Throughout the last century the Church has been targeted by a succession of single issue pressure groups. Our grandparents would not have given much credence to the chances of any of them succeeding, but by a process of attrition they have reaped their reward.
Abortion law reform was one of the earlier liberal successes. Previous generations had understood that the sixth commandment (you shall not kill) meant what it said. There was a consensus that it meant you should not kill another human being, even though some would have pleaded dispensation for soldiers in war and a citizen acting in self-defence.
It would have been hard to circumvent the consensus that human beings all enjoyed the status of being made in God’s image, irrespective of their race, creed, gender – or size. Nobody would have proposed criteria for being considered human, such as the ability to breathe unaided. No, people in iron lungs were as human as the rest of us.
So the activists sought to redefine the young and the vulnerable. Rather than speak of unborn children they invoked the depersonalizing medical term ‘foetus’. They spoke of a foetus as though it was not a human being, whereas common sense tells us that if you leave well enough alone and provide nurture and care the ‘foetus’ will become a baby, a child, an adolescent, and eventually an adult.
Then they started tinkering with the language. Procuring the death of an unborn child was sanitized with euphemisms like ‘termination of pregnancy’. It made the gruesome business sound almost therapeutic.
Then came the disinformation and the suppression of inconvenient facts. First of all the ‘facts’ were exaggerated. Figures for illegal abortions, which by their very nature will be difficult to assess and impossible to verify, were (as some of the activists now admit) fanciful, inflated and exaggerated. The procedure itself was presented as no more significant than a visit to the dentist – something that could be fitted in at lunch-time. No mention, of course, of the subsequent trauma, the feelings of guilt and loss, the all too common infertility and all the other things that a little bit of counselling is powerless to deal with.
Women’s ordination was another liberal success story. Previous generations understood that when Paul told Timothy that in a church context he ‘permitted no woman to teach or have authority over men’ that was exactly what he meant. It was initially hard for the activists to fly in the face of Scripture, so they invoked the human rights argument. If you are minded to synthesize your faith as you go along, rather than accepting the Biblical revelation, that must seem perfectly reasonable.
When it became apparent that Evangelicals in particular were unconvinced of the validity of this approach, the activists turned their attention to Scripture and started trawling for verses that might be construed as favourable to their cause. To succeed they either had to find verses that appeared to drive a wedge between the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul, thereby discrediting Paul, or they had to discredit the words of Scripture. They sought to do this by disputing whether Paul ever said certain things in the first place, and arguing that if he did, whilst he might have meant them in the first century, he certainly wouldn’t in the twentieth (in the light of scientific knowledge), or that he was being ironic and in fact meant the opposite of what he wrote.
One has to admit that they were persuasive and ingenious. I can recall one deanery synod I attended when the local MOW convenor was debating the issue with a traditionalist. The MOW man gave a very good exposition of scripture about the role of women. He started in Genesis and worked his way through as far as 1 Corinthians. Then he observed that there were some difficult passages in Chapter 11 and also in 1 Timothy 2, but ‘since the arguments Paul uses here are so un-Christian, we can ignore them’. Sadly the orthodox believers who were present didn’t have the bottle to challenge such banalities and his naïve theology went unchallenged.
The measure scraped through Synod, securing the required majority in the House of Laity by just two votes. The Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament found the measure expedient, but neither Synod nor Parliament would have accepted the measure had it not been for the provisions for orthodox Anglicans and the compensation for clergy who felt obliged in conscience to resign in protest.
Ten years down the track we have a thousand parishes who have passed the resolution declaring that they would not accept a woman priest as their incumbent. Such a degree of disunity has not existed since the Reformation.
We have also spent millions of pounds paying clergy who have presumably been called by God to the ministry not to exercise that ministry. Can you imagine proposing a motion at your diocesan synod calling for a course of action that would require an additional £26 million to be added to parish shares? There would likely be a lynch mob out before the meeting was over. However, that is what the Church of England, in its wisdom, has done.
Now comes the Rochester Commission’s report on women bishops. There are, I believe, eight options in the draft report about how we could proceed. If you discount some of the Alice-in-Wonderland ideas like ‘Shared episcope’ which would treat a diocese as something like a team ministry, you are left with two serious possibilities.
One is that the one line measure in which bars on the consecration of women to the episcopate would be removed and those who didn’t like it could knuckle under or leave the church. The other is to have a third province which would embrace those who wished to hold to the traditional faith, leaving the provinces of Canterbury and York to those who enjoy women bishops and other new developments. But why have a third province for the orthodox?
Would it not make more sense if the Church of England were to reject such divisive novelties in the Provinces of Canterbury and York but set up a third province for those who wished to espouse such new ideas? Parishes could be invited to vote at their AGMs whether or not they wished to transfer to the new province and it would be plain for all to see how much demand there is in the pews for the Church to conform to the mindset of the world.
The Church of England could remain as an anchor within the Anglican Communion and the third province could be in communion with the dioceses of New Hampshire, New Westminster and any other like minded folk they could find. This would surely be a ‘happy issue out of all our difficulties’ which is after all what we have all prayed for.
Gerry O’Brien is a lay member of the General Synod. He represents the Diocese of Rochester.