George Austin reports on the women bishops debate in General Synod, an occasion characterized by the prioritization of political correctness over theology

Having attended as a member of the General Synod from its initiation in 1970 until 1995, it came as something of a shock to watch debates from the press gallery, which I have done on and off since then. Why a shock? Because the view from on high allows a different perspective, a view on what can only be called the synodical body language. There is the amount of support or fury as speeches are made, the quick realization of where a debate is going, of how it is going to end, and this was apparent in the debates on women bishops on the second day of the 2010 York Synod.

The initial speeches

The tone was set in the first few speeches on the main motion and continued throughout – sometimes thoughtful, concerned for the comprehensiveness of the Church of England, compassionate from speakers on both sides of the argument, but at other times rigid, unfeeling and obsessively politically correct.

A theological contribution by Fr Jonathan Baker was followed by a disturbing maiden speech by the new Second ChurchEstates Commissioner,TonyBaldry,whosepostmust always be held by a member of the current government. He clearly supported the argument for women bishops (partly on the curious grounds that it was to a woman that the risen Christ first appeared) and warned that the Commons and public opinion had changed since the Nineties.

Rowan Williams followed, correcting Mr Baldry by emphasizing that opposition had nothing to do with discrimination, and this was taken further by an impressive younger member of Synod, Emma Forward, pointing out that the motion as it stood had no longevity and so was useless for people of her age.

Oppressive policies

Then the debate took a complete downturn with a speech from an appointed member of the Archbishops’ Council, the Revd Dr Rosalyn Murphy – from Blackpool, according to the List of Members, but speaking with a pronounced American accent and attitude. Women, she shouted, should not be ‘tossed aside on to the scrapheap of society’ and that Synod should reject the ‘oppressive policies of the past.’

Does my memory fail me? Was it not the ‘oppressive policies’ of Henry VIII and Queen Mary bringing torture and death to those who sought only, as Catholics or Anglicans, to hold on to what seemed to them to be what their Church had always taught that led to an Elizabethan Settlement giving birth to a respect for all views? This has been treasured for so long as a distinctive and God-given character of our Church. But no more?

The unpleasant fight began as Synod turned to the first amendment to the main motion, requesting the creation of additional dioceses in order to meet the theological and pastoral needs of those who could not accept the authority of women in the episcopate – unpleasant in the sense that those who opposed its inclusion did so on politically correct rather than theological grounds.

Amendment lost

In the end the amendment was lost with only 124 voting in favour, 258 against, with 8 abstentions. Having rejected this attempt to show Christian compassion to a minority by a two-thirds majority, the Synod now faced the problem of the amendment put forward by the two Archbishops in a brave attempt to save the Church from schism. Would it respect the proposal made by the leaders of the Church or would it humiliate them?

Christina Rees quickly dived in to encourage the latter on politically correct grounds, while Prebendary David Houlding pointed out that this kind of extremism would bring us to the point of no return. ‘Do we belong or don’t we? Do we have a place in the Church or not?’ The defeat of the amendment would mean that ‘we asked for bread and you gave us a stone.’

A supporter of women bishops, Archdeacon Norman Russell, nonetheless asked if the Synod was really prepared to do something which would drive out traditional Catholics and conservative evangelicals. The voting on the amendment proved that this was so, at least in the House of Clergy, with 85 voting for and 90 against the Archbishops’ plea. Moreover, the amendment failed to reach a two-thirds majority in either of the other two houses of bishops or laity.

Provision unlikely

This suggests that, without a considerable – and unlikely – change of heart, any final motion to come before the Synod following the diocesan debates will fail if it contains any provisions for those who hold to a traditional understanding of ordained ministry. That will be in spite of the fact that opponents on the whole accept that if there are women priests there must also be women bishops, and ask only for the Church’s respect for their position.

After the tone and decisions of Saturday’s debates, there seemed little point in staying for a further two days – a decision of mine which was borne out by the determination on the Monday to provide no financial support for those clergy forced to leave their parishes and made homeless by the intolerance of a deeply liberal Synod. The civil courts may have a different view on this and the result could be costly for the Church of England, and deservedly so. But the theological cost for what would remain of a broken Church would be even more damaging. ND