OK, I admit straight away, this isn’t really about ‘heresy’ in the full-on sense of ‘damnable religious errors’. Nor can I think of a word-play on ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’. But in the old sense of haeresis, meaning wrongful divisions in the body of Christ, I do think that we are currently facing ‘heresies’ caused by fudging the issues, and we will soon be facing more.
Let us go back, for a moment, to the decision to ordain women into the priesthood of the Church of England, taken in 1992 — or rather, let us go back to the ‘indecision’, for that is unarguably what it was.
When the Church of England put to Parliament (as it had to) the necessary legislation to allow women to be ordained as priests, it included in that legislation the option for parishes to reject their priestly ministry. Looking back on it, that was an extraordinary thing to do. Is there any other example of a law where people can choose not to have that law apply to them?
Moreover, the Church itself spoke about the introduction of women priests as being a ‘process of reception’. That is to say, it was not prepared to commit itself to saying that this was exactly right —rather the approach would be ‘suck it and see’.
Then, on top of all this, Synod introduced its own legislation, an ‘Act of Synod’, to provide episcopal ministry for those who would be discomfited by the association of their existing bishop with the theology and action of ordaining women.
Thus, from its inception, the ordination of women was a fudge: systematically, deliberately — and inevitably, for without such a fudge it would not have taken place when it did. If the General Synod had been told, “You must decided now, one way or the other”, it is certain that it would have decided to wait.
However, the fudge was in place. And what happened next was equally inevitable, but unforseen by many. First, the assurances contained in the legislation where deliberately, but covertly, disregarded. The Act of Synod had declared that a person’s views on women’s ordination would not count against them when it came to selection for the higher offices in the Church. Yet extraordinarily, after 1993 almost no opponent of women’s ordination was found to have the qualities necessary to become a bishop. Indeed, there were unsubstantiated rumours of potential candidates being given a ‘fireside chat’ to inform them that on this issue there was only one option —you were for, or you were out.
Secondly, however, it may be argued that the basis of the Synod’s decision affected the quality of the candidates for ministry. Specifically, (and unsurprisingly, given the nature of its debates) the Synod had not decided that ‘this was what the Bible said ought to happen’. Rather, it had fudged the theological basis by failing to settle the biblical issue. Unsurprisingly, those women drawn to ordination to the priesthood tended to be those less committed to biblical precision, whilst those women drawn to full-time ministry, but of precise views, tended to avoid ordination to the priesthood.
What followed was inevitably an influx of women priests with generally ‘liberal’ theological views. And this had a further effect, for gradually the voting constituency for elections to Synods also shifted. The more that liberal women came in, the harder it was for conservatives to get elected. So, just as the Bench of Bishops was gradually being gerrymandered away from traditionalism, so the Houses of Clergy were being voted in the same direction.
Thus, contrary to the (palpably ludicrous) statement made in the 1970s, the theological objections to the ordination of women did not go away, but the objectors were increasingly marginalised. The Church was unequally divided, but the divisions would rapidly become more imbalanced.
Yet the objectors found it difficult to object! On paper, they were to be given equal treatment. Outwardly, the ‘period of reception’ would continue for as long as necessary. They had not been told they were wrong, only that they were a minority — but they were an honoured and welcome group, who would continue to be a valued ‘integrity’ within the Church of England. And most of them believed it. The Anglo-Catholics accepted the very considerable ‘bone’ of ‘Flying Bishops’. The Evangelicals were happy so long as they could get men ordained and accepted into parishes, and for the most part they thought the bishops were pretty laughable anyway. The Catholics fudged their attitude to Rome, the Evangelicals fudged their attitude to Anglicanism, the Liberals fudged their attitude to the Bible. Everyone was happy!
