Geoffrey Kirk on the parting of the ways

When the General Synod of the Church of England is apprehensive about the consequences of an action which it is about to take, it stages a set-piece debate which it knows will have no influence on that decision, and then congratulates itself on the breadth, depth and quality of the debate.

Archbishop Rowan Williams is a new boy to English synodical tactics; but he understands these unwritten, unspoken rules instinctively. Accordingly, he praised the debate on the Rochester Report (Wednesday, February 16) for being quite as broad, deep and sage as it ought to be. But it wasn’t.

Of course (using the word in its newly acquired Anglican sense) there was a great deal of ‘graciousness’ in evidence. People were thanked for their ‘graciousness’ and exhorted one another to be ‘gracious’. But minds were evidently closed and listening was at a minimum.

High society

Bishop John Gladwin neatly summarized the position in which the Church of England now finds itself. The question before the Synod he said, was whether, given women’s role in society, there were sufficiently good theological arguments to prevent the Church from consecrating them. He did not believe that there were; and the Synod appeared to agree with him. Gladwin’s presupposition was that conformity to contemporary mores is a good thing – both of itself and in the service of the mission of the Church – and that theology should interfere with this unexceptionable process only in exceptional and indubitable circumstances.

Catholic Anglicans owe a debt of gratitude to the bishop, for clarifying in this important debate, the ground and extent of disagreement between us.

For a long time now liberal Anglicans have been proceeding, with regard both to scripture and the tradition, by means of a hermeneutic of suspicion. Such a methodology routinely assumes that the Bible and the foundational documents of the Church are (unless proven otherwise) subject to a blinkered partriachalist prejudice which makes their claims and statements highly suspect to a generation which has outlived that oppressive world view.

As Fr Jonathan Baker and Bishop Geoffrey Rowell emphasised in the debate, the assumptions of Catholics are almost diametrically opposite. Fr Jonathan has set out the Catholic position very clearly at the end of the Introduction to Consecrated Women?

‘The writing of this report has presented its authors with a unique problem. Even Pope John Paul II has made it clear that his office is to restate authoritatively and clearly the tradition of the Church: that Our Lord chose only male apostles, and that his example is bind-ing on the Church for all time. The Pope has left it to theologians to seek to provide a coherent rationale for the free, sovereign and gracious action of God in Christ. That is what this report sets out to do: to de-fend and explain what (in one sense) needs no further defence. We seek to defend the unvarying tradition of the Catholic Church – that Bride for whom Our Lord died, with whom he promised to remain ‘to the end of the age’, and whose life is guided, in all things, by the Holy Spirit. For many of us it is enough to say what Holy Church teaches, and has always taught. There is therefore almost a presumption in this report – a pre-sumption that we may indeed justify the ways of God to man. The reader is urged to take the willing acknow-ledgement of this presumption as an apology for any deficiencies in what follows.’

It would be easy (as no doubt the proponents of the ordination of women are tempted to do) to portray such a view as narrow and literalist. But the opposite is the case: it is open and generous, involving as it does a commitment to open-ended ecumenism with the past, and to listening to the tradition with an attentive and obedient ear. Fr Jonathan has also written:

‘The main premise of all out arguments needs to be stated from the start. It is this: that we believe we can trust God’s revelation of himself in Scripture. We believe that the insights into the divine nature which the narratives of Scripture disclose are neither capricious nor misleading, but point us to the truth’.

Gulf war

Quite simply, to the hermeneutic of suspicion, which characterises the liberal approach, Catholics oppose a hermeneutic of attentive trust. And between the two is a great gulf fixed.

In the way in which people do, Rowan Williams assured the Synod that both sides in the debate understand themselves to be under the authority of scripture and guided by it, in what they say and propose to do (or not to do). Such a statement, whilst it is the very epitome of ‘graciousness’, is uncharacteristically simplistic for an Archbishop whose intellectual complexities have been cause of not a little public comment.

Whilst it is true that no interpreter of a tradition or an ancient text can wholly set aside the dispositions and presuppositions of the age in which she lives (and would be less useful and intelligible if she could), it is also true that there is no equivalence of attitude between Bishop Gladwin and Fr Baker. In the dialogue between the tradition and the contemporary world, one gives the primacy to Scripture, the other to the Zeitgeist. It does not matter, for these purposes, that they probably cannot agree about what Scripture says and what it means. What is important is that their very methodologies are radically at variance. To claim that both see themselves as equally under scriptural authority is to do a grave injustice to the conscientiously held opinions of both.

Opposites detract

And here we come to the paradox. For two such opposing methodologies can no more exist in one ecclesial structure than two rival bishops can subsist in the same diocese.

To give them due credit, Bishop Gladwin’s friends have grasped this. They know that if Fr Baker and his ilk are to be allowed a continued existence in the Church of England it must be one of dependency. A one clause Measure attended by a Code of Practice is the most they say they are prepared to concede. One can see why. As the Windsor Report has determined, so long as the two methodologies are held to be equal and equivalent, the agenda cannot be progressed. A line has to be drawn under women’s ordination before the pending ‘issues in human sexuality’ can be satisfactorily resolved. No-one, not even the Archbishop of Canterbury, can be so ‘gracious’ as to permit an infinitely receding series of over-lapping periods of reception.

The time has come, as a powerful and cogent speech in the debate proclaimed, for the Church of England to make up its mind. ‘Graciousness’ may well, in that case, fall victim to reality. The mood of the Synod suggested that few would mourn its loss.

Geoffrey Kirk attended the debate on the Rochester Report