Monday, 24 May 2010

Women bishops and other episcopal divisions - embracing comprehensiveness and allowing flexibility

In my last post, I argued that in enabling the ordination of women, the Church of England actually did not just one but two new things.
On the one hand, it allowed women to enter the priesthood. On the other hand, and entirely as an innovation in itself, it allowed individuals and congregations to opt out of receiving their ministry or recognizing their pastoral authority.
The mechanism by which this apparent ‘fudge’ was received (arguably a fudge itself — but that is another matter) was the novel concept of a ‘period of reception’. It is fundamentally important, however, to understand what this meant. Here is a summary from an official guide to the report of the House of Bishops’ Working Party on Women in the Episcopate (the ‘Rochester’ Report):
The term ‘reception’ is one that is often used in relation to the debate about the ordination of women. The report explains that in Anglican usage this term has come to mean something very specific. It does not mean the process by which the ministry of women is accepted in the Church. Instead it is used to refer to the process in which the Church of England reflects with the universal Church on the authenticity of its decision to ordain women. (Emphasis added)
Nothing could be clearer, except that the phrase ‘reflects ... on the authenticity of its decision’ is Anglican-speak for ‘tries to see ... whether we got it right or wrong’.
Moreover, this guide adds two further important points. It continues:
Part of the current discussion about the proposal to ordain women bishops centres on two questions:
            •          Would it be right for this further step to be taken while the decision to ordain women priests is still in a period of reception?
            •          Would a decision to ordain women as bishops necessarily bring this period of reception to an end?
Now there are clearly those who not agree with but advocate the second point. That is to say, they do think the decision to ordain (or consecrate) women as bishops would bring the period of reception to an end, and they wish that it would do so decisively and speedily.
For the purposes of my earlier argument, however, the first point is the more important, namely that since 1992 the Church of England has been, and still is, in the period of reception described above.
This means that not only opponents of women’s ordination, but supporters who have been or become members of the Church of England since that date knew (or at least, ought to have known) that this was an ‘open’ question.
And this calls for a certain humility in the present. Opponents of women priests must accept that they have been willing to be part of a church which nevertheless ordains women to the priesthood. Supporters of women priests must accept they have been willing to be part of a church which allows the ministry of women priests to be questioned and refused. If there has been any notion of ‘like it or lump it’ so far, it has been that up to the present people have had to ‘like or lump’ this arrangement.
We must also take full note of the possibility, noted in the second bullet point, that this situation need not change, even with the introduction of women bishops. But for how long ought this to be allowed to continue?
Interestingly, when the legislation was drawn up to allow women to be ordained as priests, there were proposals to limit the provisions for dissent. These, however, were refused by the General Synod. Thus, whilst the legislation does not explicitly refer to an indefinite period of reception, it excluded wording which would have had precisely the effect of imposing a limit. By implication, then, the legislation at the time was constructed so as to envisage a process that would take ‘as long as it took’, as the Manchester Report noted when it pointed out the problems of going back on this principle.
Those who wish to bring down the curtain on the ‘period of reception’ therefore need to recognize that they are doing so unilaterally (there is substantial disagreement that his should be done) and opportunistically (because they can), despite the fact that the Church of England has officially operated until now an ‘open door’ policy for both supporters and opponents of women’s ordination, overtly welcoming them all to stay and telling them that they are a valid part of the Anglican Communion.
Now in such circumstances, it is, I believe, neither immoral nor unreasonable to contemplate radical action to ensure that the place one has occupied in the church is allowed to continue.
Sadly there are those who are quite happy to argue that the General Synod is not bound by earlier decisions or commitments, and that it is quite entitled to do whatever its members choose to do in this regard, up to and including taking decisions that would effectively unchurch present members of the Church of England. (One is reminded of the way in which colonial powers treated native populations in the past, when earlier treaties — before the colonists became a secure majority — were replaced by less generous terms and conditions.)
Some would regard the termination of the period of reception by the fiat of Synod as a job well done. Others, however, would regard it as a betrayal, not least of the talk, for the last eighteen years, of ‘two integrities’. Indeed, in this respect a decision by the General Synod could not be regarded as a decision by the ‘Church of England’ since it will, of necessity, rely on a majority overruling a minority at a point of faith and conscience hitherto encouraged and embraced.
Moreover, this issue confronts us at a time when the English episcopate are ‘wobbling’ on their commitment to the position hitherto maintained by Issues in Human Sexuality.
Yet I would want to suggest, tentatively, that the latter may well provide an indicator of the way ahead.
In his recent address to his diocesan synod, the Bishop of Gloucester argues (as has the Bishop of Liverpool) that sexuality is, precisely like the ordination and consecration of women, a ‘second order’ issue over which, on the basis of Anglican ‘comprehensiveness’, we ought to be able to live together in ‘a’ communion if not full communion.
At least in regard to the ordination of women, the Bishop is right. That is exactly what the legislation enacted in 1993 set out to achieve, and it succeeded. We do indeed live together and, insofar as we can regard Rodney King as a theologian, we do all, just about, ‘get along’ according to his dictum. One of the reasons we are able to do this, however, is that no-one is compelled to accept the ministry of ordained women.
Logically, then, the way for us to continue to ‘get along’ over women bishops is to allow the same with regard to them and, moreover, to allow it with the maximum exercise of principle and conscience, rather than (as Synod seem currently bent on proposing) the minimum. Doubtless this could be achieved, and though doubtless it would be messy, we would continue to ‘get along’.
Now as observed, the Bishop of Gloucester draws a direct parallel between this issue and the issue of sexuality. And to some extent, we already see this applied in practice. He himself, along with James Jones, the Archbishop of Canterbury and probably others, hold one view but operate by another, thus expressing a kind of ‘internal’ comprehensiveness according to their own understandings.
The problem arises when such an understanding on such an issue is ‘externalized’ so as to impinge on others who would come under their ministry. In that case, there would be serious difficulties in conscience for clergy and laity who, as the Bishop of Gloucester recognizes, regard this as a ‘first order’ issue — a point of view which, he says, he does not share but does appreciate.
What should then happen? The simple answer is to allow people — clergy and congregations — to pick their own bishops. This is already allowed to some extent under the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod. It would, I suggest, become a necessity in the case of consecrating women as bishops, but it might actually be an advantage to the Church overall in the face of other disagreements currently threatening division. And if that is not to be ‘allowed’, then it may simply have to happen by choice.
That is what I hope to explore in a future post.
John Richardson
24 May 2010
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As a PS Someone e-mailed me a link to Hansard for 1st November 1993, prior to the final parliamentary debate which approved the 1992 Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure, which records the answer from Mr Michael Alison to a question put by Harry Greenway MP. This makes it quite clear that without the Act of Synod, Parliament would "insist" that the Synod put in place a further Measure, "to create a statutory provision". The linkage between the Measure and the Act is, I believe, firmly established as is the "moral authority" of the Act. The cynic might say you can also see why there is so much opposition to continuing "statutory provision" for opponents of women bishops.

