The better the provision Synod can offer for our integrity the less it will have to shell out in financial payments And vice versa, as James Patrick clearly illustrates

Bishop Andrew Burnham once said that the spiritual discipline of the non-stipendiary minister was to understand and then to accept that in in his ministry, and in his church under his incumbent he will not be able to change a single thing. This certainly can be frustrating but there are advantages in not drawing a stipend.

As this article began its germination, the newspapers and television news reports were full, day after day, of the details of claims by honourable and right honourable members for chandeliers and dog food, duck ponds, swimming pools and horse manure. MP after MP sought to justify or at least excuse their expenses against the background of their vested interests. In what follows, this non-stipendiary minister (or self-supporting minister, as the current lingo has it – like some form of hosiery) can at least say that he has no vested interest.

Though, of course, this is not entirely true. My vocation was and is bound up in the events of the early 1990s. Coming to the Catholic faith in the Church of England in the mid-1980s, I lived through the debates which gave rise to the legislation in 1992 making provision for women to be ordained as priests.

At exactly the same time, it seemed that God might be calling me to be a priest, and one with a vocation to minister particularly to those who share the same opinions, as well, of course, to those who do not. They were unsettling times, but promises and assurances were given at the very highest level, and so off your writer went to a selection conference in 1996. With ordination to the diaconate in 1999 and the priesthood in 2000, the rest, as they say, is history.

Whilst it is history, some bits of history are worth revisiting, and worth repeating, lest we forget. It is worth repeating that the draft Measure of 1988 included provisions similar to what we now know as Resolutions A and B. It is worth repeating that without those provisions, the Measure would have been defeated. It is worth repeating that there was an attempt even then to limit the safeguards we have enjoyed, and which have encouraged us to prosper and grow, to only twenty years. This too was defeated.

It is worth repeating that, even after the synodical processes were complete, the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament continued to express its concern about the rights of all members of the Church of England with views on both sides of the debate, and from that concern sprang not only the Act of Synod but also the Financial Provisions Measure.

The effect of time on memory can dull detail, but without these safeguards the Measure to ordain women as priests in the Church of England would, quite simply, have been defeated. The whole process would have had to start all over again, and we are experiencing afresh how unsettling, destabilizing and frustrating this can be.

When the Measure came to be debated in Parliament, Michael Alison opening the debate in the House of Commons said this:

A number of provisions…are intended to provide continued room within the Church of England for the ordination of women to the priesthood… The Church is trying, through the Act of Synod, to get to the heart of the necessary unanimity and good will spelt out in the Act of Synod.

‘It is doing that in a compressive if necessarily broad-brush way, not with the kind of minute protection against litigious tendencies that is so much a feature of our legislation in the House and, to some extent, in the Synod.

‘The Measure is a broad-brush attempt to expand and explain the determination to give a breath of life to the skeleton of statutory provision that we are trying to introduce today to make the commitment to fairness and to allowing a hundred flowers to bloom and the two integrities to co-exist as a reality. That is the determination.’

He went on to introduce the Ordination of Women (Financial Provisions) Measure:

‘It recognises that, in spite of the attempts that we shall make to maintain unity and to include everybody if possible, there will be opponents who do not feel able to remain within the Church of England. The Measure is an attempted safety net to ensure that those who resign from service in the Church of England, by reason of their opposition to the ordination of women as priests, do not suffer financial hardship.’

The Measure had a ten year limit so that clergy had ‘a chance to find their feet, or not, in the new regime when we have women priests’ adding that ‘the financial provisions Measures reached [the House] with a virtually unanimous endorsement – more than many Measures that have reached us in the past.’

That was then. Since then, of course, the General Synod, the House of Bishops, and the 1998 Lambeth Conference have all declared and affirmed that ours is an honourable position. We certainly think so. The sadness is that some seek to use that term in the same way that it is currently being used for Members of Parliament.

Promises, promises. It was in the light of those promises that I went forward for ordination. But then, I was able to take part in the debate, and vote in diocesan and deanery synods. For a moment, perhaps we should think of some others, some of Mr Alison’s blooming flowers.

Last July, in the gallery watching the debates in Synod being played out, were a group of young men. All of them were born in the 1980s. Most of them were still at primary school in 1992. Committed though they now are, it is hard to imagine them rushing back from Cubs to follow the latest twist and turn of the Draft Priests (Ordination of Women) Measure,

or analysing closely George Carey’s infamous Reader’s Digest opinion on heresy, or expressing delight at the Act of Synod rabbit pulled from the Archbishop of York’s mitre.

