Andrew Burnham describes the dynamic of a disappointing Synod, which lived up to no-one’s expectations

THE JULY session of the General Synod in York left Catholics, and others in the Church of England, with much to think about. In the end there was no ‘take note’ vote on the Blackburn report and the Archdeacon of Tonbridge resisted the attempts of the Catholic Group to contribute to a creative consensus on her private members’ motion.

The results of these processes are, to say the least, difficult to interpret. On the Blackburn report Dr Christina Baxter’s successful motion that the Synod move to next business might have seemed hostile. (Motions that the Synod moves to next business have the effect of pushing the matters under discussion beyond the five-year lifetime of the Synod). Such a motion would have been a hostile response to the Blackburn report in different circumstances. For one thing, the five- year lifetime of the Synod had only a few days to run and the Bishop of Blackburn theoretically could bring back his report as early as next November, when a new Synod will be meeting. For another thing, Dr Baxter seemed to be intending to prevent an even worse fate for the Blackburn report – the losing of the ‘take note’ motion.

It is hard, rationally, to see why the Blackburn report was not doing very well on the floor of the Synod. Those who spoke most eloquently about the pain of women priests (experienced as they live alongside those who do not accept their orders) seemed nonetheless not to be asking for the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod to be revoked. Indeed, given that such an Act is in force, the Blackburn report could be seen – should be seen – as an attempt to introduce and commend good practice. Why then was the debate making such heavy weather that the Chairman of the House of Laity, Dr Baxter, thought it wise to prevent the defeat of the report? One analogy that occurred to me was that it was if a report on overseas aid were being condemned for not dealing with inner city deprivation in Britain. The cries of those in pain were unmistakable – and in themselves more than justifiable – but the report was not setting out to deal with those and this was thought by some to be not good enough.

Another explanation – and a rather more chilling one – is that the rank and file of General Synod are fed up with the so-called traditionalists and their special deals It has been noteworthy, for instance, that, whenever there has been talk on the floor of Synod, about priests returning to the fold from Rome, there have been moans and groans about why such prodigal sons should be allowed to hang on to such payments they have received since leaving the Church of England. No one has realised, it seems, that the payments were money to survive on, not compensation, that the payments were not large enough to have allowed anything much more than interim subsistence, and yet were cumulatively too substantial to permit repayment from a resumed stipend.

If the mixed reception of the Blackburn report was the first blow to the traditionalists, the attitude of the Synod to the Catholic Group amendments to the Rose motion was the second. To begin with, things were promising. Canon Bernice Broggio’s amendment, suggesting that the ordination of women as bishops would require no further theological study, was roundly defeated. Fr Geoffrey Kirk’s amendment, a bid to remove to remove the two-year time deadline in Judith Rose’s motion, fared little better. He might have argued that further theological study would not be sufficiently advanced to merit a progress report within two years: after all new work could not begin for a while and the delay in starting, and the time taken over preparing and presenting a progress report, might take up a good deal of that two years. Instead he was pointing out the complexity of the matter in hand and its far-reaching consequences which, taken together, would suggest a longer and cooler look. Not very surprisingly his amendment was lost, as was Fr Simon Killwick’s amendment, asking that the consequences for the Act of Synod be taken into consideration.

What was more disturbing than the loss of these amendments was the loss of Fr Houlding’s amendment that the ecumenical perspective be studied and considered. Here the voting was very close, with nearly half of the Synod – and both archbishops – supporting Fr Houlding. After all, ecumenism, in ecclesiastical circles, is motherhood and apple pie. Who could vote against it? On this occasion there were clearly many people – over half the Synod – who were prepared to vote against ecumenism – with all the risks of public misunderstanding that that might cause and the discourtesy to ecumenical observers notwithstanding. The greater priority was to demonstrate a robust belief that the ordination of women is an issue of justice which must be pursued, whatever the cost. Though we had known of this viewpoint for some time, it is still chilling to see it in practice.

The most charitable view is that Fr Houlding’s amendment – indeed the widely trumpeted strategy of the Catholic Group in General Synod in the matter of women bishops – was interpreted as hostile. This was significantly wrong in two respects. First, the decision of the Catholic Group to support an amended version of Judith Rose’s motion was truly an attempt to find a way of helping the Synod unanimously to support the ‘further theological study on the episcopate’ for which she was asking. We had to ask for our amendments to be taken seriously: how else could we avoid being misunderstood by Catholics up and down the country? As it was, each of us was already fielding anxious questions about why we were not taking the opportunity robustly to oppose women bishops. The concern of the Catholic Group Executive, throughout most of the last five years, has been to try to find ways of walking through the ‘aye’ doors without abandoning our legitimate concerns. Sadly, on this occasion the logic of the mood of the Synod was that we must vote ‘no’ – and, comparatively few though we were, we voted against the Judith Rose motion.

Second, the purpose of our amendments was not to oppose the ordination of women as bishops. Those who have followed this debate in New Directions will know that, whereas some of us believe that women bishops should be resisted as self-evidently unscriptural and not part of the tradition, others feel that we should do nothing to encourage ‘glass ceiling’ attitudes. The ordination of women priests demands – as the consequence of an ‘equal opportunities’ policy – that in due course there should be women bishops. The concern is simply that the Church must also meet the legitimate needs of the minority which maintains the Christian tradition as understood until very recently indeed. That need mean nothing more (and must mean nothing less) than allowing the ‘traditionalists’ to live within an ecclesiological framework that has some theological consistency, a framework that is well on the way to emerging. There are, of course, deeper issues too. What is the Church to do about the rhetoric of ‘equal opportunities’ and ‘human rights’? These are secular doctrines (though, of course, derived from the Christian Gospel) which, although usually benign and congenial to the pursuit of justice, are nonetheless distortions of the Gospel. The Gospel does not speak of ‘equal opportunities’ but of the equivalence of human beings in the sight of God. The Gospel does not speak of ‘human rights’ but of the duty to love God and neighbour and the infinite preciousness of every human being in the sight of God.

The Catholic Group left York with most of us in good heart. The Group had prayed together at 10.15pm most evenings and we had formed and pursued policies together which were unifying for the Group and constructive in the life of the Church. And yet there was some profound pessimism and it is not hard to see why. The General Synod is at its best when it provides a forum for Catholics and Evangelicals, Conservatives and Liberals, clergy and lay, men and women, North and South, to listen to each other and work together for the up-building of the kingdom. It is at its worst when any combination of these groups produces either a tetchy minority or an insensitive majority. I am not sure the will of God has ever been discerned by majorities. The whole prophetic tradition bears witness against that.

The General Synod, this last five years, has had some bad moments but, for the most part, the Catholic Group has not been a tetchy minority. Nor were we a tetchy minority – it was said to me – even when, as this year at York, the majority was showing itself less than sensitive to our needs. If the General Synod is to come to full maturity it will need to accept that only consensus will do in a Christian assembly. Consensus does not mean unanimous voting but unanimous acceptance of what is decided. The signs that the Church was not ready for the ordination of women to the priesthood were, first, that the House of Bishops was divided on the issue – an enormous problem in an episcopal Church – and, second, that all concerned gave notice that, whatever the General Synod decided, those who lost the vote would not accept the result of the vote. There are indications that this lesson has not yet been taken to heart and, until it is, further developments would be catastrophic in the life of the Church.

The challenge conservatives offer to the Church is this: let us move forward but only when we know that we can move forward together. Even in further theological study on the episcopate, and the examination of a structure for women bishops, there is plenty of scope for creative moving forward together. However, York this year was rather an unpromising start to that.

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