I doubt whether he realized it at the time, but John Secker, the Churchwarden at St Oswald’s Lythe who organized the petition which led the Revd Philip North to stand down from his appointment as Bishop of Whitby, is urging others to break church rules and indeed may be in transgression of those rules himself.
The 1993 Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod, which is of course still in force, states as its first principle the following:
Ordinations and Appointments
1. 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.
Although Mr Secker and other signatories might not themselves be covered by the Act (they are not, after all, involved in the appointments process), the pressure they are exerting is, in fact, encouraging others to do just that.
Any appointment at Whitby which took their request into account would be a violation of the Act of Synod.
However, such violations have already taken place, most explicitly in the appointment of the latest Bishop of Salisbury, where the diocesan statement of needs said that “The Bishop will have to be prepared to ordain men and women without discrimination”. This, of course, was itself clearly in breach of the Act.
Unfortunately, no one picked it up at the time (which seems extraordinary, but is the case) and the appointment went through. But clearly, given the lack of ‘traditionalist’ appointments at every level, such discrimination has been going on for some time.
The situation is confused, however, by the fact that the abortive appointment of Fr North may itself have been in breach of the Act.
According to the Daily Telegraph, the succession of traditionalist catholic bishops at Whitby has been part of ‘an informal arrangement’. And informal arrangements do not seem to be envisaged by the Act.
According to the Act of Synod, a diocesan bishop should ‘make arrangements so far as possible within his own diocese for appropriate care and oversight for clergy and parishes’. Similarly, bishops in a region ‘acting jointly shall from time to time nominate from within their region for the purpose of this Act of Synod one or more bishops who are opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood.’ And of course the Archbishops may operate the scheme of PEVs (Flying Bishops).
So in London, for example, the post of the Bishop of Fulham was more formally linked with the oversight of traditionalist parishes and clergy, in keeping with the first provision of the Act.
The problem in Whitby seems to be that there was no such formal ‘designation’ – hence, presumably, the disappointment of some of those in the Cleveland area who would have expected at least a chance of having a bishop who did support the ordination of women.
The thing to bear in mind — which is often forgotten — is that both those in support of, and those opposed to, the ordination and consecration of women, are faithful Anglicans. In principle, therefore, the good people of Whitby should have been prepared to take what they were given, provided everyone stuck to the rules. And it may be that the signatories of the Cleveland petition are unaware of the nuances of Anglicanism and of the formal provisions still in place, in which case they acted out of ignorance, not in defiance of those rules.
Nevertheless, they have created a doubtless-unforeseen difficulty over Fr North’s replacement, for if the process still follows the rules, the views of his ‘successor’ must be disregarded, in which case they could find themselves back in the same situation as before. However, precisely because Fr North has stood down on the grounds that his views (in his opinion) would make it difficult for him to be a ‘focus of unity’, it is hard to see how his replacement’s views could simply be ignored as the rules actually require. Yet if his replacement does not share his views, it will be hard to avoid the suggestion that the rules have again been broken, this time in the other direction.
Meanwhile, ironically, the action of the Cleveland petitioners contradicts the demand of many supporters of women bishops that people ought not to be able to choose their bishop on the basis of his or her views. In this case, the supporters of women’s ordination are doing exactly that — although one suspects (given the theological position of some of those in support of women bishops) that this demand has at least partly in view the next flashpoint, which will be over bishops’ views on homosexuality.
Of course, one could say the objectors ought not to be allowed to get away with it. Alternatively, one could argue instead that the introduction of one innovation (women bishops) opens the door to others (bishops whose sphere of influence is defined theologically as well as geographically).
Either way, it is ‘another fine mess’.Please give a full name and location when posting. Comments without this information may be deleted. Recommend: