Richard Mantle argues the Church of England must evidence its commitment to rebuild trust over women bishops . . . and now

History makes us naturally cautious, perhaps even cynical, about optimists who wave documents that purport to offer ‘peace in our time’. Settlement documents are often proposed out of a desperate need and a profound longing for peace and stability but if they are to deliver what is required; there must be a sincere desire and commitment to reach a commonly agreed goal.

A common goal

It is not yet clear that those who have disagreed for decades about the ordination of women as priests and bishops have actually found a common goal in compromise and it would certainly be easy to pen a cautious and distrusting article about what is proposed in the report of the Steering Committee for the draft Bishops and Bishops (Consecrations and Ordination of Women) Measure and draft Amending Canon No 33. The report is riddled with the kinds of uncertainties, loopholes and imprecisions that lend themselves to a forensic and legalistic critique.

It certainly does not offer the kind of security yearned for by traditionalist catholic Anglicans who want to be free from the seemingly endless battles and skirmishes of the last twenty years or so. However, the report comes ‘warmly commended’ by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, who are publicly committed to upholding the rich breadth and diversity of the Church of England. What is proposed is, inevitably, something of a compromise and not entirely satisfying to people who have nailed their colours to different masts.

Bravery and vulnerability

Whatever positions we have held in the past, we are being asked to unpin our colours from those masts and to rally around new colours that represent the virtues of simplicity, reciprocity and mutuality, all of which are helpfully explored and encouraged within the report. We are invited to leave behind the purist tendencies of our different visions for the Church of England and to embrace a new, worthy and life-giving compromise.

The invitation is bravely issued by people who ‘represent the widest possible range of opinion on the matter’ and who ‘have been able to reach substantial agreement on a package of proposals to put to the General Synod.’ To accept the invitation will likewise demand a fair degree of bravery, for we are invited into a new position of vulnerability that demands considerable trust in those whom we have not been accustomed to trusting. Trust, however, needs to be built and, like a bridge, needs to be built from both sides. If the proposed way forward is to have a chance, we must start building trust, not when the legislation comes into effect, but now.

Enabling tradition

The Draft House of Bishops Declaration says some helpful things about what we ought to be able to expect of each other within the Church of England. There is a clear statement of commitment to enabling ‘traditionalists’ to flourish within the life and structures of the Church of England.

Clearly the House of Bishops is one of those structures, and we can expect to see traditionalists among those who hold an ex-officio place within that body. It is very clear that women who are bishops must hold their office under the same terms as their male colleagues; to flourish, they must hold the necessary authority and jurisdiction. If traditionalists are also to flourish under this settlement, it will be necessary for them to have a share in the episcopal jurisdiction held by the House of Bishops, of which suffragan bishops, including the 3 PEVs, Provincial Episcopal Visitors or “Flying Bishops”, are not ex officio voting members.

The Draft Declaration imposes appropriate responsibilities upon diocesan bishops who do not ordain women as priests but the very next paragraph requires other diocesan bishops to ensure that leadership roles in their diocese are occupied by people from across the range of traditions. These undertakings by the House of Bishops represent very significant assurances and should be taken as honest declarations of intention that legitimately fall under the scrutiny of the new Independent Reviewer.

Lessening the burden

They should also make a considerable difference in a church, where by the end of this year the only traditionalist Non-PEV suffragans will be The Bishops of Pontefract, Burnley, Edmonton and Horsham, all but