Mark Stevens considers the ways forward in faith after the General Synod debacle of July 7th rejecting all structural provision for traditionalists
Meeting in Canterbury on the fringes of the Lambeth Conference, the Council of Forward in Faith, a democratic body representing the constituency and elected on a regional franchise, met to discuss the situation for traditionalists subsequent to the synodical voting on July 7. It issued the following statement:
The Council of Forward in Faith was appalled at the outcome of the recent General Synod debate of 7th July. The Council remains determined to respond to the needs of its members by securing a structural solution comprising discrete dioceses for those in conscience opposed to the ordination of women as bishops.
The Statement, clear and uncompromising as it is, perhaps needs unpacking for those who are reluctant to take on board the legitimate concerns of traditional catholics. In particular it maybe helpful, as the debate about provision continues, to point out why the Council effectively ruled out a code of practice.
Our opposition to the ordination of women as priests and bishops is not (as we have repeatedly pointed out) an issue of gender. We are not opposed to women bishops because they are women. We are opposed to them because they are not bishops. Bishops are (amongst other things) instruments of the unity of the worldwide Christian community. They figure and effect that unity on three levels or planes. In their dioceses they are the fount of orders such that all ministry within it is inaugurated or authorised by them. Across the world they are the guarantors of sacraments and doctrine, ensuring that what is taught in one place is upheld by all, and that the sacraments are duly administered everywhere in their essentials of form, matter and intention. Across history, through ordination and succession to historic Sees, they guarantee the faithful transmission of the Apostolic teaching to succeeding generations.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible to see how a woman bishop could fulfil these basic requirements. In present circumstances she will be unacceptable to some in her diocese; her orders will not be recognised across the globe and her ministry will be a sign not of apostolic unity but of discontinuity. A catholic Christian is therefore obliged to see her, not as a sign of assurance but as at best a question awaiting a definitive answer. This ecclesial understanding of the role of the bishop and of the (at best) tentative nature of an episcopacy not obviously continuous with Apostolic practice necessarily requires ecclesial provision for opponents of women bishops.
So why will a Code of Practice not serve? For three salient reasons.
FIRSTLY, a Code of Practice is designed and intended to be malleable and not permanent. As speaker after speaker in the debate demonstrated, it assumes that opinions will change – but in one direction only. Catholic opposition is based not on opinion (which might change), but on obedience to scripture and tradition (which is necessarily stable and unvariable).
SECONDLY, codes of practice are dependent upon those who operate them – in this case of necessity women bishops. ‘Complementary Bishops’, by whatever euphemism they are to be known, can operate only by their permission, on their authority and under their supervision. This is precisely what traditional catholics cannot accept or tolerate. As long as the supporters of women bishops are clear that there can be no restriction upon their exercise of episcopal authority and that those ministering to traditionalists must do so on their sufferance, that extended ministry will be unavailing and unacceptable. And indeed it is hard to imagine an opponent of women’s ordination accepting Episcopal office on such terms. Traditional catholics share the view of proponents that ‘a bishop is a bishop is a bishop’. It is for that reason that they could accept as their own those who in reality were not. Nor do they find it easy to understand how a women bishop would be content to allow a man to impersonate her in essential functions.
THIRDLY, a Code of Practice is itself sexist. It assumes what we deny: that our objections are based not upon theology and ecclesiology but upon gender. A code would effectively end the period of reception begun with the Manchester Statement and the preamble to the Act of Synod. The notion of reception enshrined the notion of equivalence (that, as Lambeth 1998 III.2 succinctly put it
The motion passed by the Synod on July 7 leaves opponents with no alternative but to resist it by all possible means, synodical and extra-synodical. At the same time, as Jonathan Baker’s open letter of resignation from the Manchester Group (ND page 6), it makes it difficult if not impossible further to participate in the legislative process at least until the revision stage is reached.
A synodical resistance will necessarily be repetitive. Members of the Catholic Group will need, in season and out of season, to reiterate that a Code is unacceptable and why that is the case. There is a degree of wilful ignorance on the part of proponents which springs from the very nature of their own arguments. As further proposals emerge from Manchester they will need to be critiqued with rigour and good humour. But no concessions are available or possible.
