Members of the editorial board provide a commentary on the two key motions that will come before General Synod. The debate and discussion of the past yea appears to have been abandoned. We start again

When the General Synod motions, for the July sessions in York, concerning the consecration of women bishops in the Church of England, were first made public, it was clear that everything had been moved back to square one. The House of Bishops seemed to have grown tired of what they had earlier agreed upon, they had grown weary of what was a difficult problem, and so had gone for the quick, simple, easy option.

Two motions, allowed a maximum of five and a half hours, may change the whole process the CofE has been agonizing over – again. It is important to understand what is intended and what will be the effect. The Synod motions are worded as follows:

On SATURDAY, 8 July, The Archbishop of York to move: ‘That this Synod welcome and affirm the view of the majority of the House of Bishops that admitting women to the episcopate in the Church of England is consonant with the faith of the Church as the Church of England has received it and would be a proper development in proclaiming afresh in this generation the grace and truth of Christ.’

On MONDAY, 10 July, if the above motion is carried, the Archbishop of Canterbury to move: ‘That this Synod, believing that the implications of admitting women to the episcopate will best be discerned by continuing to explore in detail the practical and legislative arrangements:

(a) invite dioceses, deaneries and parishes to continue serious debate and reflection on the theological, practical, ecumenical and missiological aspects of the issue;

(b) invite the Archbishops’ Council, in consultation with the Standing Committee of the House of Bishops and the Appointments Committee, to secure the early appointment of a legislative drafting group charged with:

(i) preparing the draft measure and amending canon necessary to remove the legal obstacles to the consecration of women to the office of bishop;

(ii) preparing a draft of possible additional legal provision to establish arrangements that would seek to maintain the highest possible degree of communion with those conscientiously unable to receive the ministry of women bishops;

(iii) submitting the results of its work to the House of Bishops for consideration and submission to Synod; and

(c) instruct the Business Committee to make time available, before first consideration of the draft legislation, for the Synod to consider, in the light of any views expressed by the House of Bishops, the arrangements proposed in the drafting group’s report.’

Saturday’s resolution considers the general principle. The first thing to jump off the page is the phrase ‘the view of the majority of the House of Bishops’. Such wording is inappropriate in a synodical motion and needs to be challenged. How, without a vote in the House on this identical motion, do we know that the assertion is true? And if such a vote has taken place, what was the result? The voting figures should be made available or the phrase withdrawn. It may not have been the intention but it is certainly the effect: this appears to be a form of intimidation.

The most important thing to note about this general motion is the absence of any acknowledgment that a majority of Anglicans and a majority of Christians, takes a view different from that of the majority of the House of Bishops of the Church of England. In their preamble to the motions the Archbishops cite Resolution II.2 of the Lambeth Conference 1998: ‘to affirm that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate are both loyal Anglicans.’ That is the Communion-wide context in which this innovation is being proposed. Why, when the Church of England itself has made similar generous statements about the position of those opposed to women’s ordination, is wording similar to that of Lambeth 1998 not included in this motion? The mind of the Synod will no doubt be tested by an amendment to that effect.

The second thing to note is that there has been a lowering of the requirements for consent. History is important here. Clearly this is a resolution in the tradition of the ‘no fundamental objections’ resolutions that have been debated in this and other provinces. Experience shows that such resolutions settle nothing and are merely a ploy for pushing forward an agenda without the necessary consensus.

The level of proof thought necessary for innovation has fallen over the years:

 Article VI asserts the full authority of Scripture: nothing ‘thought necessary or requisite to salvation’ is to be approved unless it can be ‘read therein’ or ‘proved thereby’. The episcopate (the fount of sacraments and instrument of unity) might well be thought to be just such a case.

• Bishop Michael Adie, in the matter of ordination to the presbyterate, lowered the threshold: it was, he claimed, ‘consonant with scripture and required by the tradition.’

• This motion lowers it even further: ‘consonant with the faith of the Church as the Church of England has received it’.

If Saturday’s motion is passed, that phrase will grow in significance: it is likely to become a new, and vaguer, criterion of truth. If it was intended to mean the same as the earlier phrase, it would have helped clarity of thought not to have changed the wording. If it was intended to mean something else, then it is rather important that Synod understands what it means, what new criterion is being suggested? Whilst the first two statements, from the 39 Articles and the 1992 Synod debate, are clear (though the second is as clearly controvertible) the phrasing of the motion is not. It simply raises serious questions.

• What is the ‘faith of the Church as the Church of England has received it’? In what ways can it (and does it) differ from the faith of the Church as other churches have received it, and in particular from the faith of the churches from whom it was received (i.e. the continuing faith of the churches of the first millennium to which Cardinal Kasper has referred us)?

