Recently I seem to have been caught up in the ‘ordination of women’ debate — perhaps because our diocesan synods are now discussing the draft ‘Measure’ put forward by General Synod to allow for the consecration of women bishops.
Two weeks ago it was the debate on Premier Radio with Christian Rees. This week I visited a parish on the south coast to talk with their PCC about the forthcoming legislation and the theological issues involved.
One of the things I have emphasised in both settings is that there is a debate to be had. I alluded on Premier Radio to my opinion that perhaps the most stupid thing General Synod has ever done was to vote in 1975 that “there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood”.
Perhaps those in favour of the motion excused themselves by arguing that the key word was ‘fundamental’: there are objections, but they are ‘not fundamental’.
Certainly it would be even more stupid to say there are ‘no objections’. But even the statement that there are ‘no fundamental objections’ is blatantly not a ‘received truth’ in the Anglican Church, least of all was it in 1975.
Thus I doubt very much (though right now I am not in a position to check) that the 1975 vote was unanimous or that the debate consisted of a queue of speakers all agreeing with the motion.
This is why the wording of the motion is so iniquitous. It actually would have been better for the motion to have declared opposition to the ordination of women to be anethema — an approach which the Church has taken on controverted issues in the past. That would have had the effect of recognizing the existence of objections, but declaring them false.
However, the phrasing of the motion — “there are no” — itself creates a falsehood, for clearly there are. It is the attitude of the child playing peek-a-boo who, because it cannot see its mothers face, believes it cannot be seen by its mother. When objections are raised to women’s ordination, the response will be (as was actually stated to me during the PCC meeting), “But the Synod voted that there are no fundamental objections to women’s ordination.” I, and those who share my views, simply cannot ‘be there’ in reality because we don’t actually exist. Synod says so.
This is also why it is always dangerous to vote on a belief, rather than a course of action, and why ‘democracy’ is such a poor tool in such circumstances.
Where action is required, and where there are several choices about what to do, it may, in fact, be appropriate or necessary to take a vote, simply in the interests of doing something rather than nothing.
Even this is not a universal principle. As one writer on leadership observed, a tank in battle is not a place for taking votes. But where there is equality of decision-makers, time for reflection and yet the need for action, a vote may be the most equitable way to proceed.
However, a vote cannot make a thing true, and that ought to have been obvious to the Synod’s governing committees at the time.
Unfortunately, that way of proceeding has taken hold in the whole process, and indeed the 1975 vote is arguably the point at which it all began to go wrong, for the result has been to give credence to the idea that the theological work has been done, when it clearly has not.
In preparation for both the Premier debate and the south coast visit, I read a couple of books on the issue putting forward the ‘pro’ case. For the former it was Discovering Biblical Equality : Complementarity Without Hierarchy, edited by Pierce and Groothuis, and for the latter The Gender Agenda, by Lis Goddard and Clare Hendry.
The one thing you could not say after reading both these books is that the issues are ‘not fundamental’.
The other thing you could not say is that the issues are entirely resolved, though they may look that way from the safety of our own ‘constituencies’.
Both Goddard and Hendry are members of AWESOME, a network for ordained Anglican evangelical women, and during the writing of their book, which is a dialogue from different perspectives — Goddard for and Hendry against women as incumbents in churches — they both went to a network conference. Reflecting on this, Hendry makes an interesting observation:
Some folk [present] seemed to be totally unaware that there are other views on headship held by ‘sane and normal’ people, and that for some groups this is not the minority view. [...] It is important that women [in AWESOME] who have a high view of the Bible can take the view that I and others hold about male headship, and that this is a legitimate position. But I didn’t always get that impression from some of the folk at the conference. (135)
Now of course the same would be true if one went to a Forward in Faith rally or a gathering of Reform. We must not pretend that any section of the Church of England takes a truly dispassionate view on this subject.
But that is the problem. The Church of England has enshrined in its legislation the principle that both the acceptance of women’s ordination and its rejection are legitimate Anglican views, to be embraced and treated equally. Yet the foundation for its legislation in this regard would appear to be sand rather than solid rock — a decision by majority vote that a view held by many Anglicans lacked any substance, even whilst the very fact that a vote was taken proved that it had its firm adherents.
The present Anglican position, therefore, must be deemed either incoherent or dishonest. It is incoherent to declare that a viewpoint lacks either justification or support and then to declare that, nevertheless, it is on a par with the truth. Alternatively, it is dishonest to be saying that everyone will be treated equally when, in fact, there is self-evidently no possibility that this will be the case.
Those of us who have hoped the Church of England’s governing bodies would honour the commitments given since 1993 have probably not been clear enough ourselves about the realities of the situation. But we have taken heart from the fact that ‘incoherence’ is what the Church of England does so well.
Unfortunately, as the recent creation of the Ordinariate suggests, it is something which even the Church of England can only do for so long if the pressures become great enough.
And alongside incoherence we have had dishonesty — I refer to the exclusion of traditionalists from senior office, at first doubtless in response to subtle pressures, but now openly and overtly. Yet as with the pressures for Anglo-Catholics, this can only be maintained for so long, and the proposed legislation reflects the need to ‘move on’.
It is a principle in law that equal parties should be treated equally. Anyone reading the draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure will see that it establishes two classes of Anglican — those who will simply be able to go about their church business from year to year without the need to justify their continuance, and those who will regularly have to review and revise their arrangements with the institution.
Those accepting of women bishops will never be asked to consider whether they might be wrong. Those who are not will constantly be having to justify their position to themselves and to others.
Surely no secular legislator would allow such a situation! But in the Church it seems we can — and why not, when one point of view has neither a basis nor a constituency?
John RichardsonPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.
21 May 2011
21 May 2011