Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Yes, we WERE wrong about theological convictions and the women bishops amendments

In a post a couple of days ago, I questioned whether some of the protagonists in the debate about the House of Bishop’s amendments to the women bishops legislation — WATCH, Forward in Faith, individual bishops and even myself — hadn’t got it wrong.
As I pointed out, everyone seems to be assuming these amendments mean that (to quote WATCH, for example), “the amended legislation gives [parishes] the right to have ministry from someone with their own theological conviction”.
Thanks to a correspondent who has drawn my attention to one of the preparatory papers for General Synod, I can now confirm that we were indeed all wrong, although as is often the case, it’s a bit complicated.
The paper in question, GS 1708-09ZZ, not only gives a comprehensive outline of the House of Bishop’s deliberations about all the amendments it considered under article 7 of the Synod’s constitution, but also, and most importantly, a legal interpretation of the meaning of the two that were passed.
This is what it says about the amendment which now stands as clause 5 (1) (c):
... the amendment does not require, or indeed permit, the giving of guidance which would allow parishes to ask for bishops or priests whose theological convictions on the consecration or ordination of women were the same as their own: rather, the guidance must be directed to the end that the exercise of ministry by the bishop or priest, rather than their theological convictions, should be consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women underlying the Letter of Request. [Emphasis added]
Nothing could be clearer, and indeed we were all wrong: “the amendment does not ... permit ... parishes to ask for bishops or priests whose theological convictions ... were the same as their own”.
But, like I said, it is complicated, since it will require that “the exercise of ministry by the bishop or priest ... should be consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration or ordination of women underlying the Letter of Request.”
So it all depends on what you mean by ‘the exercise of ministry’. In the case of a bishop, this might impose some obvious requirements — specifically that he neither have been consecrated by, nor have been involved in the ordination or consecration of, women.
At the present time, however, there are plenty in the former category and I gather there are some in the latter who, though they themselves agree with the ordination of women, choose not to ordain any out of respect for the consciences of objectors in their own dioceses.
As I suggested in the scenario presented in my previous post, however, the question is actually more complex regarding parish priests. And this is because they have to preach to and teach a local congregation on a regular basis — in this case a congregation that has requested their ministry on the grounds of a particular and distinctive theological conviction.
You might assume, therefore, that one of the things that ought to be preached and taught would be the principles leading to the conclusion that women ought not to be priests or bishops in the Church of England.
The law, however, does not — indeed we are told cannot — require the priest in question to share the theological convictions of the petitioning parishioners. It is “the exercise of ministry by the bishop or priest, rather than their theological convictions” which must be consistent with the theological convictions behind the letter of request. Might this not therefore create a situation where a parish priest taught one thing, whilst making it clear that his personal convictions lay in the other direction?
Some people may be wondering how this could be possible. How could someone hold one set of theological convictions themselves, but exercise their ministry in a manner consistent with another, differing, set of theological convictions? My answer is two words: Rowan Williams.
One of the difficulties all the way through Rowan Williams’s archepiscopate has been the fact that he personally has apparently no objections to same sex relationships (viz. The Body’s Grace), but he has explicitly chosen to conduct his ministry in accordance with the contrary official view (as stated by General Synod) of the Church of England. This has won him few friends. Indeed, some would say it has been an enormous problem. But you still have to credit the man with having carried it off to a certain degree.
So we come back to the bishops and clergy to be appointed under the proposed legislation. One thing is clear: they will not personally have to share the convictions of petitioning parishes. In law, they could quite legitimately hold one view and exercise their ministry according to another.
Some may feel this is satisfactory because the possibility is only theoretical. Personally, though I think one is ill-advised to be bound by a contract, the exercise of which could theoretically be to one’s disadvantage.
Others will feel this is a nonsense. How can we legally set up a situation where someone can say one thing and do another, especially when it comes to ministry in the Church where integrity and honesty ought to be prime values (“Let your ‘yes’ be yes and your ‘no’ no”)?
The impression I am increasingly getting is that the proposed legislation is indeed too much for some and too little for others. I am quite glad not to have to vote on it in July, but my advice to those who do is “read the small print”.
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  1. One has to ask, just what does this "ministry" amount to, when it is no more than an occasional (or even rare) visit by a bishop, probably based many miles away, to conduct a service or to Confirm (assuming that the diocesan bishop gives permission for that)?

    Surely the life of the Church is far more than sporadic visits from a bishop? The rest of the time a parish will remain 100% under the jurisdiction and control of a diocesan bishop of which it disapproves, and may not even wish to be in communion with.

    We know all too well what life is like in such a situation. Candidates for ordination are heavily discriminated against at interview. If they make it through to training, they find themselves under pressure to attend a liberal college or course, which is designed to make them conform to the official line.

    Clergy are treated as pariahs in diocesan life, frequently made to remain in the same place for many years, disqualified from preferment by the Appointments Secretary, and bullied by all kinds of diocesan officialdom.

    Is this life as we would like it to be? Does anyone seriously think that these ambiguous amendments are even going to preserve the status quo, let alone make things better?

    We need to defeat this bad Measure, and out of the ruins it has erected, negotiate a much more balanced piece of legislation which treats everyone even handedly. We might even end up with a better Church of England.

  2. There is a certain irony here.

    John has raised an issue about appointing incumbents, which has risen out of legislation for bishops. Surely PCCs make judgements about all kinds of theology, e.g. charismatic issues. Would someone make a fuss for not getting appointed for being too/not enough charismatic?

    On getting a bishop that "agrees with us", WATCH make it sound like such a bad thing. In fact, we don't have that now and were merely asking to fit certain requirements (mentioned by John above). Could WATCH and other supporters of women bishops honestly say that there are ANY bishops that they are truly unhappy with? Conservatives are usually make the best of a non-ideal situation. The only gripe WATCH et al can have as that women aren't included among a group that pretty much agree with them. So it's easy to make the jibe, "you just want bishops like you".

    Look at the fuss made over the new +Chichester. So, maybe 3 Diocesans out of 42 are "like us" (on that issue, but not in many other important ways).

    I think it's time to think seriously, about what a church-bishop relationship should be (if some evangelicals think they are even needed) and work from there.

    Darren Moore

  3. Actually it IS legislation for incumbents as well as bishops. It is the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure. It removes the arrangements made for parishes in the 1992 Measure. WATCH even wants to prevent us from having clergy and bishops who are sympathetic to what we believe and teach.

  4. That's fine. If they're not allowed to choose by "who agrees" with them either.

  5. There is something that I am unclear about, what happens when a church/PCC disagree with the theology of a bishop (or have a female diocesan) and they look to appoint a new vicar? Can they get in a "flying bishop" to do the induction service? And if this is the case, is it not creating a third province?
    And then there's the question of the swearing of allegiance to the diocesan bishop and all the other fun and games that getting a new vicar can lead to. And what about when a new bishop is appointed and the change is from an anti-women bishops to a female bishop? What about all the sworn allegiances to the previous one?
    This is getting messier and messier the more I think about it!

  6. It's a right pig's breakfast. No change then from the Elizabethan settlement. When you mix Calvinists and Catholics and everybody else it's sure to fail .

    The state church kids itself that it minister to everybody in its parish. It never did and it never will!

    1. Hello Anonymous. You are making some interesting points, but please can you identify yourself, in accordance with the conventions on this blog?

      Many thanks

      David Brock, Saffron Walden

  7. This makes church planting - and Bishops' Mission Orders - more difficult, I should imagine, unless anyone knows different. Given how much bishop time and effort is often required to plant a church within the C of E, isn't this just going to cause more problems?

    Rob B