Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Should they stay or should they go? The bishops who disagreed

According to the ongoing Church Times poll, a steady 88%+ of respondents think the General Synod made the wrong decision over handling the women bishops issue.

From what was said during the debate, apparently so did a large number of bishops, including some of the most senior in the Church of England.

This raises a serious question about the governance and nature of the Church. Are we episcopally led, and synodically governed in the sense that synods gather under the leadership of the bishop or bishops to advise on policy? Or are we simply synodically governed, meaning that the majority vote of the synod must be followed by the bishop or bishops no matter what their personal opinions may be?

If it is the former then the bishops of the Church have an opportunity to exercise their leadership and, having thanked the Synod for its advice, to decline to accept it.

If it is the latter then we are facing a novel understanding of the episcopate. However, the bishops who disagree with the General Synod’s decision, and the effect it is having already on the Church, have another opportunity, which is, rather than effecting a policy with which they disagree, to resign.

That might be regarded as ‘deserting their people’, but on the other hand, if they will not resist a policy which they believe is wrong, what else can they do?

John Richardson
15 July 2008

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  1. Hi John, thanks for your blog. I've been subscribed for a while and appreciate your thoughts.

    Just a question - from an Australian perspective, the Bishop of a diocese still has a veto over legislation. And a General Synod does not come into force in a diocese unless agreed to (and therefore assented to by the Bishop) by the diocesan synod in legislation. Does it work differently in the CofE?

    Any pointers to "CofE church procedures for dummies" resources would be appreciated.


  2. Perhaps some of the bishops have understood the basic principle of democracy, which the church has embraced for better or for worse: the minority should accept the decision of the majority. Now I would not want to extend this concept to matters of basic theological principle. But the difference here is not over the principle of women bishops, accepted by a large majority of current bishops, but over the details of how to get there. On such matters the bishops should get on with implementing the decision of the majority. And that majority is of the official elected delegates to the General Synod who took part in the debate, not in the self-selecting group of respondents to the Church Times poll, many of whom probably have little idea of the nuances of what they are voting on.

  3. Will

    In England things are indeed rather different. General Synod has much more power over dioceses, which are consulted over issues like this, but do not have the final say.


    I think you misunderstand democracy. The General Synod is as 'democratic' as Parliament, ie, not very. If you check out my earlier post on that topic, you'll see I wrote there, "True democracy aims at expressing the will of the people, and thus bases decision-making not on the principle of 50%+1, but rather requires a greater majority in proportion to the significance of the decision. Representative government, on the other hand, elevates the significance of interest groups, lobbyists, parties etc."

    So, for example, it is becoming impossible for 'Resolution C' clergy to get elected to General Synod, because the electorate includes women clergy. You may say inevitably, or even, rightly, so, but it means that votes in the House of Clergy in Synod will be 'unrepresentative' almost by definition.

    I note that one of the amendments which might have satisfied traditionalists was, I believe, lost in the House of Clergy. I wonder why?

    As to the notion that people voting in the Church Times poll are too thick to understand what they are voting for - who says that people in General Synod understood really what they were voting for?

  4. As a PS to Peter,

    My point anyway is that if a bishop really disagrees with what the majority vote on Synod 'forces' on him, then he should resign out of integrity rather than pursue a policy with which he disagrees and which he feels will damage the Church.

    Colin Buchanan showed it can be done, though not over a policy issue, when he was Bishop of Aston.

  5. John, I can see a strong case for reform of the system of electing General Synod members. But the current system is the one which is legally in force and so should be respected, under the principles of Romans 13:1. If "Representative government, on the other hand, elevates the significance of interest groups, lobbyists, parties etc.", why don't you use the system to elevate the significance of your own interest group, party or whatever you call it? After all, it is only be elevating the significance of your small minority that you have any chance of real influence.

  6. "If it is the latter then we are facing a novel understanding of the episcopate." Well, exactly.

    It demonstrates the point that many of us have been consistently making - that the real problem with the question of "women bishops" can be seen not by viewing it in isolation as a feminist vs. patriarchal issue, but by understanding that it is merely one manifestation of a generally dysfunctional approach to Church faith and order. It is no coincidence that in the process of voting for this departure from Apostolic order, Synod abandoned Apostolic order in its own procedures, in the manner which you euphemistically characterise as "a novel understanding of the episcopate"!

    One waits in hope for some, at least, of our bishops belatedly to recognise the link, and draw the inevitable conclusions.

    Fr William Perry

  7. what we have now is neither Episcopal or Synodical, but sort of the worst of being Presbytarian and the worst of being Epscopalian.

    Darren Moore