Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Reasons to be cheerful, maybe!

Today I am feeling a bit less gloomy than I did yesterday, partly because I actually had some sleep last night and partly because I’ve been speaking to others in the constituency and getting a feel for what might happen next.

One of the things to be clear on is the actual issues. In some of the media, and even by some religious commentators, the events of Monday at General Synod have been covered as if they were about the decision to have women bishops.

As the Manchester Report itself made clear, however, that was not the issue. It has been a foregone conclusion for some time that the Church of England would have women bishops. The issue was how provision would be made for those who could not receive their ministry. That is what Monday’s debate was about, and that is how the consequences of the Synod vote must be understood.

The Manchester Report also made clear that there would be consequences for taking the route opted for by the General Synod:

There is no doubt ... that proceeding with legislation that removed the earlier safeguards would trigger a period of uncertainty and turbulence within the Church of England. Many priests and congregations would undoubtedly leave. The Church of England that emerged at the end of the process might possibly be more cohesive. It would undoubtedly be less theologically diverse.

No one who supports Monday’s decision can therefore complain if the Church of England now enters just such a ‘period of uncertainty and turbulence’. Indeed, it would be odd if it did not, following the Manchester Report’s warning that it would.

I am reminded of that great line in Men in Black, just after Agent Kay, played by Tommy Lee Jones, has blown off the head of alien pawnbroker Jack Jeebs, much to the consternation of New York policeman James Edwards, played by Will Smith. (Don’t worry, it immediately grows back.) “I warned him!” says Kay to Edwards, “You warned him!” (which is true, but Edwards hadn’t actually expected him to do it).

So here we are, but why does it matter? As critics of GAFCON have observed, there are alliances today in the Anglican church which embrace those on both sides of the debate over women’s ordination. Is this not just a case of hopeless (or even devious) compromise?

To this we must reply that until Monday, the Church of England was also an organization which embraced both sides in the women’s ordination debate. And on Monday it was perfectly possible for the Synod to continue to do so. The problem is that it has chosen not to — or rather it has chosen to do so in a way (the ‘Code of Practice’) which those who voted for the final motion knew would not be acceptable to precisely those for whom it is intended. This is a bit like serving meat to a vegetarian on the grounds that it is organic, and therefore ethically acceptable.

There is more than this, however, as I have pointed out elsewhere. It is well-known that thanks to a widespread lack of discipline, the ministry of the Church of England is deeply compromised on doctrinal specifics. It is no accident that whereas the Church has managed to produce a new Clergy Discipline Measure to deal with structural infringements (such as preaching the gospel in someone else’s parish without proper permission), it has stalled on the second, though promised, Discipline Measure to deal with matters of doctrine.

The reason is simple: whilst there are very few infringements of the Church’s practical requirements (most clergy work hard and keep their noses clean), the introduction of a doctrinal discipline would result in chaos, since so many clergy sit so light to the Church’s declared doctrines. Such is the Anglican way of muddling along.

However, into this soup of faith there now drops a crouton of clarity: the ordination and consecration of women. Let me stress, it would not be such a problem having women ordained as priests, or perhaps even consecrated as bishops, if the Church’s doctrinal discipline showed any coherence whatsoever. The problem is that is manifestly does not.

Take this interview on Radio 4’s Sunday programme, with Rosemary Lain-Priestly:

Roger Bolton: [...] Do you believe it doesn’t matter whether [the resurrection] was about a body or not, or do you believe it definitely wasn’t?

Rosemary Lain-Priestly: The Scriptures tell us that the tomb was empty and it may well have been. Who am I to limit what God might choose to do? But my faith in the resurrection doesn’t stand or fall on whether there were human remains in Christ’s tomb. [...] So perhaps it doesn’t matter whether or not Jesus took his [physical body] with him.

RB: [...] Would it matter to you, would it shake your faith if a tomb was opened up and the bones in it were confirmed as those of Jesus? Your answer to that is it wouldn’t matter at all ...?

R L-P: I don’t think it would matter because the resurrection that I believe in, I think has continuity with what we experience in this life but in some very profound sense is about transformation, it’s about something other than what we have already experienced.

Is this anywhere close to what the Apostles preached or what the Creeds declare? Yet Rosemary Lain-Priestly is a Dean of Women’s Ministry. I therefore wrote to a relevant bishop and queried how this was possible. His reply was brief, “She’s a quite articulate and intelligent liberal. But she doesn’t speak for anyone apart from herself.”

