Monday, 4 October 2010

Facts on the ground will change the Church of England

Last week I was able to spend a couple of hours in the library at Oak Hill College where, amongst other things, I read some of the transcripts of the Synod debate conducted in November 1993 concerning the introduction of the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod.
We have heard a lot from proponents of the consecration of women bishops in the last few years about how the Act was a ‘fudge’ and a ‘hasty’ improvisation which damaged the Church and set back the cause of progress.
What is clear from the record of the debate, however, is that (as one would expect) the debate was actually carefully conducted, with sensible and intelligent contributions from all sides.
What is also clear is that the majority will of the Synod was not only to maintain the maximum of unity possible, but to seek to embrace those who now found themselves in a minority. Moreover, without that will, it is also clear that Parliament would have had serious questions about the Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure. The Rt Hon Michael Alison MP (the Second Church Estates Commissioner) commented early on,
... it was an act of faith on the part of the Ecclesiastical Committee that you [the General Synod] would give our cherished minority this Act of Synod in good faith and in good heart and with sweeping and heartfelt approval and support.
There was also an awareness that without such provision, as the Manchester Report similarly observed more recently, the Church of England would become more narrow at a point where Christian opinion was recognized to differ. Thus John Sentamu offered the opinion:
At the end of the day the doctrine of the Church is what we hold to and, if we are not very careful, we can begin to suggest that there is another strand of belief that we must hold if we are to remain part of this Church. I would find that distasteful. I do not want the ordination of women, then, to become another test of true doctrine, true belief and true trust.
Well, Synod, as proponents of the consecration of women bishops have also been at pains to remind us, has moved on and changed its collective mind. The sad result of that has been played out over the last two years, and we are now at a very different place from where we were in 1993.
A not-insignificant reason for this, it must be pointed out, is that the composition of the House of Clergy has been changed by the sheer fact of introducing women priests, so that it is naturally more difficult now to be elected to the General Synod if one is opposed to women’s ordination. The result has not been a more generous spirit to those who are not only a minority but, increasingly, a minority with neither a voice nor a vote in the governing bodies of the Church.
It is thus perhaps not surprising that we are now seeing moves which represent a different ‘tone’ from opponents of women’s ordination and consecration corresponding to the altered tone of Synod.
Back in 2008, when Synod revealed its colours in this regard, I was strongly advocating that the Anglo-Catholics should, in effect, announce an intention to rebel. Specifically, I argued, their should have announced that they would under no circumstances abandon the people committed to their care, whatever the Synod might decide.
With the establishment of the Society of St Wilfred and St Hilda, something of this sort seems finally to have happened (though I can take no credit for this). In effect, the Anglo-Catholic rump within the Church has said they will no longer simply take what is being dished out to them.
This has provoked an interesting response from WATCH and others, who have complained about the possible ‘illegality’ of such moves and its flying in the face of Synod.
I am rather reminded of the episode of The Young Ones in which it was voted (by three to one) that Neil, the morose hippy, would do the washing up. When Neil not unnaturally complained the response was not dissimilar to that now being thrown at Forward in Faith: “What’s the matter, Neil? Don’t you believe in democracy?”
Well, of course, we all believe in ‘democracy’, but as we are repeatedly being told, it is in how a society treats its minorities that its true values are shown. What ought to be clear from what has happened is that Synod, and others within the Church of England, have over-stepped an important mark.
It is all very well to poke fun at ‘The Society of St Hinge and St Bracket’ (though I rather hope the name, like ‘Christian’ or ‘Puritan’ is adopted willingly), but it is quite another to realize that real people, indeed Christian brethren, have been pushed to this point.
As to illegalities, it is worth remembering that in the USA (and, as I recall, in Australia) the first ordinations of women were conducted ‘illegally’.
And meanwhile, we have another impending ‘fact on the ground’ in the shape of the Anglican Ordinariate. Many have rather written this off, in view of the fact that it is likely to be small. But on reflection I personally doubt that will matter very much in the long term. What really matters is that something which previously did not exist — a Roman Catholic haven for former Anglicans — will now be part of the religious landscape in this country.
The reality is that the Church of England has often been changed most dramatically by principled radical action. Think of the Oxford Movement itself, which incidentally embraced illegality with gusto! Every member of Affirming Catholicism today is indebted to that heritage.
This is not to say that such actions are necessarily right or necessary. But they will always be provoked where there is either inertia or perceived injustice on the part of an institution. Where we are today is surely not where anyone wants to be, but the radical actions of some may just prevent things getting worse.
John Richardson
4 October 2010
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  1. Australia's first women deacons (1986-Melbourne) were ordained legally under a Deacons Canon passed by General Synod, although the Canon's legality was referred to the Appellate Tribunal which hadn't returned its verdict when the ordinations happened. The first women priests (March 1992-Perth) were ordained before the General Synod had passed canons to that effect, but were done under authority of Diocesan canons. The General Synod passed enabling Canons in November of the same year.
    See for more information

  2. Thanks for this, Andrew. Nevertheless, the article to which you refer suggests this was not simply a matter of dioceses proceeding tidily and entirely in conformity with existing legislation, prior to a bit of tidying up.

