An Indifferent Solution

ON THE PRINCIPLE that most people eventually see that there are some activities better done from the inside of a tent looking out rather than from the outside of a tent looking in I had, I must confess, rather hoped that my private member’s motion in favour of women bishops would have resulted by now in discreet suggestions of possible preferment. The last person to place such a motion was elevated to a deanery. I was just beginning seriously to consider the Grade A listed property with mature wisteria sinensis, an autumnal effulgence of pathenocissus and the odd magnolia grandiflora. But alas it is not to be.

It seems not only that the House of Bishops (like the Garrick) has firmly decided not to admit the ladies (except on guest nights), but that WATCH and its associates are so afraid that the principles of the Act of Synod might be continued indefinitely – and thus oblige them to admit that they had not after all, finally, definitively and absolutely won – that they are instructing their supporters not to sign. That, of course, was to be expected. They want to win; that was the point of it all. The only conclusion which could satisfy the ‘natural justice’ arguments of Roy Williamson on November 11, 1992 is one in which Canon A4 rules OK.

For the benefit of those who do not have a copy of the Canons immediately to hand I will quote it in full. (WATCH’s concerns appear in this version in bold type).

The Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons, annexed to the Book of Common Prayer and commonly known as the Ordinal, is not repugnant to the Word of God; and those who are so made, ordained, or consecrated bishops, priests, or deacons, according to the said Ordinal, are lawfully made, ordained, or consecrated, and ought to be accounted, both by themselves and others, to be truly bishops, priests, or deacons.

What the Act of Synod and Bonds of Peace do (as the bishops who wrote them must surely realise) is to cross out (or at least put into subscript) all those parts of that admirable and incontrovertible Canon which I have high-lighted. In effect they make of the orders of the Church a matter of private judgement: George Carey thinks that he ordains women to the priesthood and I think that he does not. Such a state of affairs is unsatisfactory from most points of view, but especially so for those whose notions of basic ‘fairness’ and ‘natural justice’ are closely involved.

So what can they do? They want women to be bishops – indeed women bishops are a logical necessity in the development of their argument – and yet they are wholly unprepared to make any compromises to get them. They do not like my private member’s motion because it is seen as a cynical manoeuvre to gain more concessions for opponents, and yet they cannot risk putting down an alternative, which would blow the gaff on the Act of Synod and turn the Bonds of Peace into an arena of strife.

It seems that they will just have to wait; which, alas, is a task for which single issue pressure groups are notoriously ill-suited.

There has been much talk of a ‘period of reception’, and of its extension or fore-closure. But I fear that we have all been less than honest about what it is that we are ‘receiving’. The assumption is that we are ‘receiving’, or possibly rejecting, the priesthood of women. But considered rationally that can scarcely be the case.

For those in favour of the innovation the matter is practically, if not theoretically irreversible; and for those opposed, opposition has become something of a way of life. Like Basque separatists or Welsh language campaigners they are unlikely to change their opinions in large numbers and may well be driven to civil disobedience in the attempt.

No. What is being received is the idea that orders can properly be a matter of private judgement. We are learning how to live together with a fundamental disagreement. This is an interesting experiment, at one and the same time on the periphery and at the heart of ecumenism.

I take to the orders of ordained Anglican women the same attitude that the Pope takes to my orders – that they are absolutely null and utterly void. But I feel no compulsion, in order to do so, to form a Church of my own or to join his. I have every intention of continuing precisely where I am and will use every available means to make my position tenable, if not comfortable.

The irony is that opponents of women priests are infinitely more adaptable to the sort of post-modern indifferentism which such an eventuality requires than are supporters. In the matter of sacramental theology, for example, we made the accommodation years ago. Only when an evangelical archdeacon with Zwinglian opinions quizzes me on his annual visitation about the security of my tabernacle do I even notice that the C. of E. is home to differing and often mutually exclusive sacramental theologies.

But women priests, on the other hand, need public recognition. They need Canon A4; it is a necessary weapon in the on-going struggle against patriarchalism, misogyny and all the other sins of God the Father. And they need women bishops. For them it is one thing to be ecumenical with those in a sister Church who cannot accept their orders, and quite another to live in amity with the same opinion in their own.

The danger for them in delaying women bishops, for reasons which can only be pragmatic and political, if not downright cynical, is that the majority of Anglicans may get used to the idea that orders are a matter of private judgement. They may even, such is the nature of Anglicanism, begin to claim it as a virtue. Before long there will be collections of essays edited by Paul Avis or Stephen Sykes saying that such a development is eminently desirable; and learned addenda by Henry McAdoo saying that it was all right by Hooker.

It is not unknown for a political campaign to achieve the opposite of what its originators intended. In this case they wanted to admit women to the orders of the Church Universal: but they will have succeeded merely in altering the Church of England’s perception of those orders beyond all recognition.

English Heritage should put a preservation order on Canon A4, which is in danger of being accidentally demolished in the fracas.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.