Steady as you go

As the Church of England moves towards the formal debate about women in the episcopate there are a number of options for the way forward. This month we examine perhaps the least radical of those options: a decision to continue the status quo.

There is a lot to be said, from the point of view both of proponents and opponents of women’s ordination for the status quo in the Church of England.

Proponents will reflect that the 1993 Measure was the best that could be achieved under the circumstances, and that the Act of Synod which followed closely upon it was a device which ensured that there were no ‘no-go’ dioceses for women priests.

What was being celebrated in Bristol Cathedral on the tenth anniversary of the first ordinations? It was, surely, a carefully crafted compromise which delivered what proponents wanted at the time they wanted it: the only possible way forward.

Opponents, on the other hand, will grudgingly admit that Extended Episcopal Care was not the Alternative Episcopal Oversight which they wanted; but that, more or less, and despite the occasional recidivist bishops and archdeacons here and there, it has worked tolerably well.

Both sides can take some pride that the arrangement has allowed the Church of England to give to the nation at large the sort of example in mutual respect and co-existence which Canon Dr Martin Percy (one of the founders of GRAS) recently told the BBC Sunday programme ought to be its vocation.

Why spoil all this now?

The ordination of women as bishops would (as the Archbishop of York has recently pointed out) make the delicate 1993 compromise unworkable. It would, at the same time, give the lie to all the generous talk about ‘an open period of reception’, on which the 1993 agreement to differ was based. Without the establishment of two separate orders of ministry in the same Church (an ecclesiola in ecclesia, so to say) women bishops would effectively end that reception process. The Church of England would be publicly betraying the trust that has been placed in it. A ‘church-within-a-church’ moreover, (‘institutional sexism’, as they would see it, is just what the proponents do not want.

The way out of this dilemma, for both parties, is surely to wait.

For the opponents the establishment of a New Province is fraught with difficulties (How many would join? Would it be financially viable? Would it be identifiably Anglican? Could it survive?) Better the compromise you know than an uncertain future in diminishing company.

For the proponents, who are hugely in the majority and have an assured future before them, there is no hurry. Opponents of the new ministry are, as Bishop Richard Holloway once said, ‘striving to sweep back the tide of God’. They will die out in a generation (most of the activists, after all, are in their late fifties or early sixties!) Better to wait and bring in a one clause measure for the ordination of women bishops, when the time is ripe, than fiddle with further compromises now which might set dangerous precedents for other crises in the future.

The status quo, moreover, has positive advantages, both ecumenically and in inter-Anglican relations. An Archbishop of Canterbury who does not ordain women as bishops remains more effectively the primus inter pares of a world-wide Episcopal college of bishops. A Church of England without women bishops can more effectively head up the Communion in it relations with Rome and Orthodoxy. Why raise the stakes further, in both areas, when gay bishops and same sex unions are already doing so?

It might also be argued (indeed, in another but related context, the Archbishop of Canterbury has already argued) that bishops are a case quite separate from priests. The difference lies in the role of bishop as a visible sign of unity.

The Archbishop, it will be remembered, had no objection to Canon Jeffrey John occupying a position as Canon Theologian of Southwark, but persuaded him to withdraw his candidacy as Bishop of Reading because ‘there is an obvious problem in the consecration of a bishop whose ministry will not be readily received by a significant proportion of Christians in England and elsewhere.’ The same might (at least in present circumstances) be thought to apply to women as bishops.

(This argument, after all, is not offensive to women: it is ideological only in so far as it depends upon an understanding of the role of the bishop in the life of the Church; it is pragmatic, in the sense that any objection would be removed were the individual candidate to prove generally acceptable.) A parallel might be drawn with distinctions made about bishops in the orthodox tradition, where there is generally a married clergy but a celibate episcopate.

If it is not broken, don’t mend it.

The argument for the status quo in the Church of England over women’s ministry is an argument for letting things settle down. At a time when attendance figures are still plummeting and a major financial crisis is looming, why further increase internal tensions for the sake of the preferment of a few women now; when the prize of a wholly inclusive ministry is attainable, in the long term, at far less cost?

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s, Lewisham, in the Diocese of Southwark.