High Society?

Geofrey Kirk examines the prospects for the Society of SS Wilfrid and Hilda

The Society of SS. Wilfrid and Hilda is a remarkable phenomenon – a society which has gained a membership before it has developed an agenda. This tells us two things: that there is a felt need for what it might offer (ecclesial integrity for Catholics within the Church of England) and almost insuperable difficulties in delivering it.

The Society is being marketed as the initiative of a group of ‘catholic bishops’; but it turns out that many of those on the list learned about it only days before its inception. The core bishops are those with personal connections with the Bishop of Chichester: the advocate of a ‘society model’ before the Legislative Revision Committee – the Bishop of London – is the elephant who is not in the room. Not one of these core bishops was available to speak about the Society at the recent National Assembly of Forward in Faith.

In the absence of any real information – and of those who could deliver it – the Assembly floundered somewhat on the matter. But that does not preclude us here from asking: what would such a Society need to do to meet the aspirations of those who might become its members?

It would need, surely, to provide bishops with jurisdiction, who could therefore assure parishes and clergy of future appointments; bishops who could secure for themselves a discrete succession; and bishops who, in doing these things, were nevertheless fully integrated into the life of the Church of England and had the respect of their colleagues both male and female. It would need some sort of Statement on Communion which would regulate relations between members of the society and the rest of the Church of England in such a way as to ensure co-operation without infiltration. It would need to be actively involved in the discernment of clergy vocations and in the formation of ordinands and young priests.

All this is a tall order, requiring concessions from the majority which they have recently shown themselves unwilling to grant. It would require, as Forward in Faith has repeatedly pointed out, not less but more by way of provision than emerged in the 1993 Measure and the Act of Synod – both of which are about to be removed. There has been much talk of ‘taking what is not granted’ and of illegal or irregular action by bishops of the Society. That would seem not merely a high risk strategy – but one contradictory to the essential character of the project, which is based, to a large extent, upon the reassurance given by the current status of those who are proposing it. ‘Trust us we are bishops’, is a serious element in the current sales pitch. If a ‘continuing church’ were what was being advocated (or what actually resulted) I predict that it would lose membership exponentially.

So what scenario can we envisage which would give a fair wind to such a project? A distinct possibility would seem to be the failure of the legislation at final approval. One could argue that a defeat (say in the House of Laity) would concentrate minds somewhat; that the proponents would be obliged to come back in the following quinquennium with less draconian proposals; and that meanwhile the Society would have established itself as the new kid on the block – a ready-made solution to an insuperable problem.

But to this scenario there are serious problems, not least of which is the ideological difficulty which proponents of women bishops have with any sort of compromise. Women bishops who are not in every sense equivalent to their male colleagues are radically unacceptable to them: it is precisely jurisdiction that they are after. For them, to curtail it is to deny it. They have put up with ‘degrees of provisionality’ and a ‘doctrine of reception’ for fifteen years: they are now in for the kill. It is extremely doubtful if they will be prepared to pay such a price for what they would see as tainted goods. And what is more, they do not need to. They have merely to bide their time and the apple, unsullied, will fall from the tree: the Church of England has no stomach, in the long run, to deny them what they want. The proposed Society might provide an interim settlement; but it would have a relatively short shelf life, during a period of intense campaigning to overthrow it.

A second possibility would be a compromise in terms of the present proposed legislation, brokered by the House of Bishops, possibly as a result of following motions from diocesan synods, and on the lines of the amendment proposed by the Archbishops at the York Synod. In this case two things are equally doubtful. The first is whether the concessions would be sufficient to satisfy the Society’s core constituency (those who want to stay in the CofE, but not at any cost). The second is whether such legislation would itself gain the required majorities. It is a scenario which assumes that the proponents of women bishops are not prepared to go for broke. I think they are. I think that they would be prepared to forge an unholy alliance with those who must in conscience vote against any legislation to consecrate women as bishops, in order to defeat a measure inadequate to their needs.

The proposed Society is a brave attempt by those whom Truth requires one to acknowledge have not been conspicuous by their bravery heretofore. A part of me wants it to succeed, even though it has no attractions for me. But another part of me is certain that the hill is too steep to climb and that the stone will roll back to the bottom. ND