Robbie Low on past imperfect, present tense and future imperative

WHEN, in November 1992, General Synod finally bowed to the pressure of the lobby groups and agreed to the ordination of women to the priesthood, it was on the back of a considerable number of reassurances. The legislation was to be permissive. That is to say that it gave permission to those who wanted to press ahead with this ‘pioneering’ work but would not oblige others to follow suit.

There would be no discrimination against clergy or parishes who continued to hold and expound the traditional teaching of the Church.

The whole experiment would be subject to the ‘doctrine’ of reception. Only when the Universal Church accepted it as a true inspiration of the Holy Spirit, consistent with Holy Scripture and in accordance with the life and teaching of Christ would we know that the ordinations and the sacraments that flowed therefrom were anything other than provisional.

The ordination of women to the priesthood was to be understood as a one-off act of ‘justice’ at an ‘appropriate’ moment in history of the Church. It was not part of any wider liberal agenda!

While we must, out of charity, continue to assume that those who put forward these arguments were not being disingenuous, time has exposed their case as flawed in every particular.

It is probably true to say that, even in 1992, the overwhelming majority of the Church of England folk were not greatly motivated either way. The number of church-going women belonging to feminist lobby groups was never as large as the number of Christian women in groups opposed. The proponents though had disproportionate political weight by virtue of deaconesses being admitted to the House of Clergy some years earlier. They were also buoyed by episcopal and archepiscopal leadership which saw itself as modernizing and reforming. Its critics tended to view it variously as compromising, careerist and ecclesiologically ignorant.

The opponents of the ‘reform’ were not a large group either. Substantially comprised of conservative Evangelicals and Catholics they found themselves largely unled by a group of bishops appointed for quieter times and who seemed wholly unprepared for the crisis.

Those who toured the Deanery Synod debates on the issue returned remarkably consistent reports. Those bodies of the well-meaning and largely self-selected had little time for theological issues. Unsurprisingly the advocates of women’s ordination did not dwell there either as their case has never survived serious scriptural scrutiny. The deaneries overwhelmingly wanted the argument to be over. Saying ‘No’ would have condemned them to another round of unpleasantness every subsequent year until the Holy Spirit changed his mind. Some layfolk bought the ‘justice and equality’ argument. Many more felt ill-equipped to deny what a woman ordinand was feeling and what her bishop clearly wanted to give her.

At a higher level the General Synod did little better. Theology was not at a premium among the advocates. Members were treated to emotional rants from David Jenkins, an Ulsterman’s plea for justice and equality from the Bishop of Southwark and Professor David Mclean employing all his lawyer’s charm to deny the blindingly obvious that the proposals were ruinous and divisive. Dr Carey attempted a theological raison d’être by comparing General Synod with the Council of Jerusalem. In confusing a scripturally disobedient provincial council of a schismatic province with a recognized Council of the Universal Church in submission to the Word of God it could scarcely have afforded a better argument against the Archbishop’s predetermined conclusion. On the day, as events transpired, it did not matter much. The vote passed and the rest of the Church of England was left to digest what its political enthusiasts had decreed.

How have we fared? Let’s look, for a moment, at the fate of the promises, outlined at the beginning of this article, upon which the passage of this legislation depended both in Synod and in Parliament.

1) Permissive Legislation

Had the legislation been truly permissive there was an obvious and positive way forward. Those parishes that welcomed it and wanted to be open to the possibility of ministry by a woman priest could have passed a standard acceptance motion to that effect at their parochial church councils. It would have meant that every parish that wanted to be part of Archbishop Carey’s pioneer corps would have to debate the issue and make a decision. They would have had to wrestle with the problem of the future pastoral care of the significant number of people, even in some liberal parishes, who remained unconvinced – a necessary if painful process. But they would, consequently, have been able to assure any woman that came to the parish that she was indeed wanted. This would have been a considerable relief to many women priests who, all too often, were used as emotional battering rams on less than convinced parishes at considerable cost to the women themselves.

Perversely but perhaps predictably the ‘reformers’ had no such intention. What had been presented as permissive legislation – opt into it if you want its ‘benefits’ – turned out to be rather the reverse. Clergy and parishes were assumed to be permissive, to have bought the liberal line, unless they took drastic steps to opt out of it. The concessions, ground out of an unwilling establishment as the crisis unfolded, were in the form of resolutions which a parish could take under certain conditions.

