Some time ago, I published on this blog a piece where I suggested (somewhat provocatively) that, in the words of the song from Oklahoma, “the ‘farmer’ of Anglo-Catholicism and the ‘cowman’ of Conservative Evangelicalism can, indeed, be friends”. (Please note, to those who think this is a sell-out, friendship does not necessarily indicate total agreement. Moreover, such friendship is posited within an evolving Anglican framework.)
Unfortunately, as a recent article by Elaine Storkey, published on the Fulcrum website, illustrates, the same is not yet true of Conservative Evangelicals and their Open Evangelical counterparts. Indeed, much as I dislike the idea, it suggests that, despite the best intentions of some, the ordination and consecration of women is shaping into a fellowship-dividing issue.
Elaine has written her article in response to claims about the recent changes in the makeup of General Synod. Suggestively, it is titled, Who won the General Synod elections and what hope for women bishops?
According to some Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals, there are now enough people opposed to the current legislation, particularly regarding its provisions for those who cannot accept women bishops, to block it when it comes back to General Synod.
Elaine, however, describes the claim that this a victory for the opponents of the measure as “extraordinary”, pointing to the more cautious assessment of WATCH (Women And The Church), who still maintain what she calls “muted optimism”.
For her own part, furthermore, Elaine doubts whether the ‘traditionalist’ analysis “is at all unbiased and disinterested” (though the same could be said of almost everyone in this situation), observing that the Evangelicals in question are neither what she calls “the official ‘Evangelical Group in General Synod’ (EGGS)”, nor, of course, Fulcrum itself. On the contrary, she commends John Dunnett, the secretary of EGGS, for “a more cautious approach to assessing the results” (although Dunnett, who stood in Chelmsford, stated in his election address that he was himself in favour of better provision in the legislation).
The Evangelicals are, of course, Reform, the bête noire of Fulcrum, and it is clear that Elaine objects strongly to what she sees as their claim to speak not only as but for ‘evangelicals’, given their small representation and, as she observes, the fact that their “amendments were defeated in the last debate”. (Though it should be added, so were all the significant amendments at this point, including the one put forward jointly by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Such defeats were arguably as much an indication of the mood of Synod as they were of the qualities of the ‘movers’.)
As an analysis of the present position of the Synod, therefore, Elaine’s is not without its own biases and indications of interest, but these are not unexpected and can easily be overlooked. It is in the next section, however, that the real difficulties arise.
Elaine’s doubts about any claims concerning the future actions of the Synod begin, she says, with the fact that many of the new members will not really be ‘up to speed’ on legislation “so complex as the measure on women bishops”.
Many of them have not had any chance to look at earlier proposals, to follow the debate through so far, to catch up on the work of the revision committee, or to know why the various amendments did not get through. There is a lot of homework to be done before new members can get inside the issues with any real authority.
One has to say, this is somewhat disparaging towards these new members. Doubtless, many of them will have little understanding of the ways of the Synod. It is equally sure, however, that those who stood as conservative candidates did so at least in part because they had a pretty good idea what they thought of the Synodical debate and outcomes so far.
The real difficulty, however, is when Elaine goes on to the nature of the debate still facing the Synod. Thus she writes,
There are still a large number of issues to be thought about and resolved. We still need a more thorough debate on theology, and indeed on Reform’s claims that the opposition is from scriptural grounds. (Other evangelicals strongly disagree.)
Now the first of these is an extraordinary suggestion, given not just the position of the last Synod, but of Elaine herself. If there are really that many issues still to be thought through, and if the theology has not been thoroughly debated, what on earth was Synod doing voting for such a significant change — and, it may be added, making such grudging provision for those who still maintained the alternative view?
Moreover, one has to ask whether Elaine really doubts that Reform specifically, or Conservative Evangelicals generally, object to women priests and bishops on any grounds other than Scripture.
At face value, however, Elaine is arguing for more time and more debate on this crucial issue. She continues,
But to decide so far ahead of time how you will vote on a measure which has not been presented in a final form, suggests an incapacity or unpreparedness to listen and debate. For if minds are already made up along party lines, even on issues we have not yet discussed, then what is the point of Synod? All we would need to do is to assemble the tribes and count the numbers.
