In a speech at the 2010 National Assembly Geoffrey Kirk looked back on the events of the last thirty years

I was instructed by Stephen Parkinson, who combines, as I am sure you know, on these occasions the roles of Goebbels, Beria and Svengali, to be funny. I am not sure I can discharge my brief. The last twenty-five years, during which many of us have been seeking to resist the increasing liberalisation of the Church of England and in particular the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate have not, I think you will agree, been a barrel of laughs. They have had their moments – but most of those have been on the bizarre side of humorous.

I intend, instead, so far as in me lies, to tell it as it is – or rather as it has been. We are as they say nowadays, in a new place. We owe it to ourselves to recount as accurately as maybe, how we got here.

In the beginning

The story begins with Cost of Conscience, which came to birth in my Vicarage in South London just over twenty-five years ago. The rationale was simple: that the battle was too serious to be left to a bunch of Synodical activists. We needed to mobilize the ordinary parish clergy. And from a series of shoe boxes on the floor of my dining room – these were the days when even computer buffs had only a small Amstrad – a list was made. It was not the only list. Graham Leonard set about his own, because, after all, he was a Bishop. But it was the only list that got clergy out of their parishes to sizeable meetings which gained press and synodical attention. In Church House Westminster, before the vote, we had a thousand two hundred clergy.

In a phrase which was taken up in unexpected places – Sweden and the United States, for example – Cost of Conscience proposed Alternative Episcopal Oversight. And we proposed a course of joint action if it was not forthcoming. That included the intention, in a phrase to be repeated time and again later, to take it, if it was not given. A group of retired bishops was convened who were prepared to undertake irregular consecrations and a venue in Scotland booked for the event. Now here’s a joke of sorts, especially if you’re listening John Hind. The meeting took place in Chichester.

Three limiting factors

But about this time, and especially with the passage of the legislation to see women ordained, three enduring features of the campaign became clear.

The first was the singular inability of the constituency to deliver on its rhetoric. Not only did we fail to take what was not given; but we failed to use even the less radical weapons available to us. We talked about withdrawing quota payments, but could not even agree to pay them through a central agency. We rattled our sabres more than once; but the sabres themselves remained resolutely in the scabbard. And that did not go unnoticed.

The second feature was the total inability of the bishops of the Church of England to wrap their minds around any ecclesial structure other than geographical mono-episcopacy. A meeting between representatives of Cost of Conscience and of the House of Bishops in 1990 merely illustrates what has been an enduring problem. Three reactions were evident at that meeting. The Bishop of Guildford (then Michael Adie) was fluent and belligerent. The Bishop of Winchester (then Colin James) was benign but puzzled. And the Bishop of Lincoln (then Bob Hardy) fell asleep and had to be awakened by his colleagues. As Fr Jonathan Baker told the recent Sacred Synod, things have not changed much since then.

The third feature was the re-emergence of a deep and atavistic anti-Romanism, not only among our opponents but amongst ourselves, even, I might add, among those with an apparently impeccable ecumenical pedigree – the old FOAGies as one might say. There were bitter recriminations about those who took the Roman option in 1993 – and there are antagonisms still, which allow others to think they can divide and rule. Watch this space.

After the big event

Jesus promised the Kingdom (as the liberals used to say) and what we got was the Catholic Church. Cost of Conscience promised Alternative Episcopal Oversight and what we got was Flying Bishops and Forward in Faith.

Much has been said about the role of the PEVs. They have been an heroic bunch pioneering new ways of being bishop, and forging for us an ecclesial identity against all the odds. But something needs to be said also about Forward in Faith, which formed the constituency in the dark days of 1993 and sustains it still, nascent societies of Northern Saints notwithstanding. That is, in my view, largely the result of three things: the democratic and representative structures which were set up – largely on the initiative of John Broadhurst, whose vision these assemblies were; the regular publications, New Directions, Forward Plus and the Forward pew sheet, which were my enthusiasm; and the establishment of an efficient central office and administration which we owe for the most part to Stephen Parkinson.

Undergirding all this – and giving a theological as well as a pragmatic rationale for the work of the Flying Bishops – was the Forward in Faith Statement on Communion. It was not popular to begin with, particularly among the soi-disant Catholic Bishops, but it has remained an indispensable marker, delineating territory quite as effectively as the geographical boundaries deemed so important by our opponents.