Now with respect, the last part of that sentence is not true. As a minister of the Church, she speaks for the Church. In her particular ministry I presume she also speaks for the Church to other ministers. In matters of the faith, she is not a private individual and hers were certainly not privately expressed views.

But you can see why there is no Clergy Discipline Measure (Doctrine).

The situation we are now heading for is thus that whilst those with such views can, and do, enjoy deployment and promotion to senior responsibilities, no such leeway will be available for those who do not accept the ordination and consecration of women. We thus have inflexibility where perhaps we might at least have flexibility (and so avoid more trouble in the Church), whereas there is continuing flexibility where there ought to be inflexibility.

Moreover, as we well know from those who campaigned hardest for this situation, next on the agenda is ‘full inclusion’ on sexuality and the modification of the image of God. It is there in black and white on their websites and in their publications.

I warned you!

John Richardson
9 July 2008

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  1. Do you have a link for the Rosemary Lain-Priestly on the Resurrection bit?

  2. You should be able to listen to it here as a real audio file. Go in 5' 06" for the beginning of her contribution.

  3. PS I think Tom Wright would have a fit at what she is saying, and would hold that she cannot really preach the gospel effectively on this basis. See his Surprised by Hope. But he wasn't the bishop.

  4. "We thus have inflexibility where perhaps we might at least have flexibility (and so avoid more trouble in the Church), whereas there is continuing flexibility where there ought to be inflexibility."

    This reminds me of what Paul said in Romans 7:14-20:
    14We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. 15I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature.[c] For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. 20Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

  5. John, the Church of England is STILL "an organization which embrace[s] both sides in the women’s ordination debate". The Church is bending over backwards to take special measures in support of your minority position, in offering a binding code of practice which is still to be written. The problem is that you want the whole cake for your minority and leave nothing for anyone else. You have insisted on a position which is theologically nonsensical and practically untenable, and when you don't get exactly what you wanted you don't accept the decision and threaten to leave. It seems to me that the Church is trying hard to embrace you and you are pushing it away.

    Some might want the Code of Practice to be unacceptable to you. I doubt if most do. The Code of Practice is still to be written. To continue your analogy, you still have a chance to order your vegetarian meal. If you make friends rather than enemies in the next few months surely you have a real chance of getting agreement on a Code of Practice which meets all your concerns, except that it won't be enacted by Parliament (the issue on which I am so strongly opposed to you). Please don't think most people want to push you out. Some people might, I agree. But a lot of it is just a collective persecution complex which goes back centuries.

    I entirely agree with you on the issue of doctrinal discipline. But the reason people like Lain-Priestly are acceptable as bishops and people with views like yours are not is that they are prepared to do the job of a bishop, including to ordain candidates properly selected for the church's ministry regardless of churchmanship, doctrine and, most significantly, gender. A liberal who announced in advance that he or she would refuse to ordain evangelicals would not get the job. Nor should anyone who refuses to ordain women.

  6. Dear Peter

    I think you're post represents an entirely topsy-turvy view of the situation, beginning with, "The Church is bending over backwards to take special measures in support of your minority position ..."

    Er, no it isn't! The General Synod voted down option after option which would have been better than what was finally agreed. It bent hardly at all, except in agreeing the Code of Practice should be there and should be statutory.

    Apart from that the Synod (not the same as the Church of England, which is all of us), decided it would operate on the very 'biblical' principle of 'even what they have shall be taken away'.

    As to the idea that a Liberal who doesn't believe in the physical resurrection is better bishop material than a Conservative who does because she would ordain people "regardless of ... doctrine", that is really saying she is not a bishop at all!

  7. I thank God for your witness,good Father and I will pray for your continuing firm stand. It will indeed all be worth it when you hear HIM say "Well done.... WE over here in America haven't given up though the days are interesting!!!!!!!!!

  8. Assuming Ruth Gledhill quoted her correctly on Tuesday evening, Christina Rees sees the outcome of Tuesday's fiasco as "the lesser of two evils". If she perceives a code of practice to be an evil, then she and her mates will be striving to eradicate it, won't they? Anyone who entertains hopes that a code of practice will work better than the current one is in cloud cuckoo land. Don't trust these people!