This month the General Synod will begin its consideration of the Rochester Report on the possibility and consequences of women bishops in the Church of England. Beginning with that debate, and stretching over the next eighteen months, the synod has an unique and probably final opportunity to resolve the fundamental issue that has absorbed so much of the church’s energy, broken its communion and hindered its mission in recent years. It can only do so by addressing uncomfortable realities and it must do so against the background of ominous and discouraging signs.
The optimistic promises of 1992 have evaporated like morning mist. The ‘revival’ turned out, in reality, to be a near twenty per cent loss of membership. Last month’s figures for Sunday attendance 2003, for all the massage and spin, declare the second decade of women priests to be on course for a similar decline. In addition we know that the overwhelming majority of adult losses are men and that the rate of male departure is only exceeded by that of the church’s children.
The hope that the Great Communions would recognise the noble pioneering work of Anglicans in the field of feminism and follow suit has been long buried. Even the wildest liberal fantasist recognises that effective ecumenical relations have entered a new ice age.
Similarly those who believed Archbishop Carey’s enthusiastic assurance that there was no connection between disordering the Church and a rejection of orthodox doctrine and ethics have almost daily evidence to the contrary.
If that is the dark background to this time of decision, the uncomfortable realities of the particular are no less obvious. The C.of E. is in a mess of its own making. Only the theologically illiterate could accept women priests without women bishops but that was the 1992 result of the political tail wagging the doctrinal dog. Only the heterodox would accept either. The consequence has been that the heterodox have rapidly and irresistibly come to occupy key positions of authority at every level. The last twelve years have simply proved that the C.of E. is divided into those for whom women priests/bishops is an irreducible minimum and those for whom this teaching and practice is and always will be incompatible with the faith of the Church. No amount of theological evidence or gloomy statistics will convince the proponents of their error. No amount of cultural influence or political pressure will convince opponents to accept unscriptural experimentation with holy order. A sacrament that is based on doubt is not a sacrament.
These are irreconcilable positions. A final settlement that seeks to hold together the Church of England must recognise this. The arrangements put in place post 1992 promised permanence, tolerance and fair play. These were short lived fantasies. The emotional promises that the bishops made to each other had little cash value when dealing with lesser mortals. The fund of goodwill turned out, in most dioceses, to be in deficit and trust was an early casualty. The attempt to avoid legal protection for the settlement left the door open to temptation and a persistent pattern of abuse by diocesan authorities. Marginalised clergy simply pulled up the parish drawbridge. When the Blackburn Report, the longest and most painstaking in Synod history, reviewed this unhappy picture, Synod dismissed its findings without the benefit of debate.
Now it has all returned to haunt Synod again. If Synod comes to agree that to compound its error is less costly than to question it and proceeds to the consecration of women as bishops, Rochester offers seven options. Five of these, in truth, are bizarre and unworkable compromises which either demean the episcopate or insult women and are theologically unsustainable (see ‘Options’ series ND passim). There are only two serious options. One is a single clause measure that removes the fig leaf of tolerance once and for all and simply presses on to the goal of the feminisation of the church. There is little doubt that, going plain contrary to the 1993 legislation and undermining all safeguards, this would result in an endless series of constructive dismissal claims and legal challenges lasting years up to the European Court of Human Rights. It is a prospect of another decade of increasingly embittered civil war as every parish, livelihood and asset is contested.
The other option is a ‘structural solution’ as proposed often in these columns, not least by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself. The last twelve years have demonstrated that voluntary arrangements and codes of practice were never going to be enough and, all too often, brought out the worst in everybody. A ‘structural solution’, a ‘province’ if you will, enshrined in law and practice will give each side the freedom to live their faith and concentrate on the urgent mission of the Church in this land. It would also allow that space and confidence for Anglicans who have been alienated from one another by the unhappy experiences of recent years, to begin rebuilding friendships and, wherever possible, working together once again to the glory of God.
ho speaks for the Christian faith? This is an increasingly urgent question, as events of the last few weeks have demonstrated yet again..
When the BBC insists on broadcasting a disgusting and prolonged blasphemy (see p17-19) the Churches’ spokesperson defends it as having ‘high artistic merit’.
When Parliament calls the Established Church to hear its views on proposals for euthanasia the bishops, too busy meeting to sort out the various messes they have got themselves into and plot the next Synod, send an ‘adviser’ who promptly sells the pass on this life or death issue.
When the bishops rush to correct the error the episcopal spokesman does not argue that euthanasia is contrary to Christian teaching but rather contrary to the mind of the bishops – a notoriously changeable and unreliable friend of orthodoxy.
When the Government promotes legislation attacking the doctrine of creation and the sacrament of marriage through the House of Lords, who does it rely on to undermine Christian teaching ? A bevy of Anglican bishops !
To misrepresent the mind of the faithful is a grave dereliction. To misrepresent the mind of Christ is a terrible betrayal.