    To quote (with emphases added):

    "In October 1990, Archbishop Carnley increased pressure on the national church by giving notice to Perth Synod that he proposed a change to the diocesan Constitution in line with the change New Zealand Anglicans had made to clear the way for women priests. A year later Perth Synod passed the amendment. In the event of the amendment being challenged, Archbishop Carnley made clear that he had the authority to send women deacons overseas to be priested [...].

    On December 6 1991, the Appellate Tribunal made public its rulings on the questions placed before it. The majority of decisions were negative, the single dissenting voice on the majority ruling that a General Synod Canon would be necessary for the ordination of women to priesthood being Bishop Holland of Newcastle. [...]

    The rulings ... spurred on the bishops most eager to ordain women.


    The opposition acted promptly. Dr. Spry of AAM warned that the matter might be taken to the civil courts to obtain an injunction to prevent the priesting of women proceeding. A writ was lodged in the New South Wales court on 17 January 1992 [...]

    While the court was sitting, Archbishop Carnley of Perth quietly announced that he would ordain ten women to priesthood on 7 March.


    The same three plaintiffs who had succeeded against Canberra/Goulburn, together with one priest from the Diocese of Perth, Rev. Lewis Firman, also sought an injunction in the N.S.W. Supreme Court to prevent Archbishop Carnley from ordaining ten women deacons on 7 March 1992. The injunction was referred to the West Australian Supreme Court where Archbishop Carnley was in a stronger position as he already had a woman priest, Rev. Dawn Kenyon, serving in the diocese. On 6 March, Mr. Justice White of the West Australian Supreme Court ruled that Archbishop Carnley could proceed with the ordination the next day, refusing to allow a delay for an appeal."

    The whole article actually makes very sorry reading indeed!

  3. Canon Andrew Godsall8 October 2010 at 18:02

    John, one of the 'facts on the ground' that you (and others) seem to ignore is that 'traditionalist' Anglo Catholics (as opposed to the many Anglo Catholics who have no problem with the ordination of women) have, for far too long behaved as if they do not actually belong to the Church of England. Go in to their sacristies and see pictures of the Pope, and Roman Missals for the altar book. What they actually want, and what synod has at last said no to, is a church within a church where they can effectively firewall themselves off from the vast majority of Anglicans. The Code of Practice will allow grace to keep them as part of one church.

    Another 'fact on the ground' is that the C of E declared as long ago as the 1970 that there were no theological objections to the ordination of women. It's not that the C of E suddenly decided that in the 70s - it was simply it took us until the 1970s the realise there never had been any objections to the ordination of women. So despite what Sentamu might say, belief in the ordination of women is part of what we believe. People can dissent from that, much as Anglo Catholics dissent from belief in the 39 articles. But it doesn't stop it being part of what we believe. The code of practice allows for dissent, rather than separation.

    Of course another 'fact on the ground' that many ignore is that the Anglo catholic movement has given the C of E many of its gay priests and bishops.....but they are also inconvenient facts on the ground we'd rather ignore.

  4. Nevertheless, Andrew, it is facts on the ground that have altered, and will continue to alter, the Church of England, especially when there is an unwillingness to engage with sections of its community. We have seen this in other areas, we will see it here.

  5. Canon Andrew Godsall8 October 2010 at 19:10

    But it's the so called 'traditionalist' Anglo Catholics who are unwilling to engage though you will find John. It is they who refuse communion. It is they who use un-authorised forms of service. It is they who ignore the 39 articles on which you are so keen. Synod is quite willing to engage with traditionalist Anglo Catholics, and willing to do so with grace as the basis of engagement, not law. It's a far better way.
    Just imagine yourself in a group of, say, 12 people who are members of a team. You share a monthly corporate communion service at your team meeting. Imagine one of them refuses to take communion from you when it is your turn to preside because they don't really think you are a priest. How would it feel? That's the real unwillingness to engage you are actually referring to. Synod have at last woken up to this fact on the ground and said 'no more apartheid here'. Desmond Tutu would be proud.

  6. "Synod have at last woken up to this fact on the ground and said 'no more apartheid here'. Desmond Tutu would be proud."

    Andrew, Andrew - do you not see what a boomerang you just unleashed? The way Synod is going is equivalent to the whites in SA expelling all the blacks!

  7. Canon Andrew Godsall9 October 2010 at 11:26

    I'm afraid not anonymous. No one is expelling anyone. It is synod saying that we will no longer have this legal separatist attitude. We will have a way of living together without separation, using grace rather than law.

  8. Rev. Godsall, I have to say that I expect the English future to reflect the American past, which history is that the church establishment will be used to try to drive the A-C "separatists" out. And I expect that the same rhetoric of using the church as a locus of power to right the injustices of Society (of which the Anglo-Catholics will be lifted up as recondite examples) will increasingly obtain. Blaming the A-Cs for sticking to their principles is from my view the problem-- not the principles, but setting it up as a matter of blame rather than something that simply has to be lived with.

    I in fact put up with this thing all the time, simply as a Christian, because I travel in RC and EO circles and attend their services. And of course (except duplicitously) I cannot ever take communion with them. One some levels it's offensive, and often enough it is presented to me will malicious intent. But it is simply something I have to put up with.

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