Andrew Burnham reviews the role
of the Catholic Group in Synod 2000 – 2005

AS PREPARATIONS continue for the elections to General Synod later this year, the Catholic Group is having to turn its attention from interpreting the present to foretelling the future. What are the issues that increasingly will dominate debate in the Church of England? Here, then, is a personal view.

1. Women Bishops

The most obvious is the discussion of women bishops. The Archdeacon of Tonbridge private motion will surface this July and the Catholic Group has tabled a series of amendments to ensure that this issue – which certainly needs to be discussed – is discussed in its proper context. That context, of course, includes a reflection on the impact women priests have had on the life of the Church of England and on the ecumenical consequences of the Church of England’s decisions. I suspect that Judith Rose’s motion will succeed and the Church of England will embark on a period of study. Sometime in the next quinquennium – surely sooner rather than later – a report will come out.

As I have said before, Catholics are divided between those who think that women bishops are inevitable and those who think they are not. The first group thinks that preparations must be made for life after women bishops – and Forward in Faith has come up with its ‘free province’ plans. The second group thinks that, though we lost the battle in 1992, we have not lost the war. I have to say that, though the consequences of ordaining women bishops would be dramatic, the consequences of not ordaining women bishops would be for the Church of England entirely to lose its credibility. That is to say, it’s one thing to say that only men are admitted to the priesthood: that argument has the backing of two thousand years’ history and the teaching of Catholic and Orthodox. It is quite another thing to say that women may be admitted to the junior branch of the priesthood but not to the senior: that argument has the backing of only a few Anglicans.

I conclude then that, sooner or later, the Church of England will be actively seeking to ordain women to the episcopate, and, not surprisingly, there are some very good candidates for preferment. Delaying tactics – preserving the Church for me but not for my children – are dispiriting and of questionable moral value. It follows then that Catholics in the Church of England must think ahead and the Catholic Group in General Synod needs therefore to be fighting for the living out of the Catholic life in – or alongside – a Church of England that has women bishops. I shall return to the ‘in or alongside’ argument shortly.

2. Marriage and Divorce

The recent reports on Marriage and Divorce strike a note of realism: the Church of England has grave responsibilities in the area of Marriage. It will simply not to do to marry ‘first timers’ on demand, however unsuitable, and then have nothing to do with rebuilding the lives of those whose marriages were doomed. I remember once, as a parish priest, conducting a marriage that broke up within a month or so. The bridegroom told the curate that he bitterly blamed me for this: it was in the light of my marriage preparation classes that, though too late to halt the wedding, the bride decided to cut her losses. Many parish priests will have stories like that.

Unfortunately, the bishops’ current recommendations leave the decision-making with the parish priest who has the unenviable task of telling Mrs Jones that she cannot be married again in Church after telling Mrs Brown last week that she can. I cannot think of a better recipe for pastoral breakdown, particularly in tight-knit communities. Opinions differ between those who think that the bishops, though well-meaning, lack the pastoral savvy to realise this, and those who think that the bishops are gently inaugurating a ‘re-marriage on demand’ policy, which, of course, quickly would be the result were the present recommendations implemented.

There is an urgent need for an audit on this. So far I have found people who would continue with their present practice and refuse to remarry and people who would remarry on demand. Of those I have spoken to, no one has yet admitted to wanting to work the suggested protocol.

3. Ecumenical Relationships

I have nothing to say on the subject of the formal Anglican-Methodist conversations. None of those taking part is speaking to the press – let alone writing – about what are, so far, private proceedings. What I do notice, however, from my study of ecumenical texts, is that in several ways the Church of England has moved away from what could be called an Anglo-Catholic ecclesiology. The ecumenical canons, a growing number of Local Ecumenical Projects, and some of the work in the Fetter Lane, Meissen and Reuilly discussions – not to mention the theological views of most Anglicans – mean that the old Anglo-Catholic arguments are unlikely to prevail in the future.

