Gerry O’Brien – a lay member of the Standing Committee of General Synod

The Church does seem to have an alarming capacity for inflicting self-harm, but this is nothing new. The last two thousand years have seen innumerable issues which have divided Christians and caused schism in the Church. Today the presenting issue is the demand for the consecration of female bishops, and one hardly needs the wisdom of Solomon to see that if the General Synod is determined to accede to the demands of the supporters of this innovation, there will inevitably be a walking apart.

The bishops seem to be pinning their hopes on TEA. Nevertheless the report from the Guildford working group cannot avoid a reference to the two (future) parts of the Church of England [para.97].

TEA is a brave attempt by a group who, with the exception of the Bishop of Blackburn, are themselves fully accepting of the idea of women bishops to devise provisions for a minority whose conscientious objections they do not share. If traditionalists wanted a sympathetic ear, would they turn to the Bishops of Guildford, Willesden and Lincoln and the lady Archdeacon of Worcester?

The Bishop of Lewes, a member of the Rochester Commission, has sought to explain in a pamphlet A way forward why evangelicals are likely to require orthodox bishops with the power to institute, ordain and appoint. He urges us to challenge the idea that it is inappropriate to have overlapping jurisdictions. Even the Bishop of Guildford, in Appendix 5 of his report, takes five pages to show how common overlapping jurisdictions actually are.

Consecrated Women sets out the case for a free province, though the Bishop of Guildford’s report cannot really fathom out the difference between a third province and a free one. The Bishop of Lewes fears that unless adequate provision is made for those who believe it is unscriptural to ordain women as bishops, then irregularity and lawlessness will break out.

So can we learn anything from the past? In the first century the presenting problem was meat offered to idols and Paul devotes a whole chapter [1 Cor. 8] to his advocacy of restraint and inclusiveness.

It would be naïve to suggest, as some do, that this issue is comparable to the current issue of women bishops. With hindsight it is remarkably trivial. For Paul it is perfectly in order to eat all meat because an idol has no real existence. However he is so concerned for the spiritual welfare of those who do find this an issue of conscience that he is prepared to forgo his freedom to eat meat and says, ‘I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.’ His view is that ‘by wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.’

So why is the General Synod embarking on several years of discussions to discover the most suitable way for the Church to inflict self-harm upon itself? When over a thousand PCCs have passed a resolution declaring they would not accept a woman as incumbent, surely they would be all the more determined not to come under the authority of a woman bishop. If Paul was prepared to forgo his freedom for the sake of the unity of the Church, how much more should we be prepared to forgo the innovation of a woman bishop for the sake of the unity of the Church? Is the achieving of one person’s ambition worth the disharmony and disunity that will inevitably accompany it?

With hindsight we can see that meat offered to idols should not have been an issue, but even so Paul goes to great lengths lest anyone should feel themselves unchurched. Now that we face a far more serious issue of principle, should we not perhaps follow Paul’s example and show a godly reticence?

The arguments for women bishops do seem to have far more to do with pragmatism and conforming to contemporary western society than with Scripture, theology and ecclesiology. Sadly in the Anglican Communion today, Paul’s approach is somewhat under-represented and the more strident voices advocating varying degrees of self-harm are coming to the fore.