Robbie Low recalls the Day of Decision 1992

Anniversaries mean different things to different people. The celebration of silver, ruby, gold and diamond wedding anniversaries are celebrated with joy in inverse proportion to their increasing rarity while, alongside, there are many for whom the celebrations of others are a poignant reminder of their own disappointments, Nevertheless the triumph of love and faithfulness stirs all but the hardest heart to thanksgiving, and vicariously bathes the whole community in a sense of solidarity and achievement.

Anniversaries of death, on the other hand, rekindle that strange mixture of sorrow and loss with long memories of life past and heartfelt longings for the life that is to come. Bereavement ensures past and future are seldom absent from the focus of the present.

November, in the West, is the season of the dead. The Feasts of All Saints and All Souls begin the glorious and final ascent to the proclamation of the victory of Christ the King.

November, for the Church of England, however, contains another anniversary. More than most anniversaries, this one indeed means different things to different people. This month we recall the day, ten years ago, when the General Synod of the Church of England, at the behest of the Archbishops and most of its bishops voted to ordain women to the priesthood. For the fervent lobbyists waiting outside Church House, it was a time of unrestrained joy, laughter and dancing in the street. For others it was the final sign that the CofE’s claim to catholicity was now nothing more than – perhaps had never been more than – a comforting historical pretence.

A decade on we can look back at that historic moment, recall the promises and begin to take stock of what has been achieved. The victors will, no doubt, get their share of BBC air-time to proclaim what a marvellous success women priests have been and how much we need women bishops. Temporarily absent, I suspect, will be the constant complaints about how badly they have been treated by the very men who voted for them, and for whom they have had to work. They will forget the uncomfortable figure that more women belonged to organizations opposed to this scriptural disobedience than ever supported MOW (Movement for the Ordination of Women).

The ‘losers’ will recognize an anniversary in whose ‘joy’ they cannot share. For them it has been a bereavement: the loss of their church. But it has also become a long-running and bloody divorce in which the unfaithful partner relentlessly seeks sole custody of all the property and offspring.

At the same time the ‘losers’ have gained much. Elsewhere in this issue Fr. Andy Hawes catalogues the great gifts that have come our way. Above all, I suspect, we have been forced back on our faith, Holy Scripture and the Traditions of the Church and rediscovered in adversity, the importance and irrepressible vitality of orthodoxy.

Conquered priesthood

The roots of November 11 lie only partly in Anglican history. The liberal critical schools of theology, with no Roman magisterium or Orthodox wisdom to impede them, had laid siege to the fortress of Protestant biblical authority for a century and a half. Personal interpretation and feelings masquerading as the Holy Spirit widened the breach and led a regiment of heresies inside. The secular philosophy of feminism, a bastard daughter of Marxism, had, by 1992, invaded every area of educational and political life. Its materialism, egalitarianism and misanthropy, coupled with its contempt for marriage and its war on the unborn, made a weakened, cringingly apologetic Western Christianity its natural target. Few of the benign supporters of women priests understood the nature of this battle. Most assumed it was just about being nice to other people and letting them get on with their lives. The last decade has been something of a re-education. The consequences of that vote have affected every area of belief, practice, government, worship, evangelism and ecumenism ever since.

Most of us, I suspect, can remember where we were when the news of the vote came through. I was waiting by the phone for Sara, my wife, to call. Her maiden speech had been one of the strongest of the morning session and would lead directly to the Catholic movement inviting her to use her publishing skills to put the orthodox case. Within six months ‘Directions’ was born. The day before the vote our former parish priest, now a bishop, introduced Sara to a ‘woman who will help you think about the issues’ (and get the right answer). Moments after the vote our former Principal, now a liberal bishop, told Sara he would quite understand if she now decided to become a Roman Catholic. It was a small foretaste of the patronizing attitude women priests could expect from their highly placed male supporters.

When we had spoken and consoled each other, I made three calls. I telephoned three women who hoped to be ordained, with whom Sara and I had been on friendly terms and whose parish work as deaconesses we admired. We wished each other well, congratulating and commiserating respectively, and promised to continue to pray for each other. I have never forgotten their immediate responses. One said simply ‘We have conquered the priesthood and we stand in awe of what we have done’. She is now tutor at my old theological college.

The second said gently, ‘If I had been allowed the range of ministry in my liberal parish that lay women in your traditional parish fulfill I would never have sought ordination.’ The third was simply overwhelmed and wept. She later hesitated over ordination but was bullied into it (‘We need eucharistic hands’, ‘Turning down priesthood will make people wonder about your sexuality’ and so on.) A few years in she had a breakdown.

