When, at its last session in February, General Synod voted by 348 votes to 1 for further exploration of the TEA proposal (‘transferred episcopal arrangements’) it was generally assumed that this would be to make it work more fully. When a member of the Guildford Group that had devised this proposal, the Bishop of Willesden, presented it as ‘a solution that only goes half way’ it was generally assumed the task was then to take it the rest of the way.
The TEA proposal should be strengthened, it seemed to be agreed, so that it could do the job it was given to do, namely enable the Church of England to ordain women bishops without having to throw out those faithful members of its church, to whom it had promised a full and honoured place not fifteen years earlier.
General Synod voted decisively to take TEA seriously. It was of course a difficult decision, for it is never easy to be both innovative and traditional at the same time, but this was the comprehensiveness of the Church of England to which so many aspired.
The purpose of Strong TEA was to ensure that women bishops would not have to be relegated to second class, possibly even provisional status within a shared episcopacy with those who in conscience denied their ordination; and also to allow those obedient to the historical understanding of the sacred ministry to remain, as promised, within the church of their birth.
It is therefore perplexing, and worrying, that this positive atmosphere of a shared and constructive search for a workable solution seems to have dissipated as we approach the next meeting of the House of Bishops a month before the next session of General Synod. Why is all the talk now of Weak TEA?
We are not the only ones to have sensed this new loss of confidence. The two leading liberal campaigning groups, Affirming Catholicism and Watch, have joined forces to lay down what they call ‘a list of key, non-negotiable principles for moving forward on women bishops.’ What is this ‘non-negotiable’ flung at a Synod that had eschewed negotiation for discernment?
That Affirming Catholicism (of all the church groups) should be so dismissive of what Archbishop Rowan Williams said in his concluding remarks after the February debate is actually rather shocking. That the two groups should claim to speak for ‘nearly half the members of the Church of England’s General Synod’ and so categorically reject what Synod voted upon only three months ago is, surely, nothing less than calculated bullying.
Does this really mean that every single one of their members who voted in February has now had a change of mind and wishes to subvert the will of Synod, by returning without further debate to what had been voted out, namely a single clause measure? This has a nasty smell about it. It does not read like a mass conversion so much as a deliberate attempt to apply pressure and to overturn what was discussed and voted upon in the chamber.
If discernment is to be replaced by a simple power struggle, it is the whole of the Church of England that will suffer, not merely the traditionalist minority. If ‘nearly half the members’ of Synod (does this include bishops?) really have taken this extreme and aggressive position, then can we ask that they remove the fig leaf? If they wish to be brutal in pursuit of their goal, could they at least not hide behind the pretence of a Code of Practice?
A Code of Practice is utterly irrelevant to those members of the Church of England, who in obedience to their understanding of Scripture and the tradition of the Church could not accept the ministry or jurisdiction of a woman bishop. For such members of our parishes, whether lay or ordained, a Code of Practice can offer nothing whatsoever. A Code of Practice cannot answer the problems that would emerge concerning jurisdiction and sacramental assurance: with the best will in the world, that is not something a code, even one enshrined in law, can do.
If we ask for bread, give us nothing if you are so minded, but do not give us a stone and believe that you give us bread. God is not honoured by a power struggle in his Church, but even less so by one that hides behind pretence.
However, let us not be unduly pessimistic. It is not necessary for discernment to be replaced by a mere power struggle. None of this is inevitable. It is true that the House of Bishops will have to show a high degree of common commitment in order to strengthen TEA to the point where it can work. We certainly pray for them, and urge all others in the church to pray for them as well.
Wise counsel can still prevail. Witness the words of the Archdeacon of Berkshire writing below: even justice that most strident of modern virtues can be subject to the Spirit of truth.