Mark Stevens sketches some of the problems arising from General Synod’s seeming reliance on models of parliamentary democracy, pointing out that paradoxically it undermines the authority of Synod itself

If only women’s ordination were only about the ordination of women! But of course, the reverse is the case. It is about many other things – about scriptural exegesis, about human sexuality, about biblical anthropology, about social justice, about ecclesial authority and competence, about sacramental assurance, about the conflicting claims of unity and truth, about the person of Jesus, about the doctrine of God…and so forth.

Not since the iconoclast controversy of the seventh and eighth centuries has one theological question proved so far reaching in its implications and consequences. Even a dozen years on from the event, issues keep emerging without ever being adequately addressed.

Take for example, the problems arising from the current experiment in applying the principles of parliamentary democracy to matters of Christian doctrine. The issues extend well beyond the narrow question of women in Holy Orders; but women priests and bishops are at the heart of them.


The founding fathers of the synodical government did not envisage that the Synod would address itself to matters of core doctrine. Indeed they explicitly ruled out the possibility. But they had unwittingly entangled themselves thereby in one of those constitutional conundrums which bedevil the English system (the very same paradox which was to feature again in the case of Williamson versus the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, 1993).

The General Synod was deemed incompetent to change the doctrine of the Church of England. But such a claim inevitably raised the question of who is competent to define the doctrine of the Church of England. The answer, of course, is the General Synod. The initially incompetent proves to be omni-competent after all!

Even when the entertaining circularity of this argument has been grasped, there remain further matters of importance; among them the profound problem of participating in the democratic process for those who believe, in whatever way, that doctrine is given rather than made.

Democracies work by mutual acquiescence in some sort of social contract. Those who fare ill in a debate and lose the vote accept, nevertheless, the will of the majority. They do so on the clear understanding that they are open to change minds and alter policy over time. One government may forbid the hunting of foxes with hounds. The next government can as well reverse the ban. What both sides have in common is an intention to respect the law, whatever the outcome.

Respecting the decision

Such is not the case with Christian doctrine – or at least has not been heretofore. And, as a matter of fact, it is doubtful whether either side in the debate about women’s ordination entered the process with the intention of respecting the decision if it went against them.

Opponents are clear that such an innovation is beyond the competence of the body which was purporting to take it. The only honourable course of action for them, in consequence, would have been to abstain in a debate they believed should not be taking place, and leave the Synod with the problem of how to deal with a large body of conscientious abstention. But they thought that they could win, so they voted.

Proponents believe, as some of them said in the debate, that women’s ordination is a simple matter of justice. Like racism, opposition to the ordination of women is, in consequence, intolerable in an enlightened society. (For those who find that sort of terminology useful, it might even be termed sinful.) But they expected to win; so they pressed the matter.

If the vote had gone against them they would have been obliged to seek to overturn it; and then to outlaw the opponents when they had regained the levers of power. Which, of course, is precisely what they are doing now by calling for a ‘single clause measure’ with a (time limited) code of practice, for the ordination of women as bishops.

The crucial fact is that neither side in reality believed the rhetoric of provisionality and reversibility to which both sides were in theory committed. True democratic process requires such principles; but both sides in the debate were obliged, on principle, to reject them. Where does all this leave the democratic process, the status of Christian doctrine, and the standing of the General Synod?

The price to be paid

Democratic process, it now appears, is no way of determining the development of Christian doctrine. Majorities are not enough. Something far more subtle is required. Even a full contemporary consensus will not do, because faith and order are not the possession of one time, culture or generation. This is what the clumsy and frankly fraudulent language about ‘reception’ was intended to articulate, and what the declaration of Pope John Paul II, Inter insignores, spells out with compete clarity.

The adoption of democratic principles, moreover, lowers the status of Christian dogma. The teachings of the Church inevitably become merely ‘the current position of the Church of England on…’: inviting not prayerful obedience but dispute, contention and change (cf the now notorious phrase ‘those who cannot yet accept…’). Where everything is reversible, nothing is holy.

Finally, and somewhat paradoxically, a reliance on the democratic process in primary matters of faith and order undermines the authority of the General Synod itself. For on increasing numbers of issues increasing numbers of its members will be forced to refuse its writ: catholics in matters of order; evangelicals in matters of sexual morality; and liberals whenever it refuses (for the time being) to embrace the dictates of political correctness.

If you accept this analysis (even if only in its generalities) you will by now be asking: what is to be done? Alas, it is not easy to see that anything can be done. The djinn is out of the bottle; Pandora has opened her box. There are now sizeable parties purporting to be catholic or evangelical who deride the tradition and pay no more than lip-service to the authority of Scripture. The only authority they can claim for their innovations is that of a synodical majority. But every such majority will inevitably alienate another swathe of believers in divine revelation. For vox populi is precisely what it says it is; and vox Dei it can hardly ever be.