A Broad Church with a Mixed Bag

AS THE GENERAL SYNOD prepares to gather for its November group of sessions, Camilla Parker-Bowles will be throwing a 50th birthday party for the Prince of Wales, who is next in line to be the Church of England’s Supreme Governor. If you are not one of the crowned heads of Europe, or a friend of the Prince, you won’t need to choose between the two events, but there could be some interesting fireworks at Synod as well as at Highgrove.

Charles and Camilla recently took the unprecedented step of issuing a joint press release to emphatically deny persistent press speculation that they might be planning to marry. So perhaps they won’t be that bothered about the guidelines that a House of Bishops’ working party has apparently drawn up. The guidelines, leaked to The Daily Telegraph by “Church leaders” (presumably that means some of Bill Beaver’s junior spin doctors) effectively rule out a church wedding for the Prince, but since he appears to have decided that he wouldn’t be interested even if the option was available, what is all the fuss about? .

The existence of the House of Bishops’ working party has been a dark secret, but was first exposed in The Telegraph during the summer. The Telegraph believes that the changes (to allow the remarriage of some divorcees in church), recommended by the working party headed by the Bishop of Winchester, the Rt Rev Michael Scott-Joynt, will gain the approval of the House of Bishops and the General Synod.

However The Telegraph acknowledges that rumours of the working party’s proposals have already led to controversy, with critics saying that they undermine the sanctity of marriage. The Telegraph asserts that members of the Synod are predicting a fierce rearguard action. One is quoted as saying: “This will make the women priests debate look like a vicarage tea party.”

It is interesting how some of the mavericks in Synod seem determined to upset the apple-cart one way or the other. Despite all the talk about unity there does seem to be a concerted attempt to open up the fault lines in the landscape of the Church of England.

Synod’s liturgical business will get underway with consideration of a report by the Revision Committee on “Sunday worship with Holy Communion in the absence of a priest”. The whole rationale of this service seems to rest on the premise that services of Holy Communion should be mandatory anywhere and everywhere and take place on every conceivable occasion. If there was reasonable provision for non-eucharistic worship, which a motion from the House of Laity called for ten years ago, the need for Holy Communion in the absence of a priest would simply not arise.

As it is, we are offered a mish-mash which is likely to incur the displeasure of Evangelicals and Catholics alike, though probably for different reasons. Even “middle of the road” parishes may not be too keen on proposals like this which must inevitably make it easier for bishops to suspend their livings and reduce them to being satellites of churches in nearby towns. The idea of a pizza delivery boy turning up at 11am, hot foot from a neighbouring church, with a package of wafers and wine is almost enough to provoke a groundswell for lay celebration.

Our venerable friends, the archdeacons, are doing their bit with private members’ motions. Frank White, the Archdeacon of Durham, collected 22 signatures at the July sessions for his motion which clearly hopes that the Bishop of Blackburn’s review group into the working of the Act of Synod might result in the Act of Synod being rescinded. Given that the House of Laity only passed the women priests legislation by two votes – on the understanding that there would be appropriate provisions for those of the original integrity, it beggars belief that a motion so opposed to the generous spirit that was evident at the Lambeth Conference this summer should even appear on the agenda. The idea of an honourable place in the Church for members of both integrities does seem to evaporate like the morning dew, just as soon as the Bishops’ backs are turned.

The Archdeacon of Tonbridge, Judith Rose, who clearly had a personal interest in the outcome of the 1992 vote, has put down an innocuous looking motion about the theology of the episcopate. The thinly veiled agenda is clearly her desire to advance the prospect of women bishops being consecrated in the Church of England, an aspiration which may be shared by many in the church who take a liberal view on the authority of the Scriptures.

We are a broad church and we have to embrace both integrities, but it does seem a shame that we never had a report on the theology of the presbyterate or the diaconate. In the 80s we knew we couldn’t agree on what was the nature of the presbyterate, but that didn’t stop us enthusiastically propounding the mantra that whatever it was, women should be part of it. Such logic is self-evidently flawed and it has been exploited by other pressure groups ever since. Perhaps the theological study Judith calls for would be no bad thing if the study group contained some orthodox theologians. It would be a sad day indeed if it merely provided a sounding board for the radical liberals to proclaim that anything goes.

And finally, you might think that the agenda has got elastic sides this time – it does run to 40 pages. However I must make mention of the motion from the Southwell Diocesan Synod that wants to call non-stipendiary ministers “self supporting ministers”. It is not entirely clear what difference this would make but it would no doubt be a triumph for Southwell if their motion were to succeed. Unfortunately there is as yet no-one to move the motion. I wonder if Mr Gossard might oblige.

Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.