William Powell believes that Flying Bishops were the political price of women’s ordination – and that Philip Crowe should accept the fact
THE ECCLESIASTICAL Committee of Parliament is a most curious anomaly. Established by Statute just after the First World War, it has to operate according to law, and not according to custom and practice and the Rules of either or both Houses of Parliament. In this it is, of all Parliamentary Committees unique. Statute requires the Committee to determine whether legislation from the Synod which is to be presented to both Houses for approval is “expedient”. No guidance is given as to the meaning of expediency. Even if it is decided that the proposed legislation is deemed not to be expedient, the Synod can insist that both Houses consider the proposed legislation and, of course, approve it.
No legislation, so far, has been deemed to be not “expedient”. Fortunately, legislation determined by the Committee to be expedient has still been rejected by Parliament, most recently the Measure dealing with the Confirmation of the Election of Diocesan Bishops. The Committee cannot amend any proposed Measure, though it does report to Parliament on the proposals and it can make recommendations to the Legislative Committee of the Synod, recommendations which have no binding authority. Naturally such recommendations are usually ignored.
In short, the Ecclesiastical Committee is a very odd creature, one in the most urgent need of modernisation, Officially nothing is even said about this; unofficially, the House of Bishops is terrified of changing or even discussing change for fear that the question of Establishment/Disestablishment would be raised. Even the perfectly proper rejection of the Confirmation of Bishops Measure enabled some unwise hotheads in the Church to threaten to overthrow the historical stand off between Church and State enshrined in the Reformation and subsequently legislation.
Despite the toothless nature of the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Committee, many from outside Parliament have looked to the Committee to prevent passage into law of some recent controversial Measures which have outraged Anglican traditionalists; in particular, the Measure dealing with the Ordination of Divorced Clergy and persons seeking to be Clergy and that for the Ordination of Women. From all over the country Members of the Committee, who are drawn equally from both Houses of Parliament and who reflect the partisan division of the House of Commons in proper proportion and who are drawn from those in Parliament with an interest in matters clerical and ecclesiastical, were deluged with letters from all over the country. Only legislation relating to scientific experiments involving animals has led to such a large post bag for me.
One letter, I recall, had a particular effect on me when we were about to consider the Ordination of Women Measure. It was from a lady of, as my wife would put it, a certain age, married to a clergyman – who was not a constituent of mine – but she was very ambitious to receive Priestly Ordination. The letter was blunt and very demanding – it was my duty to facilitate her ambition. Alas, this was never going to be possible – but I suggested that we met. I went to the Vicarage, which was in my constituency, which she was using as an office and as a base when she visited the Parishes over which she, as a Deacon, had been given charge. Needless to say she was late for our appointment for the journey from her home, a Rectory which she shared with her Parson husband elsewhere in Northamptonshire was a reasonably long one. Her Vicarage was no longer in use as a house, it lacked all warmth and personality. There was virtually no furniture. In this it was most unlike the Parsonage house in which I grew up and which was alive with humanity. The study was basic, but she was very much better educated than most modem clergy. Her aggressive determination was crystal clear.
I explained that my father was a clergyman unable to accept the Measure, that to him it was theologically unsound and an affront to the doctrines and traditions of the Church of England, that it would undermine and probably destroy the traditional Church of England. She was most unsympathetic. If he could not accept the Measure I was told then he should leave the Church of England. She spoke with precision and was a master of her arguments: the Church of England had decided that my father, despite over fifty years of service in the Ordained ministry should now go, in order that she and others could fulfil her divine vocation.
I was unable to assist her.
We spent very many months in the Ecclesiastical Committee considering the Measure and the accompanying Financial Measure. We heard evidence from the Archbishops and others. As we discussed the matter in our meetings – most of which were open to the public – we became conscious for the first time that some in the Church of England were beginning to recognise that there had to be some compromise. How this recognition was hated by the ambitious Deacon to whom I have already referred!
To my surprise, it was Archbishop Habgood who seemed to understand most of all the need for this compromise. Previously, I thought of him as aloof and arrogant. His part in the Gareth Bennett saga had not endeared him to me. I began to change my mind. He and others suggested the Act of Synod which would enable those deeply unhappy with the Measure and its likely consequences to remain. Of course, the proposal was open to objection on all sides and was much criticised – but it did offer a way in which wounds could be nursed.
From it followed Flying Bishops, Parishes opting out, the London compromise and in effect a cease-fire in the Civil War which was overwhelming the Church of England. Historically the Church had been built on a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism. The Anglican Church was unique, the only Church in Christendom which was both Catholic and Protestant in character. Each side in this truce understood, often very reluctantly, that they should not put temporary advantage of numerical strength to use in forcing the minority to leave. In short, the Bolsheviks had never been allowed to force the Mensheviks to leave : a point little understood by the determined enthusiasts of Female Ordination to the Anglican Priesthood. Archbishop Habgood, very late in the day, grasped the point and acted.
Of course, the compromise was fragile, untidy and very controversial. There are still Bolsheviks in the Church of England who wish to rid the Church of those of us who cannot agree with them and who believe that truth and tradition in the matters of Anglican Ecclesiastical Government should indeed be determined by the same rules as those which we use for political elections.
So the compromise has been accepted, albeit reluctantly, on both sides. Yet there are those who now wish to abandon the work of Archbishop Habgood – so carefully advanced during those, seemingly endless weeks of deliberation by the Ecclesiastical Committee and on which we reported fully to Parliament at the time. The Primus of Scotland is against the compromise; the Reverend Philip Crowe (who advises us that as he will never again be given another job in the Church of England and so has had to take a position, in exile in the Church of Wales) is angry that the Welsh Bishops have adopted the English Compromise.
They and their supporters like Napoleon after the Treaty of Amiens have now regained their strength and zeal and are preparing for the decisive struggle to force all those of us who still cannot accept the Ordination of Women to buckle under or to leave for there is no place for us now in the Church of England unless we obey and bow the knee to their power.
What fools they are. There are too many matters where Anglicans should face the world together for us to want another round of civil strife. Although it may be of little importance to Scotland or to Wales, Parliament is more than likely to be unimpressed, disappointed and annoyed if moral undertakings given at the time of the passage of the Measure were now to be so swiftly abandoned. In truth, time will determine whether the Anglican rump, still unable to accept the Ordination to the Priesthood of Women, will wither and disappear as the Jacobites of old – or whether they will regroup and re-emerge to lead again the Church of England – if at least, not in the present generation then in the next.
We should not therefore be surprised that there are those impatient Herods, afraid and vengeful, who will order the slaughter of the innocent lest indeed those same innocent demonstrate that the legacy of those who promoted that same Measure which has caused such trouble is barren and temporary, for the soil which they till can only bring forth for the Church of England sand and dust.
William Powell is Member of Parliament for Corby, and was a member of the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament.