In what looks like a rush to pre-empt the CofE, the Church in Wales has published a draft Bill to enable women to be ordained as bishops. It is a strange confection.
It begins by claiming that it is ‘now appropriate in the Church in Wales that women maybe ordained as bishops.’ The operative words, it seems, are ‘now’ and ‘appropriate’. By them the Bill is asserting two things: that there never was a good or fundamental reason for restricting the episcopal ministry to males, and that in changed circumstances what was once ‘inappropriate’ is now permissible and desirable. This is a large (and as yet unsubstantiated) claim.
The Bill goes on, ‘The Church in Wales is mindful of the provisions of the civil law relating to discrimination upon the basis of gender, and of the need to provide pastoral care and support for those who in conscience object to the ordination of women as bishops.’ There is confusion here, though whether it is deliberate it would be hard to say.
Nothing in the civil law compels the Church in Wales to ordain women to the episcopate. The civil law, indeed, shows a higher degree of theological sophistication than the Church in Wales. It grants that there may be good and fundamental theological grounds for restricting the episcopal ministry to men, and so grants an appropriate exemption. The proposed Bill will remove that exemption, exposing those who cannot accept its provisions to prosecution.
It is, moreover, misleading to describe opponents as ‘those who in conscience object to the ordination of women as bishops.’ Object they most certainly do now. If the Bill is passed, the time for objection will be over. They will then be unable to accept the ministry of the women so ordained. They will hold that those women are not bishops. Even were opponents to trust the pledges which the Bench of Bishops goes on to give, no amount of ‘pastoral care and support’ would be able to mitigate what for them will be a matter of ontology.
There follows a clause even stranger and clumsier than the rest:
‘No Bishop shall be obliged to bring proceedings before the Disciplinary Tribunal in respect of a cleric or other member of the Church in Wales who dissents in conscience from the terms of section I of this Canon.’
This is presumably intended to give some measure of assurance to opponents. Of course it does the opposite. Having removed the exemption that opponents previously had under the civil law (so opening them to secular prosecution by whomsoever), it warns them that prosecution under church law would be dependent on the whim and disposition of the diocesan bishop. What was a doctrinal position respected by both Church and State has been reduced to a theologumenon to be held at the sole discretion of ecclesiastical authority.
The proposed Bill is, in short, a shabby piece of legislation which wilfully restricts the human rights of members of the Church in Wales, both clerical and lay, whose only offence is to adhere to the theological principles of their own Church heretofore. If passed in its present form it would initiate a period of civil disobedience in the Church in Wales unknown in its short history, which moreover would spill over into the Church of England, where we hope and pray that under the guiding hand of the Bishop of Manchester, wiser counsels will prevail.
In July the Prime Minister stated, ‘If you commit a crime you will be deported.’ In August, the Asylum and Immigration Tribunal declared that Learco Chindamo, who had murdered the London headteacher, Philip Lawrence, could not be deported after his prison sentence has been served.
Many will be have been moved by the quiet, compassionate expression of ‘devastation by Frances Lawrence, when this news was released. With great dignity, on radio and television, she expressed her sense of confusion that somehow ordinary people were being forgotten. She spoke of’the Human Rights Act, which was set up…in order to be an exemplar to show how human beings should live together fairly and equally and kindly, and now it’s allowed someone who destroyed a life to pick and choose how he wants to live his.’ ‘There seems to be this anomaly.. .that the law bypasses humanity.’
Next year sees the sixtieth anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document of immense importance. Has it really degenerated so fast into what Mrs Lawrence could not unreasonably describe as ‘bureaucratic law’? There is, as she said, ‘something missing’ at the core of the Human Rights Act.
Courts alone cannot be allowed to monopolize the human rights agenda. If men and women are created in the image of God, it needs a greater and an older wisdom to maintain their rights.
It is not the law itself that is at fault, nor the concept of human rights, but the lack of a sound foundation on which to establish them; that is the challenge we face.