Yet of course, minds are made up (and it is the making up of these minds which creates the ‘party lines’). But they are surely made up, for the most part, precisely because people have been listening and debating and have been persuaded in various directions. To suggest otherwise is almost tantamount to suggesting that only the General Synod is capable of such a process.
But it is in her next paragraph that I find the most difficulty:
In fact, in my own twenty–three years as a member of General Synod, this is not what happens. The real work goes on in the interaction of those who disagree, in the exposure of people to views and outlooks which are different from their own. It is in the readiness to hear the Bible through the presentations of others that understanding is developed. It is in the listening and weighing up of the argument where decisions are best made. It is in the openness with which we concede that none of us has the whole truth, for that belongs to God alone, that humility and generosity begin to flourish.
Now I would be the first to say, ‘Hear, hear!’ if I thought this was without its own bias. For it to be true, however, it would have to presume that those currently supporting the consecration of women — those such as Christina Rees and even Elaine herself — will return to the new Synod ready to change their minds as they meet and interact with the new members (just as she hopes that the Traditionalist new members will be prepared to change their own minds).
As we all know, however, that is not going to happen. Indeed, it is not even how debate works, for debate depends on people who have made their minds up, and feel they have the supporting argument, seeking to persuade the doubters, which is precisely Elaine’s own position. She writes,
No-one has yet fully heard why many of us, who hold a high view of Scripture, feel compelled to open all the offices of the Church to the full participation of women, because we have not had chance to explain it.
Someone who feels, on Scriptural grounds, “compelled” to a course of action may certainly be sincere, but they can hardly classify themselves as open-minded on an issue.
Yet I find the statement itself utterly extraordinary. Is Elaine really suggesting that the Scriptural argument has not yet been heard? And is she suggesting that this is because those who hold to it have really “not had a chance to explain it”? If that were true, I would have to ask what has been going on for the last twenty years, since before the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Frankly at this point, were I to take Elaine at her word, I would ask why she does not call for a halt on any further legislation until the arguments have been heard and have been explained. As it is, I am simply rather baffled and do not know what to make of this.
Of course, as Elaine observes, there is room for discussion about the final form of the legislation. Indeed, she writes that, “even those of us who fully support the Women Bishops’ Measure as it stands will need to wait and see before we can give final approval our wholehearted support.” And she prays“that incoming members of Synod — even those with very firm views on the Catholic and Reformed edges — will do the same.”
But holding fire on the legislation (which the last Synod certainly did not seem so willing to do) is different from holding back on the principle, which is what should surely follow from what Elaine has written.
The problem is, I would humbly suggest, that Elaine has confused two things which Evangelicals as a whole need to keep separate. One is the argument in principle for women’s ordination and consecration. The other is the provision in practice for those who disagree with the majority view.
As it happens, some Conservative Evangelicals, notably David Banting, the former chairman of Reform, have been working hard behind the scenes, particularly with AWESOME (Anglican Women Evangelicals Supporting our Ordained Ministries), to develop a joint approach which both admits the position of those who agree with women bishops and protects the position of those who do not.
David’s position, and those of many other Evangelicals of all stripes, is that the important thing is to support one another in this. And that is a commendable approach. But it must be admitted that there are other voices saying that the same support was not forthcoming when the situation was the other way round. In other words, that those opposed to women’s ordination have not sought to make provision for those in support — which is true.
And that brings me to the question of whether women’s ordination will become, in the end, a fellowship-breaking issue. I very much hope it does not, but the feelings on this run very deeply, and feelings have a habit of overriding reason.
Personally, I would be all in favour of prolonging the debate. Indeed, that may yet happen if, as is technically possible, the legislation to introduce women bishops falls at the last hurdle. The outcome would, to say the least, be interesting. But if it is true that the debate has not yet fully been aired, then that might actually be the best way. Interestingly, AWESOME are publishing a book in November where two women discuss their different views on this issue. Perhaps we should urge everyone in the Church of England to spend the next couple of years doing the same.
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31 October 2010
31 October 2010