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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