Mark Stevens asks what the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda can realistically hope to achieve

He hasn’t an enemy in the world, and none of his friends like him,’ said Oscar Wilde of George Bernard Shaw. And the same could truthfully be said of the Society of St Wilfrid and St Hilda. The fact is that no one (even its creators) is entirely sure what it is for. Does it exist primarily to frighten the horses – by weight of numbers and tenacity of purpose to force the Synod or the House of bishops to re-instate adequate provision for opponents of women bishops? Or is it the beginnings of a para-ecclesial structure which will function in spite of the absence of such provision?

Enthusiasts of the society will say that it is both; and that the two are closely linked. The first is not a realistic threat if the second is not a pragmatic alternative. But it is not as simple as that. To secure Synodical provision, at this late stage, will require not only numerical pressure, but a change of heart among a putative moderate majority. Yet that moderate majority, if it exists at all, might well be alienated by the very threat of ecclesial disobedience.

Unseasoned fighters

The truth is that the proponents of women bishops will by now have got the measure of the Society and its founders. None of the founding fathers, they will have observed, is either a seasoned synodical operator or a hardened street fighter. And since they are unseasoned by battles on either front, there is no reason to be threatened by them now. The grandly named ‘Bishops Protector’ of the Society are decent enough men. And proponents will, very wisely, have consulted Crockford’s and determined their sell-by date. So what can the Society hope to achieve? In the short run it could stabilize a very volatile constituency and give it some coherence in the face of what seem overwhelming odds. No one should underestimate the elevation of the hill which has to be climbed if adequate provision is now to be achieved. The draft legislation emerged from the revision process, from the point of view of the opponents, worse than it went in; and that after a bruising Synod when every attempt at compromise signally failed.

Extreme optimism

The constituency will need coherence and single-mindedness if anything at all is to be salvaged from this debacle. There is, it is sometimes thought, a slender possibility either that following motions from the dioceses will encourage the House of Bishops to revise the proposals, or that revision on the floor of the Synod may produce a better result. But only an extreme optimist would put her trust in either.

The House of Bishops has lived so long in fear of the women priests lobby that a change of heart at this stage would be little short of the miraculous. And though a slight change has been detected in the composition of the House of Laity since the last elections, any solid proposals would demand a sizeable degree of evangelical support. (Evangelicals, for the most part, it should be remembered, have about as much interest in ecclesiology as they have in philately.)

Meanwhile the more skilful operators in the women bishops lobby (like the Archdeacon of Lewisham and Greenwich) are wittily marshalling catholic arguments for heterodox purposes. The Church of England should do nothing, they say, in creating women bishops, which would compromise in any way the traditional and fundamental role of bishops as the focus of unity in their dioceses.

It is a line which goes down well with the majority. (The fact that it renders bishops instruments of disunity between dioceses of the Communion and of the wider Church goes largely unnoticed and is, of course, never mentioned; for it reveals the real agenda, which is not about a catholic episcopacy but about female equality and equivalence at whatever cost).

It does not seem to me that much, if anything, can be salvaged from the present impasse. But it is certain that unity among the opponents will be a primary requirement if anything is to be done. And so it would be churlish not to wish to wish the Society a fair wind.

Long-term role

But what of the long term? Of course if adequate provision within the legislation is achieved, the Society will in most respects be redundant before it has really come into being. Only if legislative provision is inadequate or non-existent will it come into its own.

In the first case (if provision is real but inadequate) the Society will have a function not unlike that of the PEVs and Forward in Faith in relation to the Act of Synod. It will need to establish the structures and networks which ‘expand’ and ‘develop’ the legislation to meet the needs of the constituency. Such a role will be necessarily ambiguous in its ecclesiology; but, pragmatically, and depending on the legislation which is being ‘developed’, it might well come up with something workable.

In the second case (if there is little or no provision at all), things will be very different. I cannot myself see the present leadership of the Society going down the path of wholesale confrontation, ending in illegal action. These are men whom the constituency has not chosen and who owe their present position (and claims on leadership) to the very establishment and system against which, in those circumstances, they would need to rebel.

The future (and it will be a very diminished one) will be in the hands of the young Turks who emerge when, like the orchestra in the Haydn symphony, the present leadership has slipped away. ND