Rather like my view on women bishops, my view on ecumenical relationships is that Catholics in the Church of England now need to concentrate not on setting up theological obstacles but on securing their own ecclesiological integrity. It would be magnificent if all the mainstream churches in England – including the Church of England – were to unite.

4. Whither ‘our integrity’?

‘Our integrity’ has talked a great deal about becoming ‘a free province’. Myself, I think I should rather persuade the next Archbishop of Canterbury to follow the excellent example of consecutive archbishops of York and not ordain women priest or consecrate them bishop. This would signal the provisionality of Reception – which at present feels a bit like terminal care for those still opposed – and mean that our bishops (those who continue to uphold the tradition as we understand it) were no longer semi-detached. It would mean that ‘extended episcopal care’ (which is fairly nonsensical, other than in matters temporal) would become ‘extended archiepiscopal care’. ‘Our’ bishops would all be suffragans of the archbishops – as indeed diocesan bishops presently are – and they would have full episcopal powers and responsibilities, in place of their present somewhat archidiaconal ones. Each of the present regions would have effectively a ‘traditionalist’ diocese within it as well as, no doubt, an equivalent strategy for women bishops.

No doubt all this is being worked out by the present Act of Synod working party but nothing less will work. The alternative is indeed a ‘free province’ which, for my money, is a new denomination. Personally I have no desire to join an even smaller communion than the one to which I presently belong.

‘Our integrity’ faces many other questions. Here, I think, are two. Firstly, how do we provide for the ministry of women? This is an urgent problem and we must not lose sight of it. If we are right – as I increasingly believe that we are – the need for an appropriate ministry of women will become more and more pressing, especially if we are to receive back and creatively incorporate the ministry of those who have been ordained to inappropriate ministries. No less important, we have a whole group of capable women who, for the sake of a witness to the maleness of the historic priesthood, are not asking for any recognised ministry at all, but who would be marvellous catechists, and lay chaplains.

The second is about our Catholic vocation. There is, I believe, a distinct dialogue that we can and should have with Roman Catholics and Orthodox in England. It may even be that Anglo-Catholics are called by God to be exactly that ‘bridge Church’ which the Church of England a generation ago considered itself to be. We are, after all, a sizeable constituency and are one of the few growing parts of the Church.

5. Relationships with others

EGGS (the Evangelical Group in General Synod) is much more broadly based than the Catholic Group and I am sometimes asked why we Catholics do not seek to unite traditionalists and progressives in one group. During the present quinquennium the Catholic Group Executive has met both the Affirming Catholic and the Evangelical equivalents. Though our relationships with both were cordial – and Affirming Catholicism includes some people with very similar agendas to our own – I am convinced that the Catholic Group must stand alone. There are many points of contact with Affirming Catholics and some genuine friendships but, despite different cultures, different expressions and different orders of priority, Evangelicals and traditional Catholics stand together in defence of historic Christian doctrine and morality. After all, traditional Catholics are themselves Evangelicals.

6. Social Issues

In contrast to more ecclesiastical matters, the opportunities for co-operation with other Christians on social issues are immense. I believe that our generation will live to see the complete unravelling of Church and State, which will make the task of focusing our concerns more acute. In the meantime, for me, the priority in the next quinquennium is the work of the Church with children. The appalling ignorance in our society about religious matters – as revealed by a recent MORI poll – suggests that our resources, particularly in schools, need to be much better targeted. It is not hopelessly ambitious to expect children to emerge from school – particularly from church schools – with a rudimentary knowledge of Christianity.

I long for Catholics to be able again to focus their attention nationally on social issues. Only recently I went to a Catholic parish out in the country – where some first rate work is being done with refugees and asylum seekers. Wherever we are in good shape locally, as that parish is, it is because we have moved beyond ecclesiastical preoccupations to immerse ourselves in the work of the kingdom.

Andrew Burnham is Chairman of the Catholic Group in General Synod.