Since 1993 I have chosen to belong to a church that ordains women priests, and before I retire it is likely I will belong to one that consecrates women bishops. Yet this is a practice that I believe to be mistaken, so why am I still here?
One answer is that I am committed to the Church — not to the official ‘fine tuning’ of its theology. I have often argued that the Church of England is exactly what it says on the tin: the Church of England. It is not demarcated from the Church anywhere else by anything other than geography, and therefor it ought not to be defined by anything other than what the ‘Church universal’ accepts as essential.
Now I know this is a ‘pipe dream’ at innumerable levels. But when I read Scripture I see a similar picture. One of my favourite bits of the Bible is the book of Revelation, and in the seven letters to the churches in chapters 2-3 we find ourselves in very familiar territory. There is division, there is heresy, there is immorality, there are false apostles, there is lack of love, there is indifference. It’s just like home, really! And yet each letter is addressed “to the church in ...”, and each concludes with a promise “to him who overcomes” — and I take it that part of what is to be ‘overcome’ is precisely the situation in some of those churches.
So although I have been tempted to give up on the Church of England, I feel that on principle I ought not to.
Another reason I have stayed, however, is that when the Church of England decided it would ordain women priests, it also decided that the decision was not absolute. Instead, the phrase that was coined was ‘a period of reception’, meaning that it would go ahead with a move that seemed right to the majority of its decision-making body, but without prejudice to whether this was right or not. (Incidentally, this makes further nonsense of the 1975 ‘decision’ that there were no “fundamental” theological objections to the ordination of women. If that was what the Synod really believed, it would have acted accordingly.)
What this means, however, is that every woman who has been ordained in the Church of England has done so knowing that not everyone else accepts this should (or could) have happened. Now that is tough, but there are other denominations they could have joined which would not have presented them with the same problem. Only a day or so ago, I was yet again invited to leave the Church of England by someone who thinks I should go (actually, he tends to do this quite a lot!). But why should the boot not be on the other foot? So I stay knowing that everyone knows we are a ‘mixed economy’ denomination on this issue.
And then thirdly I stay — or at least I stayed — because I and others like me were assured of fair treatment. Unfortunately, it is on this third point that problems have developed and are getting worse.
We hear a lot about equality today, and there is a widespread insistence that people are treated ‘equally’ at every possible opportunity.
In 1993, as the ordination of women to the priesthood was brought in, the Church of England similarly committed itself to treat those on both sides of the debate equally. Thus the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod (which is still in force) stated as its first principle that,
There will be no discrimination against candidates either for ordination or for appointment to senior office in the Church of England on the grounds of their views about the ordination of women to the priesthood.
Unfortunately, that commitment was never upheld, and has now effectively been overturned.
Thus in 2001, just eight years on from the original legislation, the Perry Report on episcopal appointments noted that of the thirty-one diocesan bishops appointed between 1993 and 2000, twenty-seven ordained women and two were already diocesan bishops elsewhere. Only two new bishops did not ordain women, and these were both appointed before 1995 (2:28).
More recently, in 2007 the General Synod report ‘Talent and Calling’ (GS 1650), which looked at the appointments of suffragan bishops, cathedral deans, archdeacons and residentiary canons, made the following observations:
4.6.1 While the proportion of women on the Preferment List and among those holding senior appointments is lower than the proportion of full-time stipendiary clergy who are women, we are pleased to note that action is being taken to address this.
“Quite right, too,” we may respond. But then the report added this:
4.6.2 The proportion of minority ethnic, conservative evangelical and traditional catholic candidates on the Preferment List and among those holding senior appointments would appear to be even lower.
At least regarding conservative evangelicals, that is something of an understatement. It is true that traditionalist Catholics continue to be appointed as both suffragan and (occasionally) diocesan bishops. However, the last Evangelical appointment was in — well, can you guess?
In the past year, however, the discrimination has changed from being subtle (indeed not necessarily proven) to overt. In 2010, the Diocese of Salisbury, as part of the process of looking for a new diocesan bishop, published, as it is required to, a ‘Statement of Needs’. This, however, included the following:
The Bishop will have to be prepared to ordain men and women without discrimination ... and to envisage in due time a female episcopal colleague. (Section 20)
It doesn’t take much of a legal mind to realize that this rides roughshod over the requirement of the Act of Synod that there shall be “no discrimination ... on the grounds of ... views about the ordination of women to the priesthood.”
So what happened in the Vacancy in See Committee to bring about this situation? Did no one spot that this was, in fact, contrary to the Act of Synod? Or did no one care? Discrete enquiries suggest there was some awareness of potential difficulties in this area, but the statement itself was presumably not challenged.
But then should it not have been picked up by the Crown Nominations Commission? After all, this includes some fine minds, well aware of what is legal or not — to say nothing of the two Archbishops. Did they not see a problem? Well, of course the workings of the CNC are strictly confidential (at least in theory), so you can ask (I did), but don’t expect long answers.
What seems clear is that the Salisbury members of the CNC went into the selection process having been given a mandate that contradicted an Act of Synod, which is supposed to represent the ‘mind of the Church of England’. And given that the diocese was not asked to rewrite the Statement and publicly invite a new round of submissions of possible candidates, presumably either the other members of the CNC did not spot the problem, or they spotted it but did not feel it made any material difference.
Meanwhile, we have had two new appointments of Provincial Episcopal visitors, though how long their services will be required is anybody’s guess. Despite belated lobbying from the evangelical constituency, however, both of them are traditionalist Anglo-Catholics.
So when will the next Conservative Evangelical be appointed as a bishop in the Church of England. I don’t know. But the last one — and the way things are going he might actually turn out to be the last one — was in 1997, fourteen years ago.
John RichardsonPlease give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted.