George Austin offers a personal reflection on the future in the aftermath of the July Synod, and reminds us that the issue of women priests and bishops is not the cause of the current situation, but a symptom of a more widespread problem
When reporting on a Synod meeting from the Press Gallery, one has the advantage of being able with a clear conscience to miss out on the boring bits. The downside is that the need for objectivity puts a curb on personal feelings. At the York 2008 Synod, this was of course not easy. As the debate on women in the episcopate progressed, with its contemptuous indifference towards those who in all conscience could not accept this break from two thousand years of Catholic tradition, it became harder and harder to be dispassionate.
Even so, for me it was some days before the fundamental implications began to sink home, in particular of the rejection of the Bishop of Winchesters attempt to include the Lambeth 1998 resolution which gave equal recognition as ‘loyal Anglicans’ to both sides in the argument. And it was not merely a simple rejection but one that occurred in all three houses. Moreover, when the voting details were released a week later, it became clear that no less than two-thirds of the diocesan bishops present could not agree to its inclusion.
For me personally there was the added pain that my own diocesan, Archbishop Sentamu, was among them. Could it really be the case that Sentamu, a friend for many years, a man for whom I could not have a greater respect and one who has fought fearlessly and openly against any injustice towards the minorities, was unable to allow me to be accepted as a loyal Anglican? Ought I therefore to write to him asking if he wished me to return my Permission to Officiate?
But it was not the time for precipitate action of this kind. And anyway I am sure he would have replied denying, in all honesty, that this was the intention in voting against its inclusion in the final motion. Yet as I pondered it in the days that followed, could there really be any other interpretation, whatever the intention of at any rate a few of the bishops who voted in this way? I think not.
Bishops from both sides of the argument were among those who felt it right to recognize all as loyal Anglicans, therefore those voting against – all of whom were supporters of women in the episcopate – must only have regarded the rest of us as disloyal. It simply cannot be otherwise. So we are disloyal simply because we believe that which the Church has always taught and that which the vast majority of Christendom still believes.
Moreover, it was made clear beyond all doubt in the debate that there will be no worthwhile concessions, no ‘code of practice’ of any value, in whatever final decisions are to be made. We could not trust the bishops before and we certainly cannot trust them now, however far in the coming months they may be persuaded to back down. And that is a terrible thing to be able to say about those who would claim to be the successors of the Apostles.
Implications for worship
Of course, I am retired and though I preach occasionally, coping with steps at the altar has become a little difficult, so I have rarely said Mass since my golden jubilee in 2006. Anyway, St Luke’s in York where we worship is so reactionary in its development that everyone is accepted, regardless of their views on this issue or any other – rather as the Church of England at its best used to be.
There is a retired woman priest who worships regularly and I was very touched that on the Sunday after the vote she came down several rows at the Peace to give me a hug. But St Luke’s is a church which really is truly inclusive; that is to say, not in the sense of the liberal fundamentalists for whom ‘inclusive’ means ‘so long as you agree with me’.
So while we are in York we are comparatively safe. But as age creeps on, we intend to move south to be nearer our son, hoping to return to Bushey Heath, where I was vicar from 1970 to 1988, an ABC parish at present. But if there is a change of incumbent and that parish too is ‘picked off’, what then? There is a good Roman Catholic church down the road where the parish priest is a former Anglican, presumably driven out by previous episcopal betrayals.
We could certainly worship happily there. But I am not sure I could easily cross the Tiber’ and deny 52 years of life as a priest. So perhaps it would mean attending as a non-communicating member of the congregation. Still, Tony Blair was able to receive communion from the Pope on the grounds that there was no Anglican church in Vatican City where he could receive communion.
That is something for the future and I am not depressed for the present – not only because I have never been depressed in my 77 years, but because I know that God always shows quite clearly what must be done, what action must be taken. So, depressed? No. Angry? Yes, yes, yes. Don’t get sad – get mad!
I am tempted, as I have said, to return my Permission to Officiate; if I ever attend diocesan occasions I want to wear the sweat-shirt given to me at Nashotah House seminary in the United States inscribed ‘Nolite Illigitimos Conterere Nos’ to show that I will certainly not let the ‘illigitimos’ get me down; and I would like to stand before Bishopthorpe Palace and cut into little pieces my dog collar as the Archbishop did as a demonstration against the evils of the Mugabe regime, not because the wickedness is comparable but because both discriminate against peaceful minorities.
But I am not one for demonstrations, so I don’t suppose I shall, preferring to sit back and watch the liberal cancer spread, as indeed it will. That is the point at which I had intended to end this reflection, but then something happened to change my mind. A young woman with no previous connection to the Church asked to be baptized at St Luke’s as an adult. She had watched Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ and had been so moved that she wished to make a commitment.
That reminded me of Gibson’s chilling depiction of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus. In it, it was the Jewish religious leaders, not the Roman governor, who condemned Jesus and who were responsible for the terrible beating he had to endure, just as at that appalling debate in Synod on 8 July it was our religious leaders who acted like feral thugs, showing no mercy to those who opposed them. Anyone familiar with Synod ways knows that there are some who will substitute insult in place of reasoned argument – it is useful, for it shows that in reality they have lost the argument. But on 8 July it was different. There was evil in the air.
In the film, as Christ staggered under the weight of his Cross along the way to Golgotha, the further he was from the Temple the greater the sympathy and horror in the faces of the onlookers. It would not be forgotten and would certainly have sowed the seeds of the Apostles’ future mission to spread the message of Christ’s death and resurrection.
A new beginning
I said earlier, ‘Don’t get sad, get mad.’ That is wrong – we must be neither sad nor angry, since we are called to take up our cross. Quite simply, that is the vocation given to us as Christians and we must accept it as it comes. That awful day in the press gallery at the July Synod was without doubt the worst, the most painful, moment in my life as the rejection sank in like a knife, twisted in the triumphal and cruel delight of the illiberal majority.
But for all of us, and for the Church in this land, it must in reality mark a new beginning, a promised resurrection. Secularism has been eating away at our Church for more than four decades, and the shape of God’s intention for that new beginning is yet to become clear. It is too late to seek a compromise – even if one of any value could be extracted – and now we must look to the future.
This is not about women in the priesthood or episcopate and we should not be deflected from recognizing that as a symptom rather than as the cause of this present situation. It is now an argument for the past, not for the present or the future.
There have been predictions of large defections from the Church of England by those who have been branded as disloyal, clergy and laity alike, because of their rejection of the ordination and consecration of women. But we must remember too that some of those who reject us are those who as well have watered down the faith in conforming to the demands of this secularized world.
The reduction in clergy numbers, already so low that the stress of serving a multitude of parishes is taking its toll on clergy, can only continue, even without the defections. In the long term, with the likelihood of no more Catholic ordinands, it can only reach crisis point. But it could well be that some bishops and clergy (and laity too) who have no problem with women in orders will in all conscience feel that they too must also join whatever phoenix God raises from the ashes of that secularized body that was the Church of England.
We must not look back with more than a little nostalgia for what was. It is no more and there can be no doubt that God has a new and exciting purpose for us, old and young, clergy and laity alike. And that is an exhilarating thought.