Anthony Saville reflects on the women bishops debate and reassures us that, although mistakes may have been made, our witness to the Gospel will not be wasted

2006, 2008, 2010: in the recent even-numbered years, General Synod has dominated Church of England life, with the preparations for and fallout from a trilogy of wretchedly ill-tempered July debates on the legislation to introduce women bishops.

Taken that we lost each and every time, and taken that the desire for an inclusive church lessened with each motion passed, it would be easy, with hindsight, to say that we wasted too much energy on General Synod, and placed too many hopes in its maturity and integrity.

But though the battle is not over, a chapter has ended. In 2011 we have a period of relative tranquillity when we can consider our future as Catholic Anglicans with slightly less pressure, with only the diocesan and deanery synods to distract us.

A fair question?

The past seventeen years have been richly blessed, beyond our imagining, so there is no need to grovel, least of all to the rest of the Church of England. All the same, I cannot help feeling that this is a time when we should be considering, even if only in draft, the mistakes we made. Is there anything we might learn from where we went wrong?

First, though, we might ask whether the question itself is fair and reasonable. Of course, we got things wrong, made terrible mistakes, and too often acted with discourtesy or downright viciousness to those with whom we disagreed. Of course we were and are sinners, nevertheless… When I look back on those years, I do not think failure is the best or fullest description or explanation.

Battle for the truth

It has been a battle for the truth of the Gospel, and we lost. Now, it may be that out of that defeat, something may yet be salvaged; but for the moment, we have fought for the Gospel and we have been defeated. It is not a pleasant situation to be in, but it is an honourable one. We have been defeated, but God has not: what he will do with our defeat we do not yet know, but our witness to the Gospel will not be wasted.

There was an article many years ago in ND, suggesting the battle of Maldon as one of the most powerful and helpful images for our current situation. Even more so now. Fought in 991 by Northey Island on the Essex coast, the Christian Saxons were roundly defeated by the superior pagan Vikings. And yet.

The English king’s tactical error was fatal; yet it was an honourable one, and it made sense, and was even (perhaps) vindicated on a broader perspective. His followers’ decision to fight on after he had been killed was against all expectation, achieved nothing and was clearly foolhardy; yet it too was a courageous and honourable decision, that changed a grubby little battle into something far greater, whose resonance even now sustains us.

The battle of Maldon played its part in the conversion of the Norsemen, and yet it was a defeat. That truth is unequivocal. And then there is that poignant detail that the only surviving manuscript of the famous poem which recounts this battle (without which we would have long forgotten the whole episode) was copied by a Non -Juror at the end of the seventeenth century just before that ancient manuscript was destroyed in a fire.

The Non -Jurors played their part in the conversion of the Church of England, centuries later, that created the Anglo-Catholic movement from which we spring. But they too were soundly defeated, and ejected from the church of their birth.

A brave fight

Defeat happens. It happened to the Catholics at the Reformation. It has happened to us now.

We all ‘know’ that history is written by the victors. Nevertheless, in our case, as for the defeated Saxons of Maldon, that so-called truth may well be wrong: in some contexts, and this may be one, history is not written by the victors, but by the defeated.

Ours is an honourable position, and we should not be frightened to acknowledge it. How many parishes are there under the episcopal care of the PEVs? Although the number has increased slowly but steadily, we still have not reached 3% of all the parishes in the Church of England. Less than 3%! Yet, with the help of allies, we held off the vastly greater forces of liberalism for …a long time! And still the final spear thrust has not been administered.

We may not reach the heroic stature of the 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, but it is still an honourable defeat. Though I know I have not fought as bravely as others, I am still proud to count myself among the slain.

So do not think I am apologizing, if I suggest we ought to consider where we went wrong. But what strategic or tactical errors did we make, in seeking to put our case to the rest of the Church of England?

Next time: the sacred synods ND