Muriel Porter Pulls the Plug

To the astonishment of many on both sides of the ordination of women debate, it became clear that the 2001 General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia would fail to pass legislation allowing women to become bishops.

135 members, that is, 58 per cent of the Synod, voted for the Bill at the first reading stage. Encouraged by remarks made to the media by Dr Muriel Porter (leading feminist and mover of the so-called ‘Clarification Canon’) and Dr Bruce Kaye (General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia), some commentators rushed into print, describing this as a vote ‘for’ women bishops. The official line promulgated by Porter and Kaye was that the Synod had accepted women bishops ‘in principle’; all that remained was the tidying up of details.

Yet the truth was more sobering. In order to pass as a ‘Provisional Canon’ (that is, to be sent around the diocesan synods and then return for a final vote in three years’ time) the legislation needed to gain two thirds majority in each house – considerably more support than demonstrated by the first reading vote. What also became clear was that a number of members who had voted ‘yes’ at that stage in order to allow a full and proper debate intended to vote ‘no’ at the end of the day. Taking that into account, it is just possible that the legislation would have failed to reach the 50 per cent mark!

The protagonists of the Bill were not eager for a theological debate. According to Muriel Porter, the theological issues had been settled back in the 1970s. This impressed neither the Sydney evangelicals nor the anglo-catholics. Nevertheless, discussion on the actual Bill was good-natured. It could afford to be. Everyone knew that the real sticking point would be the ‘protocols’, appended as a schedule, providing alternative episcopal oversight for parishes who consciously object to having a woman bishop.

The form of alternative oversight offered in these protocols fell far short of anything that Forward in Faith Australia has sought. It was similar to what exists now in England and Wales, and would have done quite nicely in the case of women priests. However, being only ‘low level alternative episcopal oversight’, to use Muriel Porter’s own expression, it failed to acknowledge the total impairment of communion at the heart of Church life that would result from the consecration of women bishops.

During this part of the debate it became clear that many (including some supporters of women bishops) would not vote for the Bill without the protocols. It was just as clear that others would not vote for it with the protocols.

Bishop Clyde Wood of North Queensland, who last year spent three weeks in England examining ‘the ministry of women’, rose to crush any move towards alternative oversight in the Australian Church. He quoted from ‘Act of Synod, Act of Folly’ edited by Monica Furlong, and then seriously misquoted a passage of the then Archdeacon David Silk’s concluding speech in the 1992 English General Synod debate.

With evangelical passion Bishop Wood assured the Synod that alternative episcopal oversight has been a disaster in England. He was not allowed to get away with this. Archdeacon Ross Davies of the Murray gently but firmly refuted the bishop’s assertion from the point of view of one who had worked in England for five years under the provisions of the Act of Synod. With characteristic clarity, Bishop Silk then pointed out that his words had been misused.

By the time Bishop George Browning of Canberra-Goulburn spoke with enthusiasm against the protocols, it had became clear that Synod as a whole would not support the introduction of women bishops without strong provisions being made for those in conscience opposed. A few brave souls, like the Bishop of Grafton, Phillip Huggins, said that they could see both points of view, agreeing that provision had to be made for the consciences of minorities. But, because codifying a system of alternative oversight would ‘change forever the face of diocesan life as we have known it’, they asked Synod to trust individual bishops and their dioceses to work everything out in a much more pastoral way.

This suggestion sent a chill through traditionalists who, since the purported ordination of women to the priesthood in 1992, have had nearly nine years experience of the ‘pastoral’ ministry of liberal bishops. Ask FiF members in Perth, Adelaide and Brisbane how they have fared, and if they trust the bishops and their synods to provide a way for ‘our integrity’ to survive, to grow and to flourish!

It then became obvious that at least seven bishops who support women bishops had determined to vote against the Bill if the protocols remained part of the package. In other words, the legislation would fail dramatically in the House of Bishops. When Muriel Porter and Bishop David McCall of Bunbury (one-time orthodox anglo-catholic who seconded the Bill), could see which way things were going, they ‘ambushed the process’, in the words of Sydney lawyer and veteran General Synod member, Robert Tong, and successfully moved:

‘That this General Synod noting that though the Bill for a Church Law (Further Clarification) Canon 2001 with its accompanying schedule has been approved in principle by 135 votes to 95 votes with 2 abstentions, significant concerns have been raised in debate, requests Standing Committee to:

‘1. prepare a report on some of the issues raised in the debate and some of the possible outcomes for consideration by Dioceses, Provincial Synods, Provincial Councils and the Bishops’ Conference, seeking their responses by February 2003; and

‘2. in the light of responses received, prepare amended legislation and accompanying material in consultation with Dioceses, Provincial Synods, Provincial Councils and the Bishops’ Conference for the next session of General Synod’.

Muriel Porter assured the media that ‘the discussion had paused, not stalled.’ Still bravely believing in the inevitability of women bishops in the Australian Anglican Church, she said, ‘We have given ourselves space to comment further and wider and that is a good thing, given the level

of confusion and disagreement in the Synod debate on the Bill. We have three more years to get this right, and we will have to get it right in three years’ time.

‘It is certainly not going to go away. The Synod has experienced the strong leadership of women in the church, which is only going to get stronger. Ultimately the Church will not be able to deny the full leadership of women in all three orders – bishop, priest and deacon.’

Robert Tong called it ‘a strategic withdrawal, with all troops and artillery intact’. The good thing is that having observed the groupings that evolved this time round, those who believe that the move towards women bishops is not of God, flies in the face of Holy Scripture, and undermines our historic claim to be part of the Church Catholic, will be able to work out some long term strategies of our own with FiF in England, North America, and faithful believers in other places. With off-shore primates and, indeed, the Communion as a whole, taking an ever increasing interest in the treatment of orthodox minorities in liberal provinces, the kind of alternative oversight provided in the next version of the legislation will have to be an improvement on that offered to us in 2001.

David Chislett