The Days of Man are but as GRAS

George Austin on the Group to Rescind the Act of Synod

Write about the GRAS Report, said the Editor. But what shall I write? I tried to beg a copy from a very gentle and open-minded bishop, but he had been so horrified by its tone that he tore it up and threw it into the dustbin. So I tried the internet, having gleaned the website from a GRAS newsletter I had been sent, but the server refused to find it. (Discrimination even by the web?)

Then I noticed that every time I fed in the address, another one appeared at the foot of the screen. Surprise, surprise, it was that of a body well known for its tolerance towards minority viewpoints, the Modern Churchpeople’s Union. Eventually, after many false trails, I found the report, read it, and resisted the temptation to throw the computer out of the study window. And then GRAS kindly sent me a copy anyway.

Certainly, it is a report with many mistakes and inconsistencies. For instance, there is the claim that ‘every committee set up to discuss the details (of the Women Priests Measure) was composed equally of those in favour and those opposed’, which was an assertion also made when the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament considered it. Not true of the final (and therefore most important) steering committee. Because there would have been pressure for committee members to support the Measure at Synod, no opponents would serve on it.

Reception, it says, ‘was the idea that those opposed would come to accept women priests.’ Not true: ‘reception’ was to allow those of both sides either to change or to come to some kind of common mind. When we suggested at the time that it was meant simply to allow us time to ‘receive’ the new doctrine, we were told firmly that this was not the case, and that it left it an entirely open question. We did not believe this and clearly we were right not to do so.

It claims that we said in 1992 that 3,000 clergy might be about to leave the Church if women were ordained, but only ‘about 500’ eventually did so. Of course that was the case, and it was only the Act of Synod that prevented many more of us from leaving. GRAS really cannot have it both ways.

GRAS complains that because of the Bishops’ document, Bonds of Peace, for the foreseeable future it would be ‘as legitimate for clergy and people not to regard women as ‘proper’ priests, as to believe that they were’. But that understanding was reaffirmed by the Lambeth Bishops, who agreed that those of both positions had a honoured place in the Church, so we must assume that GRAS wishes to move away from the tolerance and comprehensiveness which has always been a mark of the Anglican Church.

Taliban tactics

But this merely indicates that GRAS’s position is that of the fundamentalist because it puts the promotion of their cause above the hurt it may bring to people. But let us be quite clear in this: just as there is no excuse in a Christian body for the total intolerance of GRAS, so let me say firmly and unequivocally that I believe there is equally no excuse for the behaviour of those opponents who insult and humiliate women clergy. In each case the behaviour is no better and different only in degree from those Unionist fundamentalists in Northern Ireland who, believing their cause to be just, daily bring terror to little girls on their way to school.

To be fair, GRAS does acknowledge that the ‘Act was sold to Synod as a sign of Anglican love, compromise and inclusiveness, something which appears ever more incredible as time goes on.’ Well, yes indeed, that is certainly true, and it is good to be able to agree on something, if not in the way that GRAS intends.

With unintentional irony, the Report begins with a quotation from Canon Patience Purchase, the Bishop’s Officer for Women’s Ministry in the Diocese of St Albans, who reveals that 50% of the women priests there ‘have found the provisions of the Act discriminatory in greater or lesser ways.’ Had she sat on the other side of the fence in her diocese she would have found that traditionalists felt discriminated against by the liberal establishment long before the issue of women priests entered the scene, and among the few who have – with much difficulty – survived, they experienced this even more comprehensively afterwards.

One party state

It may be worse in that particular diocese given its history, but the same awareness of marginalization is widespread in the Church of England. As one priest put it to me after a particularly unhelpful meeting with his bishop, ‘In any other area of employment, I could have sued for constructive dismissal.’ It is instructive that Anthony Howard, reporting in The Times on a recent GRAS conference, comments pointedly that the Church of England ‘has never been covered by the Equal Opportunities Act.’ But nor does it allow the clergy, male or female, the legal safeguards of the secular world, so that they cannot take out an action for constructive dismissal.

As more than 50% of clergy appointments have now had the safeguard of the freehold removed, it is vital that employment practices be brought into line with the secular world, particularly as the time limit for claims under the financial provisions of the Women Priests Measure will soon run out. Are we right to suspect that the General Synod (and GRAS) will see to it that this happens before the Act of Synod is rescinded and before the introduction of women bishops?

The Canon’s point does, however, raise another question: Who is it who is treating the women priests badly in a diocese where all but a handful of opponents have retired or been driven out, and where there is such a large proportion of women clergy and a long established liberal dominance? At a monthly meeting in another place, a senior woman priest complained vehemently at one point, ‘I’m sick of being patronized every time I open my mouth.’ As we broke for lunch, I apologized if I had offended. ‘Oh, it isn’t you or the two others who are against the ordination of women,’ she replied, ‘It’s those who are supposed to be on my side.’

