HOW LONG, they proverbially ask, is a piece of string? And how long, one imagines the proponents of women’s ordination must daily ask themselves, is a ‘period of reception’?

What the proponents of women’s ordination wanted was control of the Church of England. They wanted – not to put too fine a point on it – to force all its members to accept their opinion of the nature, function and purpose of Holy Orders. In that they failed. The extent of the failure was expressed in the Act of Synod, which was passed with the overwhelming majorities which women’s ordination failed to achieve, but which the veteran campaigner Jean Mayland nevertheless described recently, in Unity Digest (Council for Christian Unity of the General Synod, October 1996), as ‘at best a violation of the episcopacy and at worst a heresy’.

Small wonder, then, that the search is on for green shoots. A group calling themselves ‘The Edward King Institute’ has recently taken to boasting the results of an ‘exercise‘ (we are forbidden by Canon David Durston, one of the organisers, to call it a ‘survey) which purports to have produced solid evidence of what Mrs. Mayland has not yet noticed. Apparently harmony is breaking out across the C. of E. Like Fritz and Tommy in 1914, Jack and Jill are fraternising all along the front. The period of reception will probably be over by Christmas.

The Edward King Institute is an independent body of enthusiasts, funded by subscriptions and by fees paid for consultations. The aim of the Institute is to bring insights from the social and behavioural sciences to bear on ministerial development. The ‘exercise’ about women priests and their ‘reception’ in the Church of England was an extensive one, lasting over a year, and by far the most ambitious so far undertaken. Individuals (seventy-seven in the event) were asked to keep journals of their thoughts and feelings. These were then summarised and sent to six ‘assessors’ – four in favour of women priests and two against – who were asked to comment on them. At a residential conference (to which the opponent assessors were not invited) representatives of those who had kept journals considered the summaries and comments, discussed attitudes and sought to formulate recommendations for a ‘way forward’.

All this is quite unexceptionable as a means of employing one’s leisure time. What is problematic about it are the claims made by David Durston, the spokesperson for the Institute, in the press briefings afterwards. The attempt was clearly made to give the ‘findings’ of the exercise an objective status which they do not and cannot have.

Sadly the organisers of the event chose to seek no professional psephological advice in setting it up. As a result the sample, apart from being small (perhaps that was inevitable in view of the long term commitment expected of participants), was grossly unrepresentative. 61% of the sample were clergy, as opposed to 0.66% of those on electoral rolls in 1995. 32% of the sample were clergy women, though only 8.1% of Church of England stipendiary clergy were women in 1995. Seventy-four of the sample were in favour of the ordination of women before the exercise began and only three in any sense opposed, whereas in the Church at large all indications show that opposition continues at about 30%.

The results and conclusions of such an exercise could not, then, in the nature of the case, be more than anecdotal. The question naturally arises why it was undertaken at all. To that question there seem to be three related answers.

The first is merely social. Those who have devoted a good deal of their time – indeed their lives, to date – to the struggle to see women ordained are clearly experiencing withdrawal symptoms. They miss the struggle and they miss the sorority. Such a project serves, like a college gaudy or an old girls’ reunion to help relive past glories.

The second is more serious. Thoughtful proponents of women’s ordination are aware of how far is still to go. Such a project rekindles energy for the final struggle – It gets the adrenaline flowing for the inevitable and necessary smashing of glass ceilings.

The third answer goes deeper. Reflective proponents must by now have begun to ask the unaskable question: is it just possible that the ‘period of reception’ may never end – that a consensus on women priests may never be reached? Is it possible in other words, that in pursuing women’s ordination the Church of England has stubbed its toe on one of the great fault lines of Christian believing? Is it possible that the disagreements – philosophical, theological, Christological, ecclesiological and hermeneutic – which women’s ordination has exposed will not be resolved for decades, centuries even? For those proponents who have looked into that abyss, David Durston’s anecdotal assurances have the effect of Dr. Pangloss’s reiterative mantra: ‘All is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’.

Two factors, alas, which most profoundly affect any assessment of a ‘way forward’ in the so-called reception process, seem to have been absent from the considerations of the Edward King group. They are, of course, women bishops and ordination statistics.

The first will end, in every respect, the compromise brought about by the Act of Synod. Bishops will from that moment cease to be – and cease credibly to claim to be – signs and focuses of unity. Women bishops will not be accepted by opponents as exercising ‘episcope’ in any form, even merely jurisdictional.

The second must cast its cold shadow over every kind of ecclesiastical optimism. especially the notion that the ‘reception’ of women’s ordination is going well. If the innovation is being well ‘received’ and generally welcomed, where are the scores – nay hundreds – of young women confidently predicted to replace the redundant patriarchs of the unregenerate C. of E.? Allowing for the age profile of the 783 women at present in post, the projected figures cannot not even sustain replacement of that 783.

The Edward King Institute project, it seems, for all its published percentages and bold assertions, was something akin to whistling in the wind. It was the forced optimism of those who fear they may now never get in its fullness what they still sincerely believe the Church wants and needs.