If the incumbent was willing to make it clear that he believed the General Synod, the Archbishop of Canterbury and, usually, his own diocesan bishop were in error on this matter, the PCC could, after parish-wide consultation, propose the resolutions and seek a two-thirds majority. One resolution would effectively exclude women priests from ministry in the parish. A second resolution would prevent a woman priest becoming incumbent there but still allows for women curates. (This resolution was a concession to a curious misunderstanding among some Evangelicals on the Pauline doctrine of headship and allowed some parishes to operate a theologically indefensible policy of scarcely disguised sexism.)

A third, and belated concession, staunched the departure of traditionalist priests to 500 rather than the 1,000+ predicted. A parish could opt for episcopal care by a traditionalist bishop rather than that of the diocesan bishop whose action in ordaining doubt at the heart of the sacramental life had gravely impaired communion within the college of priests.

The deliberate shift from permissive legislation to coercive reality was a masterstroke by the liberal establishment. They understood, all too clearly, that people do not, on the whole, join the Church of England because they are natural enemies of the Establishment. Those who had caused the division need have no discussion in the parishes or ‘feel the pain’ of the disorder they had created. Traditional believers would have to have the public meetings, endless consultations and personalized debates. Most parishes were not up for that. Many priests, quite correctly, recognized that their future employment, never mind preferment, could be adversely affected by such a parochial denial of episcopal desire. The upshot was that the overwhelming majority of parishes never discussed the ‘permissive’ legislation. They were simply assumed to have welcomed it.

Those who had the courage to pursue the ‘opt out’ resolutions (well over 1,000 parishes for Resolutions A or B and some 300 plus for alternative episcopal care – Resolution C) have learnt just how ‘permissive’ the legislation is in practice. Parishes and priests who have taken the resolutions have been variously regarded as ‘misogynist’, ‘medieval’, ‘rebels’ and ‘psychologically flawed’. They have to undergo a regular review of their decisions every five years and/or at every interregnum. Parishes are assured, quite dishonestly, that their stance will make it very difficult to find future staffing for such parishes.

Which brings us to…

2) Discrimination

You do not need to be in a diocese as liberal as the one in which I worked for the last twenty years to know about this. The experience or orthodox priests over the last decade has been pretty uniform. Discrimination in matters of appointment and preferment are standard issue. It is quite acceptable to appoint a liberal priest to a conservative living but absolutely unthinkable to impose a traditionalist priest on a liberal parish. Quite how thorough and cynical this practice has been was uncovered eighteen months ago in the great ‘Mind of Anglicans’ survey . It revealed that 40% of the parishes who had passed resolutions A and/or B had been given an incumbent who was opposed to them put there by the bishop to overturn parochial defiance. All the quisling priests, of course, had solemnly promised to ‘respect the views of the parish’.

In matters of preferment there is, for public consumption, ‘no prejudice’. In private more honest bishops will tell you that there is no way, and has not been since 1992, that serious opponents of the liberal project will be on their preferment lists or anybody else’s no matter how talented.

Among those traditionalists in office in 1992 and among the minute number appointed since, it is difficult to find any serious public criticism of the presenting theological error or its effect upon the Church. It is almost as if a prerequisite of a traditionalist in office is a Cistercian vow of silence on the liberal project. The modernizers can have their David Jenkins, Jim Thompson, Peter Selby, George Carey, John Saxbee, Colin Slee, Rowan Williams and the dozens of other bishops and deans to bang the drum. But the prospect of one or two articulate fearless traditionalists in office is an outrage not to be endured. Institutional cowardice is the familiar hallmark of bad governance in a declining institution. Robust and expansive organizations welcome the creative conflict that test ideas and thinking. It is a bitter irony to live in a liberal establishment so afraid of critical encounter on an equal footing.

Which brings us to…

3) Reception

If the liberal establishment was ever serious about the ‘doctrine of reception’, except as a palliative in debate, there has been little sign of it since. Exclusion from senior office of the most convinced and articulate opponents has shown their true intent. But there is more to it than that. The great promises that attended the debate can now begin to be assessed.

Remember these claims?

Claim: Women priests will bring people flooding back to Church

Reality: Their decade has seen nearly 20% our Anglican attendance disappear.

Claim: Women priests will make the Church more child-friendly.

Reality: National statistics reveal a catastrophic 50% plus collapse in child attendance over the decade. Those who understood feminism, the driving force behind the theological mask, will not be in the least surprised at its child-unfriendly results.

Claim: Women priests will offer a less challenging, more inclusive ministry to men as well as women.

Reality: Christian women were always statistically more opposed than men to priestesses but the figures of the last decade reveal something at once surprising and alarming. Men are leaving in their droves. The overwhelming majority of the quarter of a million departures during the decade have been men. As attendance of fathers (or lack of it) is the most significant factor in the child’s future attendance at church, we can begin to see the links in the destructive patterns.

Not only have the promises turned out to be empty they have had, rather, the very opposite effect.

If that is true of the internal workings of the Church, what of the prospect of our experiment being ‘received’ by the Universal Church? The Methodists, so often jilted at the ecumenical altar, were pleased but will accept nothing less than women bishops as an earnest of our future intent. They may have lost their historical raison d’être and be largely moribund as an evangelistic force in England but their increasing detachment from Wesley and attachment to the liberal agenda makes them natural partners on the liberal project. The Scandinavian state churches, regular and long-standing persecutors of orthodoxy in their own ranks and careless of apostolic succession, have been clasped to the bosom of our liberal establishment in the Porvoo agreement. This pact effectively ends any serious Anglican claim to a Catholic understanding of apostolic succession.

These two minnows may be in our pond but the wider picture looks bleaker than ever. The Orthodox increasingly despair of modern Anglicanism’s scriptural disobedience and withdraw from the debates. The Oriental churches suspend discussion. The Roman Catholics, even the more liberal minded, have watched with understandable horror the divisive effects of the experiment. John Paul II has declared that the Pope himself has no authority to go down the road to women’s ordination. It is a novelty beyond the writ of the magisterium as it conforms neither to Holy Scripture, the teaching of the Church nor the doctrines of creation and incarnation or the example of Jesus. It is an irony that should not be lost on any Protestant that Dr Carey considered himself to have more authority than the Pope. In consequence, for more than a decade, dialogue has been personally polite but utterly and terminally stuck. It is quite clear that the Universal Church cannot and will never receive this new ‘dogma’, which has become, effectively, a Test Act for membership of the Church of England.

Which brings us finally to…

4) The liberal agenda

Dr Carey and his supporters assured the General Synod, and through it the Church of England as a whole, that this was a one-off measure. There were no links to a wider liberal agenda. One can only charitably assume that Carey’s enthusiasm for his error arose either from an astonishing naivety or a profound ignorance about the church he led.

He chaired the appointments committee which routinely excluded traditionalists from office while appointing men whose liberal credentials frequently toppled over into heresy. He convinced himself that the Bible did not mean what it said about women/priesthood/authority etc. He commissioned a revision of Christian marriage doctrine which left scriptural authority in disarray. His effect on the ecumenical venture I have already catalogued above. To his great surprise homosexuals began to wonder, increasingly loudly, that if scripture didn’t mean what it said about what other people wanted to do, did it really mean what it said about them? Carey and the class of ’92 should not have been surprised by any of this or indeed, subsequently, by New Hampshire or New Westminster.

The coherence of the liberal agenda is founded on its subtle but massive rejection of scripture in favour of post-Christian secular wisdom. It uses the name Christ but it utterly redefines who and what he is. Like any number of cults, the liberal Church has little to do with the Gospel witness or the historic teaching of the Church. Christ is, at best, for them a spiritual rubber-stamp for the mood of the moment. Nowhere was this clearer than in the great ‘Mind of Anglicans’ survey. Overwhelming evidence, given by the priests themselves, showed that the less they believed about Jesus the more they favoured abortion, divorce, euthanasia, homosexual practice and, of course, women priests and women bishops. There was a direct correlation between every single credal deficit and each moral and ecclesiological default. Those who cheerily denied the existence of a liberal agenda ten years ago have little left to comfort them now.

So what is next?

The Future

As we go to press the Bishop of Rochester’s Commission is reporting to the House of Bishops on the theological case for and against women bishops. However cautiously that report may be phrased, it cannot but recommend this next and inevitable error to the Church of England.

The bishops may amend the report. They may seek to delay its outcome for political convenience. But they cannot be seen to reject it. So, in one form or another, within the next five years at the outside, women bishops will become a reality here. The consequences of this goes far beyond the decision on women priests. This is the endgame for orthodoxy in the Church of England.

1) The advent of women bishops will immensely complicate the life of an already divided Church. A traditionalist believer may presently choose to attend a church where there is no doubt about the sacraments. He will be courteous to his woman priest neighbour but he will not attend her celebrations of Communion. A woman bishop, however, will convey doubt into the sacrament of Holy Orders themselves. Those she ‘ordains’, women or men, will not be accepted as priests by any orthodox believer.

