision. I hope this will give thinking Anglicans pause to think more critically about the question of women priests.

    I've expressed my thoughts on the matter here:

    Here is a snippet of an interview done by Wim Houtman of the Nederlands Dagblat:

  6. Thanks Alice for saying it more conscily than I could.

    When Traditionalists loose votes they are disapointed, perhaps whine but they either lump it or leave. Could you imagine the ordination of women being reversed?

    Revisionists just keep coming back and back at an issue until it changes. Which means they are using Synods whilst not trusting them.

    Darren Moore (Tranmere)