Saving honour

The Editorial Board describe why the July Synod debate will prove so important to the credibility of the Church it represents

This month, the General Synod of the Church of England has set aside two and a half days to resolve the current impasse in the Women Bishops legislation. This is a great deal longer than was earmarked for the fateful debate in July 2008 that still stands, two years later, as one of the more shameful low-points in the life of that institution.

The presenting issue is Women Bishops, or at least that is the title given to the various elements of draft legislation and its accompanying reports. This, of course, is not what the debate is about, for this matter has already been decided. Right or wrong, and in this case wrong, that decision was made – by default or sleight of hand – in 2005 when the then Bishop of Southwark initiated the current round of quasi-parliamentary process.

Taken that there are to be women bishops, the actual line of battle now concerns the provision to be made for those who cannot in conscience accept the ministry of a woman bishop, or any male priest or bishop ordained by a woman bishop. It is this problem which has so exercised the Revision Committee.

However – and New Directions has pointed this out ad nauseam – this is still not the real issue. What happens to an orthodox minority, however important, can only be of secondary importance. It may be deeply hurtful to those ejected from the church of their birth; it may cause real suffering to many devout Christians; but we cannot doubt that the Lord Jesus will look after his faithful servants.

This is not an issue about individuals, but about our common life together. It is not what is to happen to us that is the principal concern, but what will happen to our Church. What are the implications for the Church of England?

Actions have consequences. If a promise has been given, and is then broken, there are real and serious consequences. For any institution that claims to be a Church, or part of the Church, the consequences are potentially fatal. It is this possibility that makes the July session so important to all members of the Church of England.

Was a promise ever made? One might say, and some have said, that no promise could ever have been given by the very nature of the process and the institutions involved. This was put most clearly by Christina Rees, writing for New Directions in September 2008. She wrote,

A‘ vote taken in one Synod cannot ‘promise’ something in perpetuity, because synodical government is part of a dynamic ‘due process’. We have all heard that succinct description that the Church of England is episcopally led and synodically governed. The bishops provide a lead and the General Synod responds with reports, debates and votes.’

On this analysis, Synod can neither make a promise nor bind its own future, because its members are elected. Those who make legislation by their own votes were themselves elected by the votes of others. In this it follows the English political model, where Parliament, being both sovereign and democratic, cannot legislate for its successors: it has to allow for its own legislation to be revised or repealed by a later, elected chamber. Thus, if Synod is to maintain its democratic freedom and authority, it too must allow for a reversal of any vote that it takes.

One can see where the idea comes from, but this does not mean it makes sense. The Church of England is still episcopally led, and this means more than merely providing a lead. As successors to the Apostles, they are the heirs of a tradition and entrusted with handing it on. The revelation of Jesus Christ is received, not voted upon. The Church of England, in other words, is not sovereign, but servant.

If General Synod cannot, by its institutional character, make a promise, then this is a fault of that particular institution and not an excuse: if this is true, then its structure and process are simply misconceived. Either it must be able to make a promise, if it is to serve the Church as it claims; or else, if it cannot, it must hand back its claim to authority to those who can.

However you wish to colour it, and in whatever theological tradition you wish to expound it, the Church is the expression on earth of the covenant of God, and that covenant is and was, first and for ever, expressed in promise. No promise, no covenant; no covenant, no church. There may be better ways of putting it, but none which can remove or mitigate this truth.

The fundamental basis of the relationship with God is one of promise, from Adam, to Noah, to Moses, to David and throughout the pages of the Old Testament. God’s promise is the foundation of each and every covenant, finally and completely fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

The notion of promise is central to any notion of Church. To break a promise is to break the very nature of the Church; it is to perform an action that will have the most disastrous of consequences.

There has to be that foundation of promise and trust if there is to be any basis for the continuing life of a church. If Synod reaffirms the truths of Scripture or the Creeds, could these really be taken as only temporary? Of course not.

Synod must be able to take part in the maintaining and handing on of the promises of the Church.

What was the promise? In simple terms, that those who cannot in conscience accept the ordination of women to the priesthood or the episcopate are and remain true Anglicans, and share as honourable a position within the Church as do those who can. The question is open; this is a period of reception; no one is to be excluded for their convictions on this issue.

It is important to remember that it was Bishops who gave the definitive and formal expression to this position, at the Lambeth Conference of 1998, ‘that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate are both loyal Anglicans.’

