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”.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: