John Habgood on the dimensions of tolerance

I have been asked to reflect on the working of the Act of Synod and on the advertisement published by the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod (GRAS) published in the Church Times on February 6th. I do so with some reluctance, as it seems to me that retired clergy should not offer gratuitous advice to their successors. Futhermore, in recent years I have been in no position to observe closely how the Act has been working. I can, however, try to explain more fully the intentions of the Act, and the hopes of those of us who devised it.

The Gamaliel Principle

The principle that it should be possible to discriminate between the priestly ministry of men and women was built into the Measure for the Ordination of Women itself, which would not have been passed either by Synod or Parliament had that provision not been there. If the Act is sexist, therefore, then so is the Measure, and those elements within it which are felt to be offensive are an indication of the gulf which had to be bridged. What the Act did was to extend to clergy the same right to discriminate as that given to parishes. It has allowed objectors to distance themselves from the actual ordination of women as priests, and to receive pastoral care from likeminded bishops, just as lay people can distance themselves from the Measure if their parish chooses to invoke its restrictive clauses. No time limit was set on the Act, and those of us who promoted it were relying on the Gamaliel principle (Acts 5.38–39), whereby in due course it should become plain to all those open to God’s guidance, when the time has come that it is no longer needed. We assumed that members of the Church of England would be open-minded enough, and generous enough, to learn from each other, and to ask themselves on the basis of each other’s experience whether this new ministry is clearly being blessed by God or not.

Learning denied

Sadly this mutual learning does not seem to have been taking place as much as it might have done. The advertisement by GRAS, with its hectoring tone and insulting remarks, is not going to help those targetted by it to evaluate sympathetically whether the actual impact of women priests on the Church of England has been positive or negative. It is not a good sign if success, won by much patient endeavour, merely serves to breed intransigence. Accusations of sexism are easy to make, but miss the point that for those concerned what is more likely to be at stake is not sexual discrimination as ordinarily understood, but a desire to be faithful to what are perceived to be the teachings of Scripture and tradition. On the other hand, those who feel they are misrepresented by GRAS’s criticisms need to acknowledge that their emphasis on what they believe to be given in Scripture and tradition has to be open to critical evaluation, if the charge of sexism is to be avoided. An isolationist policy, coupled with a blank refusal to look again at the evidence in the light of experience, is in my view just as blameworthy as the contemptuous dismissal of the Act by its opponents. The intention of the Act was to provide a space within which mutual understanding and respect could grow, and it is not too late, I believe, to allow this to happen.

Hardened divisions

The creation of a third province would harden divisions and make them permanent. To this extent I agree with GRAS. It would also undermine a vital principle on which the Act is based, namely that in each diocese both parties, though they may receive different pastoral and sacramental ministries, are under the jurisdiction of the same diocesan bishop. This is why it was strongly recommended that PEVs should be appointed as honorary suffragan or assistant bishops in the dioceses in which they minister, and that there should be proper consultation between diocesans and PEVs on all matters concerning clergy who make use of the Act. Thus where the Act is working as it should, the unity of the church through its bishops is formally maintained, and in my own limited experience of operating it, this is exactly what happened. The creation of a separate province would destroy the territorial basis of the Church of England, as well as greatly weakening the episcopal and geographical links at different levels which now hold it together.

It seems to me vital for the future health of our church that we should avoid a hardening of attitudes on both sides, which is why I deplore the tone of the GRAS advertisement. If it leads to serious debate, well and good, but if it is interpreted as a threat it can only do harm.

Slanging matches

I have recently enjoyed reading the first volume of Hans Küng’s autobiography, from which it is abundantly clear that deep theological divisions are not peculiar to the Church of England. It is also clear that when there is a readiness to study deeply enough, to be respectful yet critical towards our legacy from history, and to be both charitable and forthright towards those with whom we disagree, remarkable things can happen. But nothing of any value is achieved either by slanging matches or by a stubborn refusal to learn from experience.

John Habgood is a former Archbishop of York.