2) Women bishops will divide the episcopal bench in England. There remain a few traditionalist bishops who cannot and will not accept this innovation as consistent with scripture. They will, presumably, be expected to take early retirement or leave the communion of Anglicanism.

3) Women bishops will bring to an end the promised period of ‘reception’. With considerable difficulty the Cof E could, if so minded, still technically reverse its decision on women priests. (It will not, of course, not least because of the scandalous abuse of the appointments system over the last decade or so. But it could.) It can, however, never reverse women bishops for they can simply reproduce themselves. The great promise that ‘reception’ would mean the Great Communions of East and West accepting that the Church of England had been a genuine pioneer of the Holy Spirit and the whole Church will be exposed as no more than a convenient lie.

At that point orthodox believers will have some difficult decisions to make. Those decisions will depend partly upon the current and future actions of the bishops but also partly upon ourselves.

In accepting the Rochester report, the bishops could decide simply to plough on with it regardless, make no concessions and pray that a few more ‘troublemakers’ would go to Constantinople or Rome and the rest withdraw into a sullen but obedience silence. Their experience post-1992 does not suggest so comfortable a ride.

The bishops could make a number of minor concessions. Most of these, centring on which bishop (male or female) would be sent to the dissenting parish would be theologically vacuous.

In any settlement proposed they will have to bear in mind the Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent ruling in an apparently unrelated case. In the matter of Canon Jeffrey John’s proposed appointment as Bishop of Reading, the Archbishop stood Canon John down on the grounds that it was not right to appoint a bishop whom a significant number of the proposed flock would not accept. For Canon John read ‘woman bishop’ and the dilemma becomes clear.

Further extensions of ‘episcopal oversight’ will never cover the growing divide. The Act of Synod and the flying bishops system – always a temporary measure for the period of reception – will not suffice.

There is a possible solution and it has been proposed by Forward in Faith for a number of years now. It is to create a free and autonomous province of the Church of England for orthodox priests and parishes. Such a creation would, at a stroke, solve many of the greatest difficulties facing Christians on both sides of the argument.

a) It would put an end to the unseemly civil war which has disfigured the face of our Church.

b) It would give modernists and traditionalists the opportunity to run the ‘test of Gamaliel’. What is of God will prosper. What is untrue, like all heresy, will fail.

c) In the provinces of Canterbury and York all women ministers, priests and bishops, would be accepted wherever they went. There would be no opt-out clauses.

d) The members of the new province would be freed to relate to other traditionalist Anglican provinces in the growing Third World and make their own ecumenical relations with the Great Communions of East and West.

e) The new province members would not find themselves constantly at loggerheads with their fellows over every doctrinal and moral issue. There would be a new freedom to preach the Gospel and to be led by orthodox priests and bishops.

f) The old and liberal Provinces of Canterbury and York would be able to go down the American/Canadian road if they so chose without the constant drag anchor of traditionalist believers inhibiting their progress.

For such a province to come into being the bishops (General Synod and Parliament) would have to be convinced of:

1) The overwhelming need and the awful and divisive prospect of the alternatives

2) The viability of such a province

3) The strength of the constituency demanding it. At the moment there are some c1,200 parishes which have passed resolutions A and or B. Over 300 parishes have opted for alternative episcopal oversight (Resolution C). These figures will be crucial in the days ahead. They are much larger than the provinces of Wales or Scotland.

Those who wish to be part of the women bishops led, unfolding liberal agenda Church of England need do nothing. It will come to them within five years at the outside.

Those who want to be orthodox Anglicans and dissent from the unfolding credal and moral disintegration have much to do.

Parishes which have passed no resolutions need to begin the process of education and preparation now. The resolutions need to be on the Church Council’s agenda by the end of this year.

Those who have passed ‘A’ and ‘B’ – regardless of how friendly your diocesan bishop is – need to pass ‘C’ even if it is not activated immediately. It will provide a strong indicator that the parish is no longer prepared to go with the institutional liberal tide. The beliefs that led to the passing of A and B can only be realized in the new province. Once there are women bishops then all resolutions will be meaningless and void in the old provinces.

At present there are between 1,000 and 1,500 parishes with resolutions of one sort or another. That is more than enough for a provincial settlement. But, as always, the establishment will set the targets very high. The only thing that will convince the liberal hierarchy to allow the orthodox their right to remain Anglicans and traditional believers is the resolve of the priests and parishes. It is approaching ‘make your mind up’ time. If you want the freedom to be Anglican and orthodox, it is time to stand up and be counted. Resolutions A, B and C must be passed or you will lose even what you have today.