The following day, and for weeks ahead, the phone never stopped ringing and the mailbox was full of anguished letters for Sara. Desperate priests and laity who felt they could no longer talk to their bishops who had, in overwhelming numbers, betrayed them.

The Archdeacon put his visiting card through my letterbox and fled. It said, literally ‘Just called to share in your pain etc etc’. Luckily for him, he fled up the path before I read it; or he would indeed have shared in my pain…and some.

The remnant

Far and away the most pastoral letter came from my old friend and neighbour the Rabbi. It was a brief note. By a strange coincidence, he wrote November 11 was the anniversary for Jews of Jeroboam’s fateful decision to divide Israel and to defect from the worship of the one true God. We remember that though Jeroboam’s ten tribes were in the majority they were lost to history. We are still here. He did not need to draw the obvious conclusion.

It is interesting to look back and trace the pattern of events that led to the Anglican schism. The Episcopal Church USA had already invented provincial autonomy – a device that Dr Carey was to find so useful in arguing for his ‘pioneering’ work on feminism and now, ironically, finds so unacceptable in other people’s ‘pioneering’ work on homosexuality.

In 1970s England, however, the cloud appeared no bigger than a man’s hand. True there had been a report that there were no theological objections to ordaining women but it was difficult to take such a manifest lie seriously. The Great Communions objected. Catholic Anglicans pointed to the inevitable disorder, uncertainty about sacraments and lack of authority. Evangelicals, a growing band, pointed to convincing contra-indications in Scripture. The consistent teaching and practice of the Church indicate this was a practice, where it occurred at all, limited to pagans and heretics. How the lie was maintained was less an exercise in theological intelligence than a combination of flagrant politicking, wholesale abuse of patronage and a large helping of emotional guilt.

For the decade or so preceding 1992, women’s ordination became the ‘King Charles’s head’ of all Anglican discussion. Theological colleges were fed women candidates – experimentally, of course, and just for the deaconess ministry. There, as a mixture of exemplar and emotional battering ram, their presence was intended to make orthodox dissenters seem uncharitable. Liberal bishops (a group which included a growing band of former catholics and evangelicals collapsing before the secular imperative) increasingly used patronage as reward (or punishment), determined by a priest’s response, not to the Resurrection of Christ, but to the proposed novelty.

General Synod was persuaded to admit deacons to the House of Clergy, thereby sweeping the most determined advocates of feminism into the Synod. This radically distorted the representation of women. Only one sort of ‘woman view’ could be represented there – no orthodox women wanted to be priests and only a tiny number sought diaconate. It also ensured an automatic 10% block vote advantage on any debate relating to ‘women’s issues’. Catholics, who voted for this change in good faith, woke up, very late, to the real political agenda behind what masqueraded as a theological change.

For the two years up to the decisive vote, battle was waged throughout the deaneries of the kingdom. Synodical elections were fought on one issue alone. Deanery representatives had undergone a mysterious change. The usual well-meaning unfortunates who had traditionally drawn the short straw were mysteriously replaced, in many places, by fervent advocates of the new order. Those who spoke at Deanery debates (Sara and I led for the orthodox in 17 out of 22 Deaneries of our diocese, often against dignitaries) will never forget the experience. All scripture bowed before Galatians 3: 28, and that was wrenched from context and given an understanding unrecognizable to any other generation of the faith. Practical considerations of priesthood combined with motherhood were swept aside as patriarchal and sexist prejudice. The question of ecumenical responsibility revealed the real religion of many – a deep hatred of Roman Catholicism, as Protestants leapt upon a golden opportunity to disable ARCIC. The question of authority was dealt with summarily with an assertion of provincial autonomy. It would later degenerate into diocesan, and inevitably, parochial autonomy, and come back to haunt us from across the pond on other matters. My own diocesan, John Taylor (St Albans), when asked by what authority he would ordain women replied, unforgettably ‘Because we have managed to dilute the priesthood to the point where we can fudge a lot of other ministries into it.’ Much of the surrounding conversation betrayed that he had never really believed in the ministerial priesthood. He was not alone.

All this while, as Deanery Synods, (whose membership was made up unelected activists) ground out the desired results, the parishes remained almost entirely unconsulted – a position that remains to this day. In the wake of the great pleas for ‘justice’ and ‘a period of reception’ the parishes would soon find that what had been advertised as ‘permissive legislation’ would, in effect, become the new Test Act.