Extra-synodical action will take many forms and will necessarily be local and piecemeal. Individual members of Forward in Faith will want to disengage from activities which show a greater commitment to the institutional church than is now appropriate. Parishes may well be moved to cap or to cease quota payments. Relations with individual bishops will no doubt be determined by their voting record on July 7 (the Forward in Faith summary of how the bishops voted is conveniently available on-line at
All this however begs the question of whether there is now, realistically, a future for traditional catholics in the Church of England. The House of Bishops produced a motion which many of them hoped would be amended in the direction of generosity. That proved not to be the case (so much so that the Bishop of Dover tearfully reproved the Synod for its intransigence). Though it is easy to see how (voting patterns in the House of Laity moving as they are) the final legislation might well be defeated, it is difficult to see how provisions acceptable to catholics could be included in it.
The further task for Forward in Faith and for the Provincial Episcopal Visitors will be to continue the process of rendering present structures more permanent. The future life and mission of Christian people is too important a matter to allow it to be determined by the partisan votes of a Synod which in truth scarcely knows its own mind, and a House of Bishops divided in itself.
There has been much talk of catholics in the Church of England abandoning it for another allegiance. It is true that the ARCIC process has been dealt a fatal blow by recent developments; but catholic Anglicans live in the hope that it can be revived and that they can develop, amongst themselves, the ecclesial structures which will enable it to go forward. We are not going, we are staying. And that is not a promise, that is a threat!
But to remain Anglican is not necessarily (as the Gafon statement made plain) to continue in the same relationship with the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. Neither of them distinguished themselves in the recent debate as champions of structural provision for catholics. Rowans interventions had the even handedness of one who feared to lead lest no man followed. Sentamu was fulsome in his embrace of catholics after the event but voted for the motion itself. There is no realistic hope that where they falteringly lead the Synod will follow. Which might be thought to absolve traditional catholics from any more faithful allegiance. As the Anglican Communion world-wide restructures itself (and that is a process which cannot now be stopped) traditionalists in England (like the dioceses of San Joaquin, Fort Worth, Pittsburgh, Springfield, Quincy, etc) may well find that in order to stay where they are they need to go somewhere else.
The future for catholic Anglicans, in short, requires resilience, tenacity and coherence. Survival depends upon the strengthening of present structures so that further developments are possible. The July 7 debate, though acrimonious beyond expectation and distressing in its result, did not bring closure. Both within and without the Church of England everything is still to play for. The WATCH statement following the vote displays a nervousness which indicates uncertainty about the ultimate outcome. Members of Forward in Faith and others in the constituency should neither despair nor take precipitate action. It was of a corner shop in the East End of London during the blitz that the story was told of a notice which read ‘Open as usual’,was altered after a direct hit to ‘More open than usual’. ‘More open than usual’ should now be our slogan: more open to the communities in which we serve, in evangelism and outreach; more open to inventive ecclesial solutions; more open to the leading of the Holy Spirit.
The House of Bishops may well draw back from a position which most of them did not want, and which gives them little room for manoeuvre. The Synod could conceivably come to see that its present policy, leading inevitably to a Great Ejection, is foolhardy and self-defeating. The global cooling in the ecumenical climate may yet have its effect.
If we do not stand together we will be in no position to take advantage of any of the opportunities which may open before us. Robert Morant has written:
‘In this contemporary situation, there is great danger for Forward in Faith, given it could find within the next year or two that if it takes no meaningful action everything it has striven for during the last fourteen or so years will be brought to nothing. Many observers of church politics anticipated unerringly the outcome of the General Synod debate and it is to be hoped that the National Council of Forward in Faith was not duped into believing that a happy outcome was on the cards. If not, let its membership know that it has prepared a “Plan B” for holding firm to the present arrangements, dependent as they are on the present Act of Synod.’
‘Plan B’ of which there has been much talk is emerging in the discussions which are taking place at the Council, in the Episcopal areas and will take place in Forward in Faith regions. It will be consolidated at the National Assembly in October. The lessons of 1992-3 need to be rehearsed again: that nothing should be done which precludes the unexpected, and that solidarity is the precursor of sound policy.