Last month we said that if General Synod were to vote for a Single Clause Measure, with or without a Code of Practice, it would mark the end of the comprehensiveness of the Church of England, an end to a tradition of tolerance and liberalism that has been part of its self-definition for some three centuries or more. Now that the Synod has indeed voted for such a Measure and Code, this judgement has been confirmed.
A month before that, we said that proper provision for the minority, who cannot in conscience accept women in the episcopate, could only come from the generosity of the majority. This truth has also been confirmed by the Synod vote, though in a manner exactly contrary to how we would have wished it.
We are not alone in understanding this. We were not the only onlookers and participants who were appalled at what happened in York on Monday 7 July. It has shamed the Church of England, and embarrassed its more serious members, all without advancing one iota the prospect of women bishops.
In the few weeks of reflection we have before the next stage in the synodical process in February, we need to recognize just how much the issue has changed in the past months.
The presenting issue is no longer women bishops. The majority has this prize within their grasp and, as we have always acknowledged, it follows naturally enough from the acceptance of women priests; there is no reason for delay. They have their prize, and only they can throw it away.
The presenting issue is the form of provision to be provided for the minority, who for reasons of faith still believe what the Church has always believed. It is almost as obscure a theme as the Irish bishops issue of 1833, that provoked the Assize Sermon, that initiated the Oxford Movement; but its implications are more powerful still.
The answer to this question will decide the character of the Church of England for decades even centuries to come. It is important to remember, therefore, as we come to terms with our own sorrow and anger, that there are many, within the majority, who do seek the necessary generosity to save the comprehensiveness of the Church of England.
How did it happen then, as the great debate drew towards its climax, that General Synod found itself rushing headlong towards the worst of all possible outcomes?
With hindsight, it is clear that too much was being decided by the inexorable turning of the wheels of the synodical process. It was the quasi-parliamentary timetable that saw the publication of the Manchester Report, the crucial meeting of the House of Bishops, and the General Synod debate and vote all come together in such a frenzied hurry – and as luck would have it with gafcon and the Lambeth Conference also demanding attention at the very same time. It is all too easy to say, with hindsight, what utter madness.
Somehow the Church of England, and especially the members of its House of Bishops, must find a way of pulling back from the brink, of resolving this crisis created by a foolish synodical process. They have the power and the responsibility.
Meanwhile, our own task of campaigning and persuasion continues. The Synod vote was not what we wanted, but then it was not, as commentators have noted, what most others in the church wanted either.
The Forward in Faith Council has issued a clear and simple statement, analysed over the page. One mismanaged debate does not end our task of seeking to save the Church of England.
What fun it was at Canterbury. Especially as a journalist. Members of the press were ‘free to move about the campus’, stated the Lambeth Conference’s chief’communicator’, Brisbane Archbishop Phillip Aspinall, at the first Sunday’s press conference.
But not quite free. The ‘Big Top’ is surrounded by seven-foot high fencing, with access points guarded by conference security people in green lanyards.
The guards know their job. When asked how to get to the building called ‘The Missing Link’ for a press conference with the Archbishop of Canterbury, one politely replied, ‘You’re not allowed in here.’
When we equally politely asked again if he could tell us how to get there, he pointed off ‘that way’, without specifics. And then added ‘Sorry, bishop.’
The Conference has not been a triumph of organization. While folk who arrived early had little trouble registering, by late afternoon there was a line of some four hundred bishops and spouses waiting in the bright sun. Moving the tables for the initials T-Z outside the building did little to hasten along the line.
The souvenir ‘Lambeth Conference 2008’ mugs, however, were selling fast. Would these be the last of the series?