Opponents of the ordination of women have yet to receive a fair hearing. Geoffrey Kirk looks at the inadequate discussions and consultations

This magazine has repeatedly and rightly drawn attention to the lack of consultation with those for whom provision is allegedly being made by the ad hoc group of the House of Bishops charged with reporting on the possible shape of legislation for the ordination of women as bishops. It was not always thus.

I well remember the process which led up to the 1992 legislation to ordain women to the priesthood. It was a time before any of the members of the recent Guildford Group was even a glint in the eye of the Prime Minister’s Appointments Secretary; and about the time when the words ‘croneyism’ and ‘Runcie’ had, at last, become roughly synonymous.

Cost of Conscience had campaigned around the country and published a number of position papers. The most influential of them (Alternative Episcopal Oversight) was to introduce a new term into the vocabulary of international Anglicanism – one which has spawned any number of related neologisms (Extended Episcopal Care, Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight; Transferred Episcopal Arrangements, etc., etc., extending to the far horizons of unreality). A group of us (the late Brian Brindley, Alan Rabjohns and myself) were summoned to a meeting with representatives of the House of Bishops.

We met for lunch, I recall, at Lancaster Gate and proceeded to a small committee room in Church House, where three bishops (Michael Adie, then Guildford; Bob Hardy, then Lincoln; and Colin James, then Winchester) were seated behind a table. They interviewed us much in the way in which one supposes that suspected terrorists are interviewed by the Metropolitan Police.

I cannot say that the exchanges were particularly interesting or successful; but on our side we felt that we had communicated the necessary degree of intransigence. And, indeed, as it turned out, something approaching Alternative Episcopal Oversight emerged with the Act of Synod. (During the course of the meeting, it is worth recording, the Bishop of Lincoln appeared to fall asleep and the Bishop of Guildford appeared to wake him up. Whether this was in fact the case, of course, I could not possibly say.)

A second meeting, years later, was with the Blackburn Commission, set up, you will remember, to review the workings of the Act of Synod. The Forward in Faith representatives at that meeting were Sam Philpott, Stephen Parkinson and myself. The bishops (even more inquisitorially seated, tribunal fashion, behind their table) were Alan Chesters, then Blackburn; John Richards, then Ebbsfleet; and Jonathan Bailey, then Derby. The interview of nearly one and a half hours began with a bizarre excursus during which Chesters and Bailey, in a thoroughly hectoring fashion, attacked the ‘tone’ of New Directions. It was necessary to point out that that subject formed no part of the remit of the Commission, and that the exchange had better be struck from the minutes.

This was an encounter which had no obvious public consequences. The Blackburn Report was consigned to synodical oblivion, and apart from a few recommendations which bishops sought to implement on their own authority, was heard of no more.

The same trio of Forward in Faith representatives appeared before the Rochester Commission. This was an altogether larger affair; but strangely far more cheerful and welcoming – a fact which owed a great deal to the personal charm of its chairman. This time we sat round a table, rather than before one. And there was, after a fashion, a meeting of minds. I remember, in particular, an exchange with Christopher Herbert (still St Albans) about translation and about the role of gender in Indo-European languages. We got as far as his schoolboy French would take us.

Alas, as everybody knows, the Rochester Report itself (which contained, in its original form, no less than forty pages of quotations from the three documents which we had prepared as submissions from Forward in Faith) suffered a synodical fate not unlike that of Blackburn. Though Archdeacon Judith Rose had asked for a consideration of the theological issues, the Synod had changed its mind during the two and a half years it took to prepare the report. To the dismay of the Bishop in Europe, they decided to push on regardless. No theology please, we’re British!

The House of Bishops then offered us the Guildford Group – four wise men and one wise woman – as a pragmatic alternative to theological debate. The Rochester Commission had produced seven suggestions as to how the Church of England might proceed to the consecration of women (supposing the theological consensus proved to be in favour). The Guildford Group refused formal submissions and set about its work in secret.

The General Synod of the Church of England is often referred to as ‘the Church’s Parliament,’ and its procedures often ape those of the ‘other place’ – all the way from state openings to men and women in wigs. But never has the generalization been closer to the truth than now, with the Guildford process. An open theological debate has been abandoned in favour of a secretive policy-making cabal (in the worst traditions of the Whitehall ‘kitchen cabinet’) and, like its Downing Street equivalent, that cabal has leaked like a colander.

Though there were no formal meetings with either proponents or opponents, members nevertheless met with individuals on an informal (and therefore unattributable) basis. And, pace the Bishop of Guildford, just as there had been two versions of the group’s advice to the House, so both were freely leaked to the press and others. The Daily Telegraph (version one), the Times and the Church of England Newspaper (version two) have all published substantially accurate accounts of the contents. Forward in Faith (and no doubt WATCH!) has been able to check those reports against the originals.

It was only after the Guildford proposals had been finalized in what was described as a ‘robust’ meeting of the House in Leeds (and opposition to them had been voiced by Tom Butler in his usual trenchant fashion) that representatives of Forward in Faith were invited to a meeting in Guildford with the chairman of the group. Brian Hanson, Paul Benfield, Stephen Parkinson and I took part in a briefing – it could hardly be described as a consultation – when Christopher Hill summarized the current state of play.

At the time of writing, the fate of those proposals is about to be put into the hands of the Synod. There is a prevailing sense of déjà vu: will we have botched legislation followed by the dramatic emergence of a hastily concocted supplement, amid tears, like those of Manchester 1993, all over again? No one could be surprised.