Of Self-esteem and Trojan Horses

IF WE MEET our publication schedules this month, you may be reading this before Synod begins, in which case my comments may offer some timely observations about the questions Synod is to consider. However it is quite possible that you may be reading this after the Synod sessions are over, in which case the Synod will have been prorogued, and members of the Convocations and the House of Laity will be looking over their shoulders at their respective electorates, wondering if they will be returning in November.

As ever the Synod’s agenda contains its fair share of necessary tedium. We have to have an Ecclesiastical, Judges, Legal Officers and others (fees) Order 2000, or presumably somebody wouldn’t get paid the going rate. I suppose the draft Synodical Government (Amendment) Measure will help to usher in the Kingdom of God, even though most of its provisions about the size of PCCs and suchlike can be annulled by a motion passed at a parish’s AGM. Why we bother to pass legislation that you can disregard if you don’t like it, defeats me, but then I’m one of those annoying pragmatists who would prefer to live with as few legal encumbrances as possible.

But, aha! Lurking on page 19 of the 33 page agenda is an innocuous little private member’s motion which has been gradually collecting signatures since 1998. It has reached the top of the pile and comes up for debate at 4.15pm on Saturday afternoon. It’s called the ‘Theology of the Episcopate’, a disarmingly bland title. It modestly calls on the House of Bishops to initiate further theological study on the episcopate, focusing on the issues that need to be addressed in preparation for the debate on women in the episcopate in the Church of England.

Not much harm in that, you might think. I suppose it might mean that the Scriptural arguments about headship get taken seriously. I suppose we might be forced to look seriously at the ecumenical implications of the Church of England consecrating women as bishops. It might cause us to consider the progress of the “reception” of women as presbyters over the last eight years, during which time nearly 1000 parishes have passed Resolution B, which says a woman priest would not be acceptable as the incumbent of the parish.

The whole point about a process of reception is that it works on a “suck it and see” principle. The process requires an open mind to see if the particular innovation is a good idea or not, and takes seriously not only the possibility that the ultimate answer may be yes, but also the possibility that the ultimate answer may be no.

Frankly I don’t detect that kind of openness when I talk with friends and colleagues who are enthusiastic proponents of women bishops. Some of them talk in pained tones about not being able to rejoice openly about the ordination of women as priests after six years. Some talk about the pain they experience because many within the church do not accept the validity of the orders of women. I have yet to meet any who appear to be open to the possibility that this innovation might be contrary to Scripture and therefore one that ought not to be received.

It is self-evident that the ordination of women as priests has been a cause of growing disunity within the Church of England. Jesus prayed that his church might be one. The Church of England has moved further away from that aspiration over the last ten years and somehow, the proponents of women priests don’t seem to acknowledge that they might have made even a teeny weeny contribution to this sorry state of affairs.

Those of the traditional integrity, the integrity which the whole Church of England espoused until 1992, have not changed their stance. It is the majority of General Synod which has resolved to do something which for centuries it has not done. The proponents of more novelties must consider carefully how much disunity they will tolerate in pursuit of their cause. Is the kind of unity that is bought at the cost of a third province or mass exclusions worth having? These are the questions worth pondering before we let this particular genie out of the bottle.

The mover of the motion, Archdeacon Judith Rose, does not try to hide the fact that she would be delighted if women bishops were consecrated without delay. However she is unlikely to say so in the debate. That would be to provoke the House of Bishops into another of their Mexican Wave performances, because most of them are well aware of the tensions and strains the present legislation is causing. Most of them are wise enough not to pour petrol on smouldering embers.

Am I alone in getting impatient with the constant cry of those (of either gender) who feel slighted because their ministry is not being affirmed, or because their egos are not being gently massaged? There is something a bit tedious about clerics who moan about lack of preferment, lack of a canonry, not being appointed to the parish of their choice, not being on the right committee, in short not receiving the worldly recognition they crave. If my memory serves me well, John the Baptist didn’t get any of those things. He was derided, imprisoned and beheaded. Jesus didn’t fare much better.

Are we not called to a servant ministry? Are we not called to wash feet rather than to sit in the seat of honour? Are we not called to emulate Mother Teresa rather than a Prince of the Church?

So am I getting alarmist over an innocuous private member’s motion. Am I being unreasonable to cast it in the role of a Trojan horse? It is a long time ago now, but I seem to remember that the process which resulted in the 1992 legislation started with a private member’s motion which bears a striking resemblance to Archdeacon Judith’s motion 700.

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