• What is meant by ‘consonant’? Is something that is ‘consonant with the faith of the Church’ also by definition ‘consonant with scripture’? In what way can a practice which deliberately and intentionally reverses previous practice be said to be consonant with it?

In the final section it is claimed that women’s ordination to the episcopate ‘would be a proper development’. It needs to be explained how appointing bishops who it is known will be unacceptable to Anglicans in the Church of England, in other provinces of the Communion and in other episcopal churches can be a development of an order whose primary purpose is to be a focus and instrument of unity can be described as a ‘proper development.’ It needs to be explained how this is a ‘proper development’ in the case of women bishops, but not (as the Archbishop of Canterbury argued when Jeffrey John was nominated to the see of Reading) in the matter of practising gay bishops.

If there were to be serious theological debate, and a serious attention to the tradition (as we see it), then the motion would be lost. It is only because the terms used are so broad, and the themes referred to so vague, that a Synod majority is probably a foregone conclusion. The more general the motion, the easier it is to get a secure majority; but the more difficult it will be to exclude other tradition-breaking additions or modifications to the episcopate.

This problem of vagueness is further exacerbated by the phenomenon mentioned above of theological slippage over time. Like the second law of thermodynamics, there is a theological entropy to such debates: the tendency is always towards greater and greater generality not less, to less and less precision not more. The problem is not, ‘Can this motion exclude practising gay bishops in 2006?’ but ‘Can the terms in which it is presented and accepted be made durable, so that they can do the job in ten years time?’ The answer is, surely, no.

The intentions of Synod members in July are, in this instance, irrelevant. There may be many who want to see women in positions of power on an equal footing to men, who feel instinctively that if men can be bishops then so can women, but who also do not wish to collude with the contemporary views on sexuality, who feel just as instinctively that it is wrong to subvert or weaken the biblical call to chastity and marriage. Will they find satisfaction in this motion? It seems virtually impossible, though it may be a decade before that truth becomes evident.

Monday’s resolution presumes a clear majority for Saturday’s, and seeks to push the legislative process forward by leaving the problematic issues until later. This complex resolution needs to be voted on in separate clauses to give the Synod any chance of expressing its views fully and intelligibly.

The preamble needs to be challenged first. It is by no means evident that the best way to examine ‘the implications of admitting women to the episcopate’ is to do so by ‘continuing to explore in detail the practical and legislative arrangements.’ This is precisely the way in which the ordination of women to the priesthood was managed, with consequences which few envisaged and many have regretted.

This preamble is the result not of serious reflection on appropriate process but of the failure of the Guildford initiative to deliver the goods. The fact that one process – the search for a workable version of TEA – has been abandoned after only six months, does not mean that an alternative process (earlier rejected) will now work.

Every clause and section of the motion has real problems:

• Clause (a). How is such ‘serious debate and reflection’ to be coordinated and played back to the wider church? If Synod deliberately rejected, as it did last July in the Bishop of Gibraltar’s motion, the option of discussing the Rochester Report, which laid out a broad range of ‘theological, practical, ecumenical and missiological aspects of the issue,’ it would appear disingenuous to put that option back now. If it did not happen yesterday, what is going to make it happen (usefully and effectively) today?

• Clause (b). The question here is precisely what the legislative drafting group is ‘charged with’. Note that sub-section (i) refers to a ‘draft measure’, and (ii) refers to a draft of ‘possible additional legal provision’. Are we therefore to assume that the drafting group is forbidden by this motion to include provision for dissentients in the measure, and that it is envisaged that such provision may be in another legal instrument that is not a measure? Does the world ‘possible’ mean that the drafting group would be at liberty to offer no legal provision whatever ‘to establish arrangements that would seek to maintain the highest possible degrees of communion with those conscientiously unable to receive the ministry of women bishops’? This is sloppily drafted and needs clarification, and in view of the steer of the last meeting of the Synod a firm assurance that adequate provision will be made by measure. (iii) raises once again the spectre of episcopal indecision. If Guildford I & II were unable to produce results which could win the wholehearted support of the bishops, why should one conclude that this drafting group will be able to do so?

• Clause (c). This is simply not clear, adding to the ambiguities of (b.ii) above. Is the assumption here that there will be both ‘legislation’, and ‘arrangements’ which are not legislation (i.e. a code of practice or the like)? If so what is expected to be contained in what, and why is it thought expedient to discuss the two separately?

This is not, it must now be evident, a well-thought-out motion. It may be encouraging to realize that it will not in the end, therefore, rule out any option. Taken that the Guildford-Gloucester report refuses to countenance any further suspension of Canon A4, then the only viable way of acquiring women bishops will be to create an independent jurisdiction. If Synod can come to understand that what we need is what they want, then there will be hope for the Church of England.