This paper confidently predicted that nothing of real significance would transpire at the February Synod. We were wrong.
The Bishop of Manchester, speaking of the draft legislation for the consecration of women as bishops achieved a notable first. For the first time in its history the Synod heard a Draft Measure commended principally on the grounds of what was not in it.
‘You may not like this,’ the Chairman of the Drafting Group was in effect telling the Synod. ‘Probably you don’t like it. Even I don’t think it would command a two-thirds majority in its present form: but you can change every bit of it.’
This remarkable performance was followed by a no less remarkable speech by the Archbishop of Canterbury who held out, for a moment at least, the possibility that he himself might be unable to support its referral to revision. He might feel constrained to abstain, as he had in July.
It was a surreal moment. For intelligent Synod members, it raised for the first time, the spectre of a chief consecrator of bishops conscientiously voting against a final Measure which nevertheless achieved the required majorities and became the law of the land. What price ‘synodically governed and episcopally led’ then?
But the moment passed, Rowan voted for the motion, and Nigel heaved a sigh, though whether it was of relief or resignation only he can tell.
The rest of the debate was remarkable for the number of bishops called; and the number of bishops not called. (Where was Chichester? Where was London?) Most other speakers seemed to have realised that the action had already moved on, and were diligently advertising to the Appointments Committee their credentials to be part of the revision group. Mrs Rees conceded nothing, but was the soul of moderation. Fr Benfield aired his legal erudition toward the end. And no one could claim that the Bishop of Beverley was anything less than helpful.
Where do we go from here? It is, as they say, anyone’s guess. A Synodical General Election lies between now and the final vote. But Catholics hoping for radical change in the revision process should not, we think, hold their breath.
Trust us’ has been the repeated refrain of Watch, Gras and the most ardent partisans of women’s ordination. Not surprisingly, the opponents have not been inclined to do so. They have seen no reason to entrust their ecclesial future to those who have consistently sought to remove the provisions already made. ‘Oh Grandma,’ said Red Riding Hood, ‘what a nice Code of Practice you have!’ ‘All the better to eat you with, my dear,’ said the Wolf.
But distrust is corrosive, and we must be positive.
We need to indicate in the most straightforward terms what provisions would generate trust and would allow those in favour and those against the ordination of women to go forward together in one Church of England. For that seems to be the declared aim of all parties.
There would need, in the first place, to be a clear indication, in the primary legislation itself, of independent jurisdiction for bishops of our integrity. Nothing less than this will satisfy the undertakings repeatedly given (most recently in the Synod’s remit to the Manchester Group) that opponents have a respected, honoured and equal place in the Church. Those undertakings guaranteed equality of status, opportunity and esteem. Nothing less than discrete episcopal jurisdiction can express or achieve that equality.
Such provision, however, though a great step forward from the negativity of the July Synod, would not of itself be enough. Perhaps the most offensive feature of the proposed package is the fact that it requires the legislation to be in place before ever the Code of Practice is drawn up. No opponent of women bishops could possibly approve the former without sight of the latter.
The order needs to be reversed. Any Code of Practice (and whatever is included in the legislation, there will need to be such a code) needs to be drawn up and approved before the Measure comes into force – as was the case with the Financial Provisions Measure in 1992.
There will, moreover, whatever the Measure and the Code contain, still be need for a Financial Provision Measure for women bishops as for women priests. It is hardly conceivable that legislation that would gain the support of Mrs Rees and her friends could satisfy the requirements of every Catholic conscience. The enactment of those financial provisions too, should logically and properly precede the main Measure.
What is needed, then, to generate or regain the ‘trust’ which is so often spoken of, and which we all value as the basis of an ecclesial life? In short, it is legislation which actualises the rhetoric of equal status and respect, a Code of Practice which is transparent from the start and has the prior agreement of all parties, and a Financial Provisions Measure which appropriately respects the integrity of those whose livelihoods are put at risk.