The statement was criticised as unprecedented and untheological. I remember a meeting with Geoffrey Rowell (then I think Bishop of Basingstoke) and the Chairman of the House of Bishops Theological Group, then Alec Graham. The grouse was our use of a novel and unfamiliar term: ‘alternate’. What did it mean and what precedent was there for such a notion. I naturally tried to be helpful. I innocently wondered aloud if a translation into Latin would help them. It seemed to me that Vicarius had the solid ring of antiquity and a familiarity among Anglicans which could hardly be denied.

Will the Society of SS. Wilfrid and Hilda generate a statement on Communion of its own, one wonders, with Geoffrey lending a helping hand? The advent of women bishops will make such a statement more, not less relevant or necessary.

Getting things wrong

Of course we got some things wrong, resoundingly wrong, as it turns out. And it is as well to be honest about that as well.

The first mistake was to participate in the synodical debates at all. Of course, in 1991, when all the number crunchers were predicting that the proposed legislation would fall at the final hurdle, the temptation to see things through on the floor of the Synod was almost irresistible. What a triumph to be able to go down to posterity as part of the team which saved the Church of England from itself! So no one noticed, it seems, that the best that could be hoped for was to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. The argument which alone united opposition in those years before the vote was the proposition that the Church of England – two deracinated provinces of the Western Church – had no authority to make the change. The Pope Himself (in those days John Paul II) was later to deny that even he and the Roman Magisterium had authority in the matter. But by participating in the debate (rather than absenting themselves or abstaining) the Catholic Group tacitly conceded to the Synod precisely the authority which it formally denied, and so paved the way for the legislation which is now in preparation and which will render the 1992 vote conclusive and irreversible.

The second big mistake was the enthusiasm with which we embraced the spurious doctrine of reception. Reception seemed at first sight like a gift: to embrace it obliged us to nothing (we did not, on the strength of it, have to concede anything about the authenticity or validity of the orders purportedly conferred on women). Our opponents, on the contrary, were obliged to admit what they coyly described as ‘a degree of provisionality’. So far so good. But we would have done well to have read the small print in advance.

That ‘degree of provisionality’ sounded the death knell of the Catholicity of the Church of England, for it undermined the Church’s ability to guarantee the authenticity of its own sacraments. Instead of being the vehicle of sacramental assurance, the CofE had wilfully become an arena of doubt. The best it could say of the orders to which it was admitting women was that at some future unspecified time it might know what they were. Now there’s a joke, if ever there was one. But there is more.

So-called Catholic bishops, embracing this curious proposition, actually licensed to the cure of souls ‘which is mine and thine’ (or rather ‘theirs and theirs’) priests the validity of whose orders they themselves privately denied, and about which the Church itself was declaredly in two minds.

It was not, on reflection, one of the more glorious moments of the Catholic Revival. And we should have recognized that at the time.

The nature of the case

The third mistake was, quite simply, to assume that we were engaged in a theological argument with those who were theologically responsible and responsive. Time and again, in debates in the Synod (fruitless as they were destined to be) and latterly in depositions to committees and commissions (not least among them Consecrated Women?), we had the best of the argument. But to no avail. We seemed blinded to the truth which was unmistakeably emerging: that women’s ordination is not a conclusion drawn from scripture, or even deduced from natural theology, but an ethical a priori assertion which can brook no denial or contradiction. To biblical exegesis and rational argument the response was name-calling and abuse. I am glad that my own mother did not live to hear me traduced in, of all places, the NewYorker magazine, as an ‘unrepentant misogynist’. But we have all been tarred with the same brush – unfounded accusations have been sprayed around ungroundedly unattributably, like graffiti on a wall. We should have seen what we were up against sooner than we did.

But here we are now, with little to show for our efforts and impending legislation which looks set to deny us even those provisions which we had carved out for ourselves. Dare I, who shared in all the errors and can point them out only with the grace of hindsight, give any guidance to my successor as Secretary of Forward in Faith?

What next?

I would say only this: that we were not wrong in one thing. A Code of Practice will not do, and there can be no honourable place in Forward in Faith for those who will make do with it. There is something of a paradox, a contradiction in terms even, in being a catholic party within a church. (How can the Catholic whole be part of something else?) But one thing I know: that a Catholic party cannot subsist at all on the mere sufferance of others. It needs what Forward in Faith has always striven for – an ecclesial dignity and integrity which is properly its own. Whether that is achievable in the Church of England post women bishops remains to be seen. I shall probably not see it myself – or if I do, it will be from another communion and on another continent. ND