Relentless lobbying

It must also be remembered that the 1992 proposals were not the first time this issue had been debated. Each time previously the Holy Spirit had been invoked and each time the proposals had been rejected. The proponents were determined to bring it forward until the Holy Spirit got it right – and then there would be no more votes. So monotonous and oppressive was the lobbying that it was fair to say that many church folk felt exhausted by it and would almost of done anything to end the row and get on with the task of the Church.

But there was one last round of lobbying to do. This went largely unnoticed and, as far as I am aware, unreported to this day. The previous Synod meeting in York saw a preliminary vote on the issue. The proponents lost it. However it did enable them to identify members of the House of laity who had voted against. (The laity were the key as the House of Bishops and Clergy were now safely packed with placemen and fellow travellers). There followed a campaign of telephoning and visiting recalcitrant laity. Liberal vicars descended upon them, asking what right they thought they had to inhibit someone else’s vocation. It was little wonder that some laity arrived for the November Synod in a nervous and emotionally overwrought state.

On the morning of the second day the motion was proposed by the Bishop of Guildford, Michael Adie. Adie was a strange choice. Never a convincing speaker, he chose to major on the very weakest parts of the proponent’s case – scripture and tradition. In an extraordinary and memorable line Adie claimed that women priests were ‘consonant with scripture and required by tradition’. It was a demonstrable untruth that was angrily demolished by the Bishop of Newcastle (Alec Graham).

Adie went on to assure everyone that ‘I, fellow bishops and many others will work strenuously to keep space in every ministry of the Church for those who for different reasons have difficulty with the ordination of women.’ Ten years on we know the cash value of that promise.

David Silk, then Archdeacon of Leicester, opposing, rounded on the absurdity of provisional orders and sacraments and the undermining of an orthodox episcopate. The legislation, he went on ‘invites a provincial synod, without warrant in scripture or tradition, to act as though it were an ecumenical council.’

Perhaps the pithiest demolition of the legislation came in the opening paragraph of Mrs Dorothy Chatterley’s speech. It is worth recalling in full:

‘Clause 1 successfully jettisons revealed truth and ecclesial authority in favour of a unilateral expression of so called provincial autonomy quite unknown to the New Testament and expressed in bogus understandings of reception and co-existence which are grounded in a breach of communion and a provisionality of both ministry and sacrament

Clause 2 establishes a novel two tier episcopate which successfully ensures that every diocesan bishop is out of communion with at least some of his clergy and makes it impossible, whatever codes of practice say, for anyone conscientiously opposed to the ordination of women to accept appointment as a diocesan bishop’

In the event they would not be asked. Chatterley was right about ‘ the institutionalization of division’ and her conclusion is a fitting epitaph to the Carey years. ‘Mistrust, marginalisation and mayhem’.

Carey’s errors

Appropriate, too, as she spoke directly after Dr Carey’s impassioned plea to Synod to pass the measure. His was a speech shot through with grave errors. He claimed authority to proceed because Article XX made it clear that the Church of England ‘hath … authority in controversies of faith.’ Article XX says no such thing. It says ‘the Church’ has authority – a very different matter – and the rest of the article, had he bothered to read or quote it, would have fatally undermined the arrogation of such power by a mere part of it.

The other extraordinary misunderstanding was his interpretation of the account in Acts of the Apostles of the inclusion of the Gentiles. Like much of Dr Carey’s ministry it owes more to the priority of his own charismatic experience than to a convincing exposition of the Word of God. The events of Acts 10 are validated at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) precisely because they are a fulfillment of the consistent prophecies of the Old Testament and, indeed, the original promise to Abraham. No such parallel can be argued for the ordination of women.

Proponents like Pete (now Bishop) Broadbent and Dr Christina Baxter struggled to dismantle the traditional understanding of ‘headship’. The Bishops of Birmingham and Ely mounted a twin assault on the ecumenical argument. Birmingham (Mark Santer), our ARCIC representative, acknowledged the Catholic position, but urged us to prefer credibility with the world and to subjugate scripture and the tradition of the church to what ‘makes sense to the Christian mind’. The Bishop of Ely (Stephen Sykes) seemed to have identified a substantial body of opposition to Papal teaching in the Roman Church itself, and went on to enlist even Hooker (who opposed women priests) in support.

The speeches in favour were noticeably the weaker. A series of firecrackers from the Bishop of Newcastle, Sara Low and Hugh Craig saw luncheon taken with the debate swinging to orthodoxy. And lunch was crucial.

For those listening and watching, some of the momentum seemed to have been lost. But it was more serious than that. Friends of the Archbishop of Canterbury let it be known in the corridors that he would regard losing the vote as a resigning matter. It is doubtful if anyone who knew Dr Carey took this seriously but, in the heated atmosphere of that Synod, some clergy and not a few laity were alarmed by the prospect of such a crisis.