Mr. Michael Alison (Second Church Estates Commissioner, representing the Church Commissioners) : The Act of Synod will provide for the appointment of up to three new suffragan bishops to act as provincial episcopal visitors. Their remuneration will be the same as that of other suffragan bishops. Housing and a car will be provided and working expenses will be reimbursed.

Mr. Greenway : Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance to the House that the Church Commissioners will bear in mind the great concern expressed by the House in last Friday's debate that priests and congregations committed to a male priesthood be properly looked after when females--ladies--are ordained as priests in a few months' time? Will he give an assurance that the Act of Synod measure which deals with the matter will give proper moral and real authority to those bishops committed to protecting those congregations and to serving them?

Mr. Alison : I am delighted that my hon. Friend has underscored the need for the co-called Act of Synod to have real teeth and real moral authority. I shall convey the anxiety that my hon. Friend has expressed to the General Synod when it meets at Church house next week to discuss the very point that my hon. Friend has raised. The Synod will underscore the need for an Act which is adequate. If it is not adequate, the House will insist that a Measure be brought before the House to create a statutory provision.

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1 comment:

  1. Surely the whole point of a "period of reception" is that it is a period which will terminate at some point. And presumably it is up to the General Synod to decide when to terminate it, which one would expect to be when the Church has decided "whether we got it right or wrong". Now probably the great majority of the Synod is now of the view that the Church got it right and that there is no need to prolong this period of reception. On the other hand you seem to be part of a small minority which wants the period of reception to be extended into a permanent arrangement, one which Synod never intended.

    Now it would probably be good for Synod to debate, before a final decision is taken on women bishops, an explicit resolution to terminate the period of reception, rather than just implicitly end it. But I think you and I know the way the vote would be likely to go.