George Austin sums up the salient points of the York Synod’s discussion and then debate on what provision to make for those unable to accept women bishops

The sun shone as the General Synod began its July meeting at York University and as Metropolitan John of Pergamon addressed members on Anglo-Orthodox relations. This, together with the debate that followed, was both theological and spiritual.

On Saturday too the Bishop of Manchester’s introduction of his Groups report continued the mood, as did the Archbishop of York’s presidential address. But was there a warning from above in the occasional clap of thunder and the heavy rain beating down on the roof of the conference hall?

It was a warm atmosphere at the Eucharist in York Minster, aided by the glorious music of Tomas de Victoria’s Mass, and one began to wonder if the debate on women bishops was – unexpectedly – going to be not only spiritual and theological but also compassionate.

Certainly that was the case in 1992 when the issue of women priests was debated – this time in Westminster – and when pleas from the chair were made that, recognising the hurt about to be caused whatever the result, there should be no excessive applause.

Three necessary ingredients

Sadly it was not to be. There was no similar plea from the chairman – though no one could complain about the careful and equal manner in which he conducted the debate. The Bishop of Manchester had set out in his Saturday presentation the three ingredients to any solution, and the anticipation was on how each would be dealt with.

Firstly, there had to be the ‘clear statement that in admitting women to the episcopate the Church of England was now fully committed to opening all orders of ministry to men and women.’ In view of all that had gone before, there was not much problem with that.

Contrary to clever spin doctoring by proponents of women bishops, the impression had been given that it was all about discrimination against women. In reality, many traditionalists recognise and acknowledge that if you have women priests you must have women bishops, and the question is not ‘whether’ but ‘how’.

The second would involve acceptance by those with ‘doubts’ that the Church of England had ‘decided to admit men and women equally to Holy Orders and that those whom the Church had duly ordained and appointed to office were lawful office-holders and deserving of due respect and lawful obedience.’

So far almost so good. When serving as an archdeacon, I respected a woman priest’s calling and ministry and made no distinction in any pastoral care to be given, even though I believe that a woman cannot be a priest. But what if she were a bishop? ‘Due respect’, yes. But lawful obedience? Aye, there’s the rub. How that was to be dealt with in the debate would design and determine our future.

The Bishop of Manchester’s third ingredient however was the crucial one: the need for ‘an acknowledgement by those in favour of women’s ordination that the theological convictions of those unable to receive this development were nevertheless within the spectrum of Anglican teaching and tradition and that therefore those who held them should be able to receive pastoral and sacramental care in a way consistent with those convictions.’

The debate itself was divided into a general discussion followed by the consideration of amendments. The general debate could not have been more balanced in its choice of speakers. Six asked for a single-clause measure, six for a new diocese, six for a code of practice and six others were either in another debate altogether or maybe even on another planet.

Only two bishops contributed, the Bishop of Burnley seeking further time to move towards a new diocese and the Bishop of Willesden pointing out in a generous speech that opponents must have proper guarantees.

There was a little unpleasantness, but that was mainly reserved for later when the amendments to the main motion were considered. These were carefully arranged in an order calculated to give the fullest possible debate.

The first, from the Bishop of Winchester, was intended to set the scene by clarifying where the Synod stood on care for those opposed. This would be followed by amendments in favour of a single-clause measure, then for a new diocese, and finally those seeking a code of practice. Had it been the other way round, it was most likely that a code of practice would have been accepted and that would have ended the debate.

As it turned out, it was the unexpected reaction to the Bishop of Winchester’s amendment that proved the defining moment. He proposed that the resolution of the 1998 Lambeth Conference be included in the main motion – ‘that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate are both loyal Anglicans,’ and it was expected that this moderate concession would gain majority support.

Not so: it was defeated by 14 votes to 31 in the House of Bishops, 62 to 120 among the clergy and 78 to 114 in the laity, only a little short of a two-thirds majority to refuse to recognise opponents as loyal Anglicans. It now began to be clear what the future held, in spite of the success of an amendment by Fr David Houlding who pleaded for the Church to get off the battlefield and on to a wider field’. Stephen Trott then spoke to an amendment, but ended his speech without applause and lost decisively.

