One equals Two

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 most radical of those options: one clause legislation.

The problem which faces those who will draw up legislation for the ordination of women as bishops is how to make provision for the significant minority opposed to the action, whilst at the same time safeguarding the role of the bishop as ordinary and as focus of unity.

One clause legislation – a decision to ordain women as bishops with no provision for dissent – is obviously attractive to the proponents. Their position – an ethical a priori position based on notions of justice and fairness – logically requires them to oppose any concessions to opponents, who are by definition unfair, unjust and ought to be penalized rather than encouraged.

‘Imagine how black people would feel about a measure protecting those who wanted to practise and condone racism,’ said a recent GRAS advertisement in the church press. ‘The Act of Synod legitimates discrimination against women that would be unlawful and subject to criminal prosecution in other institutions and workplaces.’

The application of modern employment law, based on post-enlightenment notions of equality and equivalence, makes no theological sense whatever. But proponents are eager to use the bishop’s proper and necessary role as focus of unity, fount of orders and chief pastor (which requires all in the diocese to acknowledge his authority) to outlaw those who disagree with them theologically.

But a one-clause Measure, paradoxically, has its attractions for opponents as well. Catholic opposition to the ordination of women as priests and bishops focuses on their sacral role and ecclesial function. The schedules in the 1993 legislation, whilst ensuring their future life in the Church of England, were always problematical for Anglican Catholics. How to reconcile oneself to that fact that a decision about women’s ordination which the Pope had pronounced to be beyond the authority of the Holy See and the Church Universal was required by Parliament to be taken by every Parochial Church Council in the land? It is a requirement which makes John Keble’s objection to the suppression, by Parliament, of the Irish bishoprics look like a storm in a teacup.

Catholic opponents of the ordination of women as bishops, then, are as eager proponents – though for very different reasons – to see the role of the bishop upheld and defended in any ensuing legislation.

So what are the objections to a one clause Measure?

Paradoxically, again, they are objections based on notions of justice and fairness. In the debate which preceded the drafting of the present laws about women priests – both the Parliamentary Measure and the Act of Synod (which the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament insisted should accompany it) – the Church of England gave solemn undertakings about the respect and toleration which would be accorded to those who in conscience could not receive the new ministry. Those clear, categorical and firm assurances were the basis upon which individuals based decisions about their ecclesial future – and in the case of many clergy, about their future employment and the future of their families. They did so trusting the assurances given, and despite the knowledge that ‘conscience clauses’ elsewhere – in Sweden, Canada and the United States – had been either summarily withdrawn or flagrantly disregarded.

It would be a most serious matter were the Church of England, ten years on from those solemn assurances, to proceed with legislation which effectively rendered them null and void. The moral case against single clause legislation is very strong indeed – more particularly since many of the senior figures who brokered the 1993 agreement are still in office.

There is only one way in which GRAS could get what it wants and that is by formal division of the Church of England into two ecclesial bodies, one with women bishops and priests and one without. Then in both of them the integrity of orders could be restored.

Presently the Church of England guarantees to its members the right to refuse the ministry of ordained women. It supports to appointment of opponents to office at every level of the church’s life, and admits those opposed to ordination as priests. Canon A4, which requires all members of the Church to receive as authentic the ministry of all ordained by its ordinal is effectively suspended by a Parliamentary Measure which trumps it. This is understandably irksome to those who want the ministry of women priests and bishops to be everywhere accepted and endorsed.

At the same time however, Anglican ecclesiology and English law make it inevitable that those who wish to impose women’s ordination are bound to accept that in other provinces of the Communion and other churches in the United Kingdom, the opinion of the minority in the Church of England prevails.

Diversity – so very Anglican! – would give them what they want. A structural solution would allow the Church of England to honour its undertakings to opponents, whilst introducing, in one part at least, the sex discrimination legislation which has become, for GRAS, the final guarantee of Christian authenticity. No-one could complain that they had to put up with another ecclesial body with opposing opinions, since they have to do that already.

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