Interestingly, when the Measure first took effect, in York the two senior staff members pressing for women to be considered for incumbencies were the two who did not support their ordination, challenging supporters who would dismiss the long experience of parochial ministry which some of the women could offer, when they had done everything except celebrate the Eucharist – 95% as against 100% of the work of the ordained ministry.

GRAS may have been right to complain to the Blackburn Commission that some dioceses are ‘no-go’ areas for women, but the truth is that in most dioceses, opponents will not be considered for a post of any kind. In the first five years of women priests in one episcopal area, nineteen parishes that had had an opponent as incumbent became vacant. In seventeen, each was given a priest in favour, and the two parishes where a priest had resigned under the Measure were immediately and deliberately given a women incumbent.

Bishops behaving badly

In one parish that had passed the resolutions A, B and C, the suffragan bishop went there, without consultation with any of his colleagues, and required the PCC there and then to rescind them, regardless of the requirement under the Measure that a month’s notice must always be given. I am sure that GRAS would applaud that bishop’s total commitment to inclusivity within the Church – that it should be inclusive for those who agree with GRAS and not for those who oppose it.

GRAS complains that women priests are offered no protection by the Act, with the only protection being for opponents. But wait a moment – when the Act of Synod was passed, did not the House of Bishops commit themselves to recognizing that both views had an honourable place within the Church, to being totally even-handed about appointments, to be ready and willing to take suffragan bishops and archdeacons from each?

And have those commitments been honoured for opponents? We all know that this has not been the case, and that many bishops will concede that they never have had, not will ever have, the slightest intention of doing so, particularly so far as any senior appointments in their dioceses are concerned. GRAS complains of the existence of Provincial Episcopal Visitors, yet if diocesan bishops had kept to the assurances given to the Synod in the early 90s on the appointment of suffragans and archdeacons, there might have been no need for PEVs.

Gentleman John

The Act of Synod was, of course, very much the child of Archbishop John Habgood, without whose efforts we should have had no protection whatsoever. After the Synod had passed the Act, I thanked the Archbishop for his efforts. ‘But,’ I added, ‘I think some of your fellow-bishops now have very sore arms.’ He was quite indignant and said they had voted for it willingly. Habgood was himself a man of the greatest integrity, and simply could not believe that any bishop could make solemn undertakings and promises that would not be kept. Just what sort of a Church have we become that in many cases now we simply cannot trust what many bishops say?

Not only would GRAS abolish the PEVs, it seeks also to revise the provisions of the Measure allowing Resolutions A, B and C. Many parishes throughout the country know that when there is a vacancy in such a parish, archdeacons and bishops will descend upon PCCs, cajoling them to rescind the vote, threatening them that they will not get a new incumbent if they continue in their wicked ways.

Interestingly, GRAS demand that ‘the decision to vote on the resolutions should be taken by all those entitled to vote for the churchwardens’ – the advantage of this to GRAS would of course be that even non-churchgoers could be mobilized to attend and vote.

Assassinating the future

The Report concludes with the Submission by WATCH (Women and the Church) to the Blackburn Commission, which ends with a passionate and rather patronizing quotation from (who else) the Reverend Jean Mayland. ‘What,’ she asks, ‘is the justification for going on ordaining young men who will not accept women priests? It is one thing to show compassion and concern for older priests who were ordained before the Church of England accepted women priests. It is quite another to perpetuate opposition.’

As one who was present at last year’s Pentecost Festival at the London Arena, I was moved to see that so many of the 700 robed priests were young men, clearly ordained after 1992 and therefore fully aware that of how they would be treated by some of their bishops.

But Jean Mayland’s line is, in more ways than one, the bottom line. There is for GRAS and WATCH no real place for us in the New Church of England. We can be tolerated and humoured for our strange views, as a quaint relic from less enlightened times, but we are not really wanted.

Anthony Howard makes an oblique reference to the Taliban, as if it is we who are the fundamentalists bringing pain and suffering to people in the pursuit of a Cause. Yet we have no Group to Rescind the Women Priests Measure. Even though we believe it to be against scripture and catholic order, most of us have tried to work alongside women clergy in deaneries and dioceses, respecting their gifts and ministries while being unable to recognise their priestly orders. And we know that in many cases we and they share the same commitment to mission, the same traditional biblical faith and ethical standards, the same care for people.

If, in the torn and divided world in which we now live, the Church cannot show that it can live with diversity within a common faith, I doubt if it deserves to survive at all.

George Austin is a journalist and broadcaster. He was formerly Archdeacon of York