Hopelessly flawed – again

FOLLOWING the Australian General Synod in 2001, Standing Committee set up another Working Group to further study the question of women bishops and alternative episcopal ministry. Recently that group’s report and suggested legislation for the 2004 General Synod was released. Two things can be said about it.

Provisional bishops

First, an official group at the heart of the Australian Church’s life has at last acknowledged the full implications of the `theology of reception’. This is a milestone in Australian debates on the ordination of women. The Working Group says that

… an approach which provides a legislative `link’ between moves to permit the ordination of a woman as a bishop, and the provision of alternative episcopal oversight for those who see themselves alienated by such a move, in some ways continues to commend itself theologically and pastorally. What this `link’ represents is a willingness, in the terms used by the House of Bishops of the Church of England, to live with paradox and provisionality, and allow an ongoing period of `reception’ within our life as church. The Lambeth Conference required respect for all positions during such a period, which, if taken properly, must at least envisage the possibility that a decision to permit women to be ordained to the episcopate may come to be perceived as not from God. Following this line, then, the question is whether a woman should be ordained as a bishop in the context of a period of time that includes provisions for both those who support such a step and for those who do not.

The working group is to be commended for the inclusion of this paragraph in its report.

Second, unlike the 2001 recommendations, the legislation links alternative episcopal ministry to the consecration of women bishops, but without providing any particular model .

… The particular form of the Canon suggested seeks to hold together the `link’ between recognition of the divergent principles held, and provision for those who cannot accept the development of our tradition required to open the office of bishop to women. We do not believe that any other basic approach is sufficient to preserve our communion within this Anglican Church of Australia.

The legislation proposed for consideration in 2004 does not contain a detailed schedule. However, it retains the obligation for the bishops of a diocese to put in place and maintain arrangements for alternative episcopal oversight. It specifies essential elements of that oversight, while providing some flexibility for its application in the circumstances in each diocese. The group feels that this approach best responds to the strongly divergent principled positions in General Synod and the wider Australian Church. At the same time it takes account of the strongly diocesan character of the Anglican Church in Australia.

Beyond the issues of principle involved, this proposal allows local circumstances in each diocese and province to be taken into account within agreed parameters, and details to be altered as necessary without the prolonged delays inevitably involved in General Synod processes. The group recognized that any overall protocol accepted by General Synod could not provide for every contingency and would require a level of trust and cooperation at diocesan level to make it work effectively.

Some friends of Forward in Faith have predicted that the 2004 legislation will commend itself to General Synod. But I cannot imagine anybody from our constituency voting for it. Those Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals who believed that the 2001 model of alternative episcopal ministry was inadequate will surely reject legislation attached to what is demonstrably an even weaker model.

A weak alternative

It must be rejected because the form of alternative episcopal ministry on offer is so watered down that it comes nowhere near expressing the level of impairment of communion that will result from the purported consecration of women bishops. The model proposed is of the kind experienced in England where a suffragan who does not ordain women relates to `our’ parishes on behalf of the liberal diocesan bishop. It is almost as good as the PEV system, which is sufficient at a pinch if all we are talking about is women priests. In the context of women bishops that level of alternative episcopal ministry cannot hold us together.

Another reason why the legislation must be rejected is that it makes our future dependent on the whims of local liberal bishops and their senior staff. These are the people who have always understood the theology of reception to mean giving us a bit of latitude until we die out! With very few exceptions, they have been trying to wipe us out for the last eleven years. How can our people be expected to trust them now? Because of our experience of the last eleven years as well as the experience of our brothers and sisters in the USA and Canada we simply will not support a system of alternative episcopal ministry that hinges on the whim of the individual bishop. There is no protection in that.

In other words, the legislation fails to provide the structural change that Forward in Faith has always said is the logical outcome of the ordination of women. That is what it means to guard the life of the `two integrities’.

Nothing, however, could be further from the thinking of our opponents. A couple of years ago, during the episcopal interregnum in Brisbane Diocese, Bishop Richard Appleby, then Administrator, wrote in the diocesan paper that he simply `cannot even consider’ alternative episcopal oversight, because it would destroy the integrity of the bishop’s ministry as a `focus of unity’ for the whole diocese. Furthermore, he said it would `legislate for schism’.

The 5 word

Now, we usually try to carry on the debate gently, avoiding emotive terms where possible. But because our opponents are now using the S word against us, it is important for them to know that from our point of view schism (a departure from the Faith and/or Order of the Catholic Church – CB Moss) was legislated for back in 1992, and that it is they, the innovators, who are technically schismatic. We, the minority, are utterly mainstream, because for all of our sins and weaknesses we proudly hold on to the expressed Faith and Order of the Catholic Church and refuse to be part of the heresies and sacramental uncertainties of schismatic bishops.

It seems that the new Archbishop of Canterbury understands how deeply felt these issues are. We are encouraged by his openness to the possibility of a `free province’ in England and the fact that he is `deeply committed to the “two integrities”, however much I may sometimes regret its necessity’ (as he wrote recently to a Continuing Church bishop). We hope that his views influence our liberal bishops to bite the bullet and work with us on some meaningful structural change without which the fairness envisaged by him will never become a reality in Australia.

David Chislett is Rector of All Saints’, Wickham Terrace, Brisbane.