Tony Delves reflects on the progress of the draft legislation for women bishops through the Deanery Synods

There is something about Deanery Synods which reminds me of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot. In both, people wait expectantly for something important which never comes! Given this, it is amazing that people turn out to support them so faithfully, in all weathers, to often gloomy haunts in remote places, with extremely hard chairs!

Deanery Synods are said to be the weakest part of the Synodical system. They have little power or influence and are very local. There may be, on occasion, more heat than light, and what feels like a wilful indifference to matters of great consequence. The theology may be thin and parochialism strong, but just occasionally they come into their own.

The present situation is a case in point.

Many deaneries are now considering the draft legislation for women bishops, though dioceses are not obliged to refer it to them. Deanery Synods play no formal part in the process of consultation, so any votes taken amount to no more than a straw poll of opinion. Many Deanery Synods have still to meet. However, a significant pattern is emerging.

News from the Deaneries

Fight the Good Fight. In these deaneries there is a strong restatement of expected positions, one way or the other. Where we are weak the play is all with our opponents.

Where the Chairing is poor, and people refight the case for women’s ordination, instead of the actual draft Measure, we will do badly. Elsewhere, when we are well represented, the main motion has been soundly defeated. For example, in six of seven deaneries in the London Edmonton area, the motion was lost.

Next Business Please. In these deaneries there is little interest in the issues and impatience to talk about something else! A good example comes from Cumbria where the debate was one among three significant items on the agenda. To save time (!) voting slips were given out on arrival and filled in by many before the debate!

Expect the Unexpected. These are deaneries where typically we would not expect support but we are finding it. We might not win the vote but the division of opinion exposes a real sense of unease. This is reflected in the number of Synods showing support for a Following Motion, even after voting for the main motion.

A new perspective

Since the main motion cannot be amended, and people can only vote for or against it, by tabling a Following Motion you allow people to show they want change in the provisions, without rejecting the whole package. We know of Following Motions being won in Guildford Diocese (three), Southend, Burnham (Norfolk), Blackburn Diocese (two) and others have yet to report. The number being put at the moment is small for it depends totally on local initiative. The important thing is that where they are being put, and explained, they are attracting support.

This might not sound of great consequence but it is bringing a new perspective on the shape of the debate up to present in General Synod. Here a war of attrition has been slogged out to a most unwholesome stalemate. In the deaneries we are hearing voices, no less committed to the ordination of women, but uneasy about the way things are being done.

Why the unease?

Four major issues are emerging: the breaking of promises, the lack of fairness, concern that we are becoming a less broad and inclusive church, and being asked to approve a Code of Practice as yet unseen. The grounds for this unexpected support are highly significant, for the wider Church of England as much as for us. The arguments which register in many Deanery Synods are less to do with issues of gender or ecclesiology as with integrity. Moral theology is emerging as the arbiter of competing claims. This should not surprise us for it was around such issues of natural justice, of fairness and inclusiveness, that the groundswell for women’s ordination emerged. Now we can fairly claim a share in this inheritance since, paradoxically, it favours our case. It highlights the moral deficit of the proposals and, where this is explained, it is being recognized.

‘The voice of moral reasoning’

Recently, the Bishop of Liverpool, James Jones, in Thought for the Day on Radio 4, talked about the Libyan crisis. He persuasively identified a third crucial factor, alongside political and military issues, which he called the voice of moral reasoning.

It is that same voice which Deanery Synods are now calling into play as the way forward.

It begins with the recognition that we are caught between the moral goods that each side represents, to do justly and to hold the church together. It recognizes that one moral good cannot be satisfied by denying another, or justice secured by means of injustice. Its focus is on the commonwealth, or the greater good, rather than on opposing arguments. It keeps its word, however inconvenient, for otherwise its moral integrity disintegrates. It is true to the moral economy of Anglicanism for that is its gift to the wider Church.

It is to our bishops now that we look to take on the voice of moral reasoning which has emerged from our Deanery Synods. We must pray for and encourage them in this. It is the way forward. ND