Now let us turn our attention to homosexuality, for back in the 1990s, the Church of England was also tackling this challenge. The definitive solution, however, was reached in 1991, when the House of Bishops produced a short statement titled Issues in Human Sexuality. With typical Anglican deftness, this managed to endorse the prevailing orthodoxy without actually insisting on it. The classic instance of this was the acceptance that the laity could engage in homosexual acts (since they were not bound to exemplify the church’s teaching) and that the clergy could argue for homosexual acts, but not engage in them (since the church’s teaching was binding on their behaviour but not their personal doctrine).
It was a small chunk of fudge, but enough to do the job.
Now let us fast-forward to 2005 and the introduction in the UK of civil partnerships. This was itself a classic fudge, being basically a government ‘cover’ for gay marriages in all but name. However, there was enough compromise involved in the legislation to allow Anglican bishops in the House of Lords to speak in favour of the development on the basis of ‘justice’ (but against broadening their provisions to include siblings or lifelong, opposite-sex, friends).
But what were the bishops to do about partnered clergy? The answer, given in another statement, was to allow for them, on the basis that, according to Issues in Human Sexuality, such relationships need not breach the church’s teaching on sex outside marriage:
The House of Bishops does not regard entering into a civil partnership as intrinsically incompatible with holy orders, provided the person concerned is willing to give assurances to his or her bishop that the relationship is consistent with the standards for the clergy set out in Issues in Human Sexuality. The wording of the Act means that civil partnerships will be likely to include some whose relationships are faithful to the declared position of the Church on sexual relationships (see paragraphs 2-7). [Civil Partnerships- A pastoral statement from the House of Bishops of the Church of England, para 19]
Notice, however, the caution in the first sentence of the above paragraph, that clergy in such partnerships should be “willing to give assurances” about their behaviour to their bishop. This was emphasised two paragraphs later:
... Partnerships will be widely seen as being predominantly between gay and lesbian people in sexually active relationships. Members of the clergy and candidates for ordination who decide to enter into partnerships must therefore expect to be asked for assurances that their relationship will be consistent with the teaching set out in Issues in Human Sexuality. [Ibid, para 21]
Notice, again, what is said: civil partnered clergy or ordination candidates “must ... expect to be asked for assurances” about the sexual nature of their relationship.
Notice also, however, what is not said. It does not say that the responsible bishop must actually seek such assurances, only that partnered clergy should “expect to be asked” for them. In fact, such assurances are certainly not sought by bishops in every case. Yet taken with paragraph 19, the implication is that it is the bishop, and not other potentially interested parties, such as churchwardens, parish representatives or neighbouring clergy, who is entitled to these assurances. Hence, although bishops are not always seeking these assurances themselves, they are unwilling to allow others to seek them, even though, as paragraph 21 says, the public perception of such relationships is that they will be sexually active.
Hence we have more fudge, and its divisive effects continue to spread. Thus the General Synod of the Church of England recently voted to approve pension rights to the civil partners of clergy, though not to their other dependents or supporters. The ‘marital’ status of civil partnerships thus seems to be reaffirmed. But on the basis of justice and morality it is hard to deny at least what was granted (even though one may have reservations about what was not), since all clergy in civil partnerships are supposed to be celibate and to be ready and willing to assure their bishops that this is the case, should they be asked. The assumption is breathtaking, though be careful you don’t choke on your fudge!
Meanwhile, on the ground the facts will establish themselves. Civil partnered clergy will become accepted, and the failure of bishops to establish, clearly and publicly, the nature of their relationships will pass unchallenged. But at the same time, the discomfort of those who hold to the traditional view will increase, for there will be no assurance, and no way of being assured, that the morality which the bishops have declared to be biblical (see their further and much larger document confusingly titled Some Issues in Human Sexuality, issued in 2003) is actually being maintained by those they see in civil partnerships.
The Church of England has, in the past, acted as if compromise were the ‘genius’ of Anglicanism. History, I suspect, will show the opposite — that far from being its genius, it was the agent of its downfall. And why should we be surprised? If the devil is the Father of Lies, then the half truth is surely his own offspring.
Revd John P RichardsonAnonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.
17 February 2010
17 February 2010