The conclusive failure in the General Synod debate on July 11 of Bishop Geoffrey Rowell’s amendment seeking further time for the discussion of the Rochester Report on women in the episcopate was a watershed. Until that point it had been possible for some, at least, of the opponents of women bishops to persuade themselves that the process was not inexorable and that the doctrine of reception had been seriously entertained by the proponents.
From the moment that amendment was rejected, it was tragically clear that the Church of England as a whole no longer has any serious intention of approaching this issue theologically or ecumenically. The tired and repetitive arguments of those in favour were summed up in the strident tones of one speaker: ‘How can we speak to the nation about justice when we can’t organise ourselves in a just way.’
It is upon just such an ethical a priori argument that the proponents have always based themselves and on which they now base their demand (frequently repeated in the debate) for a one clause measure with a time-limited code of practice.
It would be as well, therefore, to state as plainly as we can why a code of practice is unacceptable to opponents and would be bad for the Church of England.
It is unacceptable to opponents because it does not take seriously what they suppose to be fundamental and conclusive arguments against the innovation; because it would be subject to the personal vagaries and idiosyncrasies of bishops and others who would administer it; and because it is intentionally and by its very nature temporary and contingent.
It would be bad for the Church at large because it would be a betrayal of solemn undertakings given; because it would perpetuate conflict and dissension; and because it would signal a fundamental change in the Church of England’s self-understanding.
From the point of view of the Church of England as a whole the third is the weightiest consideration. None but the most bigoted proponents of this innovation can maintain that it passes the classic Anglican test for doctrines which are to be received. It cannot be said, with Article VI, to be required by Scripture (‘read therein’ or ‘proved thereby’). Nor (except in the fertile imaginations of some Christian feminists) has the tradition ever embraced it. It is not the pattern of ministry which was handed down to the Church of England.
To adopt one clause legislation in a matter so doubtful and contentious is necessarily to assert that a priori arguments and ‘contemporary experience’ (masquerading as ‘reason’) will always trump Scripture and tradition in Anglican ecclesiology.
It will have ominous implications for other developments which are being (and will be) urged on grounds of justice and equality. If two legs of Richard Hooker’s famous stool are to be sawn off, the church which sits on it will be precarious indeed. The Church of England, as the Bishop of Chichester presciently predicted, will be in a ‘lose lose situation’.
second watershed was the passing of the Archdeacon of Berkshire’s amendment, to ask the Bishop of Guildford’s group to ‘give specific attention to the issues of canonical obedience and the universal validity of orders throughout the Church of England as it would affect clergy and laity who cannot accept the ordination of women to the episcopate on theological grounds.’
The Synod was a little unsure what to make of this. Speeches by Chancellor Tom Coningsby, Vicar-General of York, (who pointed out the inability of opponents to accept the jurisdiction of women bishops would strike at the heart of the Clergy Discipline Measure) and the Bishop of Oxford (who spoke movingly of how he wanted the Church of England to continue to have a honoured place for opponents) turned the debate around. The amendment was passed.
The effect of the amendment? The idea that a Code of Practice is an adequate provision for opponents is holed below the waterline. That provision has to be by legislation, taking into account the issues raised about jurisdiction, and about orders. How can clergy swear allegiance to one whom they cannot accept as a bishop? How can lay people be confident that a male priest at the altar has been ordained in the succession?
In the final vote on the amended motion, almost one-third of the House of Laity voted against women bishops, meaning that any future legislation will have to be finely tuned to guarantee the necessary two-third’s majority in the House of Laity.
The successful amendment, the evident goodwill in the latter part of the debate, and the close vote in the House of Laity are all encouraging pointers. The fight for a structural solution has just begun. The Bishop of Guildford’s group is now bound by vote of the Synod to consider matters which a Code of Practice cannot address or include. They will be helped in that task by letters and papers making clear the breadth of the constituency which takes seriously the concerns the Archdeacon raised.