Gerry O’Brien, who has been elected six times since 1980, assesses the results of the 2005 General Synod elections in particular in the House of Laity and wonders how members might vote on women bishops
The divisions amongst those in favour of women bishops are almost greater than the division between those for and against. This became evident in the General Synod during the debate last July, especially when there was a vote on an amendment to the Bishop of Southwark’s original motion. The vote on the amendment split the Synod down the middle, so that there had to be a count of hands. In the event, it was carried.
The amendment itself appeared fairly uncontentious, if a bit technical. It asked that the committee drawing up the legislation should bear in mind the question of canonical obedience for those who could not in conscience accept the validity of a female bishop’s orders. The Bishop of Southwark rejected the amendment on the grounds that the committee would do this anyway, and then appeared to contradict himself by saying that the amendment would tie the hands of the committee.
A powerful speech
The vote was undoubtedly swung by a powerful and unexpected speech by the Bishop of Oxford, on the importance of not parting from friends. The traditional Catholic and Evangelical block vote came out clearly in favour of the amendment, but it required the support of some liberals, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, and some open evangelicals, in order to be carried. What, then, was the significance of the vote?
The vote on this amendment divided supporters of women’s ordination (as priests or bishops, the principle is the same) between those who based their case on theology and those who based it on justice. For those who based their case on theology (and the Archbishop of Canterbury is strongly in this camp), their traditionally-minded opponents are those with whom they have a theological disagreement. Their methodology, their reading of the patristic tradition, their treatment of the scriptural text are at variance.
Their opponents’ days may (they believe) be numbered, in the same way as those of vinyl records. So, to continue the metaphor, whilst they rejoice in a future dominated by the iPod, they have no moral objection to eccentrics meeting to listen to rare jazz recordings on their old turntables should they so wish. Perhaps aware of their own minority position in the history of the Church, and in the present-day Church world-wide, they have humility enough to imagine their judgement on this particular issue might be wrong.
Those who base their argument on some understanding of justice, however, see their opponents as the moral equivalent of those who would justify slavery or apartheid. Supporters of women bishops even sang an anti-apartheid song outside the Synod before the debate. Their opponents must not only be defeated, they must be eliminated. It is a moral imperative that no trace of the old leaven of patriarchy remains, lest, like the evil Emperor in Star Wars, the Dark Side one day take power again.
The warriors for justice have no concern for theology. Theology is the problem. It is theology which has been used as a justification for oppression, therefore true prophets must listen to the voice of the ‘Spirit’ and have the moral courage to close their ears to the siren voices of theology.
The new medievalism
Those who argue that there is no place for the old orthodoxy in the national church see themselves as the future. But they are paradoxically living in the Middle Ages. They presume that there must be a national church, a spiritual embodiment of the nation to which the great swathes of the uncommitted must be nominally attached.
And because this church is the spiritual embodiment of the nation, it must reflect the values of the nation, otherwise it will be irrelevant. The warriors for justice have the Scandinavian Lutheran churches as their model, churches which have the nominal attachment of the vast majority, but with no doctrines or congregations of any size.
The theologians, on the other hand, are willing to allow religious pluralism. There are different religious traditions and churches, and it is no function of the state to determine what any particular church should or should not believe. They realize that rights-based secularism itself is merely another quasi-religion, it is not ‘justice’, nor an impartial arbiter of how the other religions should conduct themselves.
Imagine that instead of the Church of England, we were contemplating a schism in the Brownies. Those who believed that justice demanded male Brown Owls had managed to gain control of Brownie decision-making bodies. It might be thought fair that dissidents – who held to the original view that the office of Brown Owl be restricted to women – be allowed to organize an alternative structure in which the original Brownie ideals could be fostered. It might be thought fair that those who wanted to stay traditional Brownies might be permitted to keep meeting in their usual venues.
The second choice
The choice has been made in favour of women bishops in the Church of England. The choice before those in favour is between the road of theology and the road of justice. To choose the road of justice is to choose to eliminate the opposition because they are in radical opposition to the will of God. They are defending an indefensible wrong and have no right to be heard by right-thinking people. They are fundamentally unjust.
To choose the road of theology, however, is to choose the road of religious pluralism. This is the modern way of doing things. It allows other people to organize themselves together and make decisions together (the freedom of trade unions depends on this very principle). It is altogether more rational and more realistic than the angry radicalism of the warriors for justice.
One of those who argued for women bishops on the grounds of justice in the General Synod debate was a member from the Diocese of Southwark. She raised a smile when she asked those opposed to women bishops, ‘What are you afraid of?’ Those who argue for a structural solution of some sort are merely arguing for the Church of England to recognize the reality of religious pluralism within its own traditions. They realize that we do not need to hang on any longer to the medieval idea of a national church as the spiritual alter ego of the state. They might well return the question, ‘What are you afraid of?’