The worst outcome

As a member of Synod Fr David Waller considers the consequences that could ensue if the women bishops legislation falls at the last hurdle, and explains why this outcome would be in no one’s best interests

Readers of NEW DIRECTIONS will be fully aware of the stage the Synod is at with the women bishops legislation: the draft legislation, which is totally inadequate for traditionalists, is before a revision committee and our hopes and prayers are that it will be greatly improved to our benefit. Others, of course, are hoping and praying for the exact opposite.

What is the timescale for the legislative process?

Basically, nobody knows for certain. Much is going to depend on the speed with which the revision committee completes its work, and how long Synod takes when the revised draft comes for revision on the floor of the Synod. The shortest timescale is probably as follows.
February 2010: Synod receives revised draft and begins revision in full Synod; this is likely to continue in July 2010. There maybe insufficient support for the legislation or it may be referred back to the revision committee, but presuming Synod accepts the draft legislation it will then be sent for approval in the dioceses.

If the legislation survives the diocesan stage there will be a final drafting stage and a consideration by the Bishops and Convocations and House of Laity, all of which is likely to take until the end of 2012. Final approval would come in 2013 and would require two-thirds majorities in each house. Parliamentary consideration and approval would follow later in 2013, making it possible for the canon to be promulged and any code of practice approved in February 2014.

Whether or not the legislation will be improved remains to be seen but, in the meantime, the Church of England wouldbe very foolish indeed if it did not begin to look further ahead in the legislative process. The question needs to be asked, Is there a significant chance that the legislation – whatever it actually says -will be rejected by Synod at the final vote?’

The answer to this question can be determined by posing two further questions.

(1) Are over one-third of the members of at least one House of Synod opposed to legislation which does not make real structural provision for opponents?

(2) Are over one-third of the members of at least one House of Synod opposed to legislation which does make real structural provision for opponents?

Present indications are that the answer to both questions is yes’; if that situation continues to hold, final legislation is likely to fall either in the House of Laity or in the House of Clergy, depending on the content of the proposals. As for the House of Bishops, anything could happen there following the large number of appointments to vacant sees.

So, whatever the final draft looks like, there is a distinct possibility that it will not gain the required votes in Synod. What then? Is this a solution or a new crisis for the Church of England? Does this offer any comfort to traditionalists? Who will get the blame?

If the legislation falls, the Church of England will find itself in an unprecedented crisis, which will be both theological and pastoral. Both those in favour and those against women’s ordination have consistently pointed out that it is absolute nonsense to ordain women to the presbyterate and not to the episcopate; as has often been stated in New Directions, ‘Women bishops follow women priests as surely as night follows day! The status quo of a stained glass ceiling’ is unacceptable. It creates two ‘classes of priest^ signalling that the Church of England ordains women and yet does not consider them equal in orders to their male colleagues.

Some folk may be prepared to accept the perpetuation of this theological mess, but they will find it a lot more difficult to deal with the pastoral implications. Thousands of clergy, many of whom will have given tens of years of faithful service, who may hold posts of great responsibility, of whose dedication, moral character and pastoral skills there can be no doubt, will have been told loudly and clearly that they belong to a second-class category of clergy that is denied consecration to the episcopate, not on theological grounds but as a policy of gender discrimination! How will those rejected women feel? How will the (male) bishops begin to minister to them? And let’s be clear, the hurt and pain will extend far beyond the female clergy.

What about the laity who will see in this gender discrimination a practice which runs contrary to their understanding of justice and who may well wonder why they should continue to fund the Church of England let alone worship in it? And what of us, the readers of this journal, committed as we are to the apostolic ministry as we have received it? Surely, for us too, this scenario would be unacceptable.
While we cannot accept the ordination of women nor the sacramental ministry flowing from such ordinations, most of us have developed working relationships in deaneries, diocesan committees, etc. with female colleagues and we would take no delight at all in seeing them treated so shabbily.
So, there is every possibility that we may, sooner rather than later, find ourselves in a new crisis, the Synod having failed to approve the women bishops legislation. We need to be clear that this would be a mess and a disaster for the whole Church of England and it would certainly bring no sense of victory for either side in the debate.

For traditionalists this would be as much of a nightmare as it would be for everyone else: for this would not be a sudden conversion of the Church of England to Catholic faith and order; it would be the result of a political system trying to determine doctrine by a democratic vote and producing a result which served the best interests of nobody at all. The Synod would still believe that it had the authority to determine doctrine and change order and we would continue to live with the anomaly of a church which halfheartedly ordained women.

It is this appalling mess that Forward in Faith has striven so hard to avoid.

Our report Consecrated Women? was an attempt to engage seriously with the issue of women bishops. The ‘free province’ solution proposed would have avoided the mess we are now in. By creating a new province for opponents, in which there were no women priests or bishops, our needs would have been met. At the same time it would have made it possible to have women bishops in the provinces of Canterbury and York without any restrictions whatsoever on their ministry.

There would have been a degree of separation but also much collaboration in mission to our nation. It was a solution which would have been comparatively simple to implement and would have been to the benefit of the whole Church of England, drawing a line under the current time-consuming debates and setting both parties free to proclaim the Good News. For reasons best known to the powers that be, this proposal has never received serious consideration.

Nonetheless, despite the failure to give due consideration to our proposals, traditionalists did not respond by ‘taking their bats home’; rather we have consistently tried to engage with others to find a way forward. The TEA proposals were flawed, but we were not the ones who rubbished them; rather we supported the motion in Synod, saying they were the basis for a way forward and asking for more work to be done. Somehow, that motion, passed by Synod, died at the hands of the bishops and was never heard of again.
In July 2008, Synod considered a range of possible types of legislation. Traditionalists spoke well in the debate, supporting a number of amendments, which, while far from ideal, would have gone a long way towards providing for our needs. Readers will know only too well what happened in the vote: every possible provision was rejected and the Synod opted to go for a ‘code of practice! This ‘code’ option cannot work because it cannot provide us with bishops who will have [ordinary jurisdiction, i.e. it cannot deliver the bare minimum we need. At the same time, its flawed attempts to make any provision will mean that it reduces women bishops to some second-class status and restricts their ministries in some way. In failing to meet our basic ecclesiological o needs, it provides only for the sexist who is happy as long as (s)he does not actually have to see the woman bishop. It is inadequate in its provision and unjustly discriminatory against women. In short, it deserves to be rejected by all parties.

So, we may well be moving towards the situation I have outlined: the legislation failing to gain the required majorities (a situation which benefits nobody) and a Church of England unable to charter its way out of the mess it has created. Whose fault will all of this be? Undoubtedly there will be an attempt to blame us.

We will be cast as the die-hard bigots, who would not engage with the rest of the Church of England. Well, we cannot control what others say, nor can we determine whom they choose to blame. But the question of blame for an unprecedented crisis in our Church requires an objective rather than subjective answer. And when the evidence is examined, it is going to be very clear indeed to those with eyes to see that traditionalists are not responsible for the mess.

The evidence of our sincere struggle to help find a mutual way forward is clear. On one side of the scales will be those pressing down with their declarations that we are to blame, but on the other side will be the weight of the words in Consecrated Women?, the speeches we have made and the votes we have cast, the pleas of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the tears of the Bishop of Dover. We will not carry the guilt for that which we have consistently tried to avoid. The responsibility for the mess will lie elsewhere.