As Dame Mary Tanner so eloquently reminded us last month, this understanding of reception is a serious enterprise. Indeed, it is almost an Anglican vocation, ‘How we in the Church of England live with difference has significance not only for ourselves but also for the wider Church.’ There must be ‘secure and generous provision’ for those who hold that ‘ordination and the recognition of orders are among those elements of our common Christian inheritance about which there is no room for doubt.’ ‘We need to go on explaining why it is Gospel truth for some that women should be ordained, and why it is Gospel truth for others that women should not be ordained.’

Did we take these notions of an equal and honoured status and of the process of reception to be a promise? Of course, and so did everyone else. ‘You say, now, it was a promise; because you want it to be. But did you really understand it as such ten/fifteen years ago?’ Yes. And so did everyone else. There is no need to find the formal words and the formal context.

A promise is not a contract; there was no moment of signature, no single, ratifying document. A promise is stronger than a contract – it is received as permanent, and shared as a positive bond of trust; unlike a contract, it is not written on the basis of its being broken in the future.

Did Watch or others, who now suggest that the due process of Synod does not allow for promises, ever warn that this would be the case back in the Nineties? Of course not. Did any of the bishops? No. All who took part, all who made any claim to authority, acted and claimed to act with honour and trustworthiness. When, for example, the Second Church Estates Commissioner said in the House of Commons [29 Oct 1993] of the Resolutions element of the Measure ‘Both this and clause 4, which relates to cathedrals, are continuing provisions without limit of time – built-in, permanent parochial safeguards,’ no one suggested he was stating anything other than the obvious.

The life of the Church of England has been fully and unequivocally predicated on the foundation of this promise – a promise made not as a calculation, nor under duress, but as part of its own self-understanding. And acted upon, across the board, on this understanding.

How many older clergy trusted this promise, stayed in the Church of England, and did not take the financial compensation? And how many millions were saved thereby? How many younger clergy answered the call to ordination within the CofE, trusting in this undertaking, and were given assurances based upon it? How many lay people, old, young, men and women, continued to commit prayer, money, time and work to their parish church, because of this solemn promise that they had and would continue to have a secure place within the church of their birth?

Of course it was taken to be a promise. The Church of England would now be considerably poorer if it had not been trusted as such. Older clergy have been encouraged to stay; young men have been encouraged to answer the call; lay people have been encouraged to support their parish church. Liberals of goodwill within the majority have taken it to be a promise: it is part of the comprehensiveness of the CofE.

The promise of an honourable place could never, of course, be fulfilled by a Code of Practice. This was recorded by the Revision Committee, as we cited last month, when it acknowledged the view ‘that it was illogical – and, indeed, something of a pretence – to enact legislation that recognized the existence of doubt about women’s priestly and episcopal ministry but then failed to make provision that properly reflected the nature of that doubt’ [202].

A Code would end the period of reception, provide nothing for those who hold to the Historic Episcopate (that forgotten fourth part of the Lambeth Quadrilateral), and be ‘completely inconsistent with any claim that there remained two acceptable views as to the women’s priestly and episcopal ministry in the Church of England’ [202]. But notwithstanding how we would see it, might the current proposal upon the table, in the name of the Archdeacon of Lewisham, as set out in the Revision Committee’s report, be a way of squaring the circle for those who remain?

No, it would not. Even expressions of goodwill cannot mitigate the consequences of breaking a promise. It does not much matter whether it is a deliberate reneging on former undertakings, or whether it is ‘part of a dynamic due process’, it will affect the life of the Church of England, far beyond the loss of its traditional, orthodox members.

If the Church of England cannot make a promise or is unable to keep its promises (again, it does not matter which), it would have to withdraw from all participation in ecumenical dialogues. If it cannot stand by its doctrinal statements, it cannot stand by any agreed statement with any other Communion – rather ironic in the light of Archbishop Rowan’s Paschal Letter.

Relations with the secular world may now be less cordial than they once were, nevertheless they remain foundational to the existence and self-understanding of the Church of England. Could bishops still sit in the House of Lords, could bishops and dioceses talk to the local communities in the care of their parish churches with any authority, if they have so publicly and formally broken a promise to their own members? One may care nothing for Anglo-Catholics, but to break faith with one group is to signal a potential break with any other group in the future.

A Church cannot survive by breaking promises. The only possible answer is to show that, somehow, what is offered is not the breaking of a promise. The ‘traditional catholics’ have put forward a proposal that makes the least change to the Church’s existing structures, that does not discriminate against a woman bishop because she is a woman, that would maintain the integrity of the CofE. Any other solution carries the burden of proof that it will not compromise the Church of England’s capacity to remain true to its word.

In the end it does not matter what we, the minority, believe, say or think. This is a matter of integrity. Forget the politics, put aside the rhetoric, but save the honour of the Church of England. ND