Marching orders

The tone of the debate finally sank to the depths with a speech by the Revd Miranda Threlfall-Holmes calling for a single-clause measure ‘with local diocesan arrangements for pastoral provision and sacramental care.’ The Synod then became, as one observer described it, Tike a pack of dogs setting upon a weaker victim.’

Fundamentalism can be an unpleasant phenomenon wherever it is found and feminist or liberal fundamentalism is no exception, even though the latter seems like a contradiction in terms.

The proposer was followed not unexpectedly by Christina Rees, who was of course refusing to make any concessions; and then by the American Regius Professor of Divinity from Oxford University, in a speech that clearly showed the depth (in more than one sense) of feeling against us. Fortunately she lost friends by exceeding the time limit and refusing to end her contribution, losing in all three houses.

Rising antagonism

An amendment calling for the provision of new dioceses was moved by Fr Killwick; this was lost 10/32 in the bishops, 53/124 in the clergy and 71/116 in the laity. Whereupon the Bishop of Exeter moved another amendment, similar to Fr Killwicks, but more open: it asked for further work on ‘diocesan solutions,’ i.e. including arrangements based on existing rather than new dioceses; this was also lost.

The Bishop of Ripon and Leeds offered an amendment that might have acted as a compromise, and was the last amendment which could have offered real help to traditionalists, as it asked the Manchester Group both to draw up the Code of Practice and to bring forward proposals for ‘transferred jurisdiction, something akin to the old TEA proposals.

This amendment was, in fact, passed by the Synod as a whole (by 203 votes to 200), but lost after a division by Houses: the voting was Bishops 21/21 (with 1 abstention), clergy 84/92 (2 abstentions), laity 98/87 (no abstentions) – in other words, it was passed in the laity, tied in the bishops, and lost in the clergy.

By this stage, it was becoming clear that orthodox Catholics within the Church of England were being given their marching orders, and that no satisfactory or trustworthy care was ever likely to emerge.

It is a sad fact that many of the bishops are seen as untrustworthy, since the promises made in 1992/4 have been broken from the very beginning by most of those who supported the ordination of women. Last year’s York Synod considered the report, ‘Talents and Calling’, which indicated that since 1994 only two bishops, Exeter and Manchester (when at Wakefield) have nominated suffragan bishops who are opposed.

Moreover, it is abundantly clear that in many dioceses traditional Catholics have been marginalized, passed over or ignored. So how could they accept that bishops could be trusted to observe a voluntary code?

God’s purpose

The glory of the Church of England has been its tolerance and comprehensiveness, its ability to contain within the same church people who, while holding a variety of beliefs and passions, were able to walk together as friends in the house of God.

The Reformation had been followed by a century of turbulence, torture, execution and bitter division. With the defeat of the Puritan experiment and the restoration of the monarchy, it was time for peace and for an attempt at mutual understanding and love for one another.

This produced, in spite of glitches, a Church of England we have known and loved for its compassion and for its unity in diversity. That, sadly, seems now to be at an end.

It is hard to see how Catholics will in the end be enabled to stay – or will want to stay in a church which so clearly does not want them. Yet those who will leave are men and women who can recite the creeds and believe every word of them, people forced out because they cannot be allowed their conscientious beliefs about the ministry of the Church Catholic.

A terrible, sad, painful day, and a manner of debate for which the Church of England, in the words of the Bishop of Dover, should be ‘ashamed’.

How soon will it be before Evangelicals face the same future, albeit perhaps on another issue? And from some of the triumphant comments made since the Synod by fundamentalist liberals and feminists, it is clear that their delight is bolstered by the awareness that their success enhanced the standing of their church in an increasingly secular nation. What of St Paul’s exhortation that we should not be conformed to this world?

But all is not doom and gloom. The Church of God is still God’s Church and the gates of hell cannot prevail against it.

Those to be driven out must take no precipitate action, but wait to see what God has in store, knowing that he has a purpose for those who, in spite of misrepresentation, contempt and marginalization, have stayed firm in the faith once delivered to the saints.