History, it is sometimes said, is the propaganda of the victors. It is, nevertheless, the duty of both sides to ensure the accuracy of that account – not least that the errors that led to conflict should not be repeated.
In a fascinating and revealing recent interview in another place, Archbishop John Habgood reflected on the process and effect of the ordination of women to the priesthood.
He conceded that the democratic process of the church “is vulnerable to people who have axes to grind” and that, in the case of the women priests issue, “the long process of gestation took place right outside the structures of the church.”
In these conclusions he is correct. The “gestation” and politicization took place in groups often deeply hostile to the Christian faith, whose aim was both theological and sociological – the overturning of the doctrine of creation, the Fatherhood of God and the determinative uniqueness of the Son. That such an issue could appear as “second order” and succeed in undermining the fellowship, unity and apostolicity of the church is a terrible indictment of church government.
Dr Habgood goes on to say that though there is no theological case against, it would have been better to go over the ground again “to make sure it was more secure”. The former is, at best, a point of view and not the first time he has shown how little grasp he has of the doctrinal and ethical understanding of those who hold a less liberal view of Scripture and revelation.
He was asked if he would like to ordain women. He replied, “No, not particularly; nor would I dislike to.” It was simply “convenient” that he did not.
This is scarcely a ringing endorsement of a venture that has proved so ruinous to the bishops’ vocation to be a sign of unity.
But the most contentious suggestion is that the bishops were “pushed” and precipitated into this action “by the rest of the Church”. This will not hold water.
The truth is that most of the church was indifferent to the issue and disbelieving of the likely consequences until too late.
The bishops had an effective veto on any proposal, which they never sought to exercise. Rather it was the bishops who had been driving the church hard down that road for some time.
Many bishops pushed for women deacons as a political move with not the slightest intention of developing the diaconate. This left many women in an impossible and deeply frustrating limbo. Most bishops, to which Dr Habgood is an honourable exception, created dioceses in which opposition became synonymous with exclusion and marginalisation. In many not a single questioning voice was to be heard on the Bishop’s staff or in the Cathedral Close. Many of the church’s best leaders are now retiring or resigning unused. That is a scandal.
And no-one can forget the bullying and emotional blackmail that surrounded many lay synod members in the November of 1992.
The process was unholy and unworthy of the Church of Christ.
If we are to live together and work together it is essential for the bishops to accept their responsibility for this. They must pledge, for the sake of the gospel, to end that injustice against the people whose only “crime” has been to hold to the teaching of the Church. And to repeal the deeply discredited appointment system which has seen a dangerous centralisation of power and patronage while, according to the Archbishop, leaving them powerless to defend the unity and apostolicity of the church.
It is in no-one’s interest to have a system where bishops are perceived to be powerful yet claim to be impotent, long to be loved but end their days distrusted, want to be pastors but are experienced as persecutors.
The hand of reconciliation will not be spurned but action is required in every diocese and at every appointment level and pastoral opportunity.