Some of them were not even baptised until this century. Some are married. Some have children too. Some are at theological college, continuing to explore their vocation and train for their future ministry. Others have received the grace of orders and are serving in their title or first parishes.

All of them have offered themselves for ordination in a church which they had every reason to believe honoured them. More importantly, they offered themselves for ordination in a church in which they thought they had a place and also a future. Some might say that what might come to pass was entirely foreseeable or that those who have offered themselves for ordination since 1992 should have seen this coming. It is an argument, but surely a worldly one, because it ignores the fact that God calls each one of us where we are: where he leads us is quite another thing.

If those young men gathered in the gallery are flowers, then there are others too, and we all know them: priests who have tried to make things work; priests who have answered Bishop Barry Rogerson’s call and gone the extra mile; priests who have accepted disunity within the college of priests in an attempt to maintain a greater unity (however fractured or impaired but not broken) with his bishop, and the local church. Perhaps we should say that they have held things in tension. And they have done so because of those promises.

Promises, promises. Perhaps they did not understand promises in the way that others understand promises. Christina Rees, in last Septembers issue of this magazine, famously attached an entirely secular definition to the word when she wrote that Synods ‘dynamic due process’ cannot promise in perpetuity. How that fits with moral theology is perhaps best left to expert moral theologians.

But surely this is a moral issue. If there was provision for those who could not accept the ordination of women as priests, what argument can there be that there should not be provision for those who cannot accept their ordination as bishops?

The obstacles become greater, harsher, not less. If there was need for provision then, the need must be all the more apparent now. Perhaps the Report of the Guildford Group [GS1605] shows what the problem really is: cost.

441 priests resigned and sought financial assistance. We should remember, out of fairness, that 31 subsequently returned to stipendiary ministry, a figure of just 7%, though what had been paid to them under the Measure would have reduced the assistance they later received on retirement. The total cost of this financial assistance came to £27.4 million. None of these figures include those who were retired or otherwise ineligible, nor of course of the many hundreds of laity who left the Church of England during that decade.

Interestingly, the Guildford Group faced the question head on. Noting that the Financial Provisions Measure 1993 spoke of making ‘provision as to the relief of hardship’ (echoing Mr Alison’s words of over

a decade earlier), they said:

‘The Group acknowledged that there may be a small number of genuinely hard cases where some discretionary support may be appropriate. It considered, however, that the case for creating any fresh set of entitlements to financial assistance would be substantially lessened if…the Church is willing to go a long way to make space for those who cannot accept the full ministry of women.’

Put another way, the Group is saying the more generous the church is in making space, making provision, for those who cannot accept women bishops, the less generous they will need to be financially. The reverse is equally true: the less generous the space, the more generous the provision must be.

Of course, the Guildford Group did not have the advantage of being able to consider the Rees definition of promise, by which the Church Commissioners would be quids in, and that would be the end of the matter. But assuming for one moment that hers is not the preferred meaning, then we would do well to look again at the Financial Provisions Measure and ask what it was for. As we have seen, it was to provide for the relief of hardship. What would this mean to our blooming flowers?

In July 2004, the Chairman of the Pensions Board reminded the General Synod that there were two parts to that relief. The first was a resettlement grant. This reflected the need to move home on resignation. The second was to reflect the resulting loss of income, and he stressed that it was subject to review by the Board, and therefore amendment by it, if income is received from new employment.

It is worth stating what it was not. It was not untold riches. It was not compensation. It was not a pot of gold at the end of the Ordination of Women rainbow. What it was, however, was an acceptance that actions have consequences and an attempt at being fair and just, after the model of the first Christians about whom we read in the Acts of the Apostles. It was about putting a roof over heads, and relieving hardship.

So for those who have stayed on and tried to make things work; or who could cope with disunity in the college of priests but cannot accept it in the college of bishops; or, arguably more importantly, for those who have been brought to faith in the Church of England in the light of promises made, should there be anything less?

Could anyone sensibly argue against the proposition that the General Synod of the Church of England has an obligation to order itself after the example of Christ and to face the consequences of its actions?

If the answer is no, then fairness and justice – never mind generosity – demand that, come the day that legislation is enacted for the ordination of a woman as bishop, those who relied on the promises and assurances of the past, and who are now displaced, should not suffer financial hardship as a consequence. Nor should their wives and their children. It is not much to ask.

Your writer spends his working day prosecuting and defending, and sometimes sitting as a deputy judge, in the Crown Court. He might not know much Canon Law, but even he can see that anything less would be criminal.