Smooth men

The afternoon began with the emollient Professor Maclean assuring us that nothing beastly would happen and all would be light and peace. But, of the proponents, he came nearest to acknowledging the necessary reality of the end of orthodoxy in the episcopate. He did it with a suavity which made it sound like a job opportunity. Habgood (Archbishop of York) backed him up. Dioceses, of course, could have orthodox bishops ‘if we really want them’. As Maclean and Habgood must have known, life is not quite as simple as that on the Crown Appointments Commission.

Powerful speeches from the Bishops of Sheffield (David Lunn) and Doncaster (Bill Persson) outlined the fatal undermining of scripture and defended the doctrine of creation. Seldom has prophesy been so rapidly fulfilled. Within hours of the vote the gay lobby was, quite understandably, arguing that if scripture didn’t mean what it said about male/female relationships then its cultural conditioning invalidated its strictures on same sex relationships.

Women ordinands spoke movingly about their desire to ‘have their vocation tested’ and of their hopes for the Church. But the most effective speeches for the proponents came from the bishops of Southwark (Roy Williamson) and Durham (David Jenkins). They were, especially the latter, emotion- fests and largely content-free zones. Southwark majored on justice, and Durham on our shame and despair at refusing women their rights. It is worth re-reading their speeches. This senior evangelical and senior theologian do not wrestle with the Scripture, order, sacraments or doctrine. But it was a day when emotion was always likely to outgun wisdom.

John (now Bishop) Broadhurst intervened to correct two of the most dire speeches of the morning, and Margaret Laird gave us an eloquent warning on the fate of a disobedient church.

The Bishop of Guildford, to his credit, concluded by warning against voting ‘on a wave of emotion’. But he must have known, especially after Jenkins and Williamson, that it was vain counsel. The Archbishop uttered the fateful word ‘Divide’ and that is what the Church of England has done every since.

Real results

Ten years on it is possible to make some assessment of the claims of both sides in this long-running debate.

Women priests are now ten per cent of the workforce of the Church of England. Women are archdeacons and deans but not, of course, bishops. Arguments from ‘headship’ remain powerful in that area, and the Rochester Commission is finding it hard to envisage any kind of progress or settlement that will not involve further massive upheaval and breakdown of communion. Women bishops, in current revisionist Anglican ecclesiology, are an inevitability; but it is increasingly clear that a substantial portion of the church will not ‘receive’ them. Bishops are already out of communion with some of their priests, their ministry rejected. Few can still act as a focus of unity or, indeed, act like a bishop at all.

The proponents much vaunted promise that the ordination of women will make us credible with the world and revive the churches proved empty. Those who warned that liberalism had emptied the Episcopal Church USA have seen the same phenomenon here. The Decade of Evangelism saw some 20% overall loss of membership for the CofE, mainly men. Although 500 priests, mostly Catholics, resigned only the Catholics have held their numbers.

The overturning of Scriptural authority has had predictable consequences. It has proved quite impossible for those who voted for the measure to seek to impose Scriptural authority on other issues. Disabled for twenty years by rows about feminism, the CofE looks set for a decade of rancorous division on homosexuality.

Those who denied that there was a ‘liberal agenda’ have been undone by events. Recent research has revealed that women priests are consistently low on credal orthodoxy and equally unreliable on Christian ethics. It is no consolation to discover that the liberal male priests and bishops who support them are even more heterodox.

In order to maintain the new way, of course, it has been necessary to prefer squadrons of these supporters into positions of authority.

On the subject of appointments we were promised fair play for the orthodox. We knew it was a lie. So it has proved. What is much worse, is the consequent result of that mixture of fraud and farce, the Crown Appointments Commission, together with the knock on effect on suffragan selection and all other appointments. So desperate has been the desire for quiescent solidarity in the new doctrine that they haven’t even chosen the best of the proponents. We have been subjected to government by rank heretics and compliant inadequates. To pretend that this is the work of the Holy Spirit is, frankly, blasphemy.

And finally ecumenism. The CofE has effectively turned away from the great communions. What is there left to say? Stitching together deals with the Porvoo Communion to undermine apostolicity will be followed by sacramental and episcopal compromise with the Methodists to gain their property and pension finds.

Ten years on we are, as a church, much poorer, much smaller, less believing and completely divided. It is what always happens when a church prefers secular culture to the Word of God.

Robbie Low is Vicar of St Peter’s, Bushey Heath in the Diocese of St Alban’s.