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 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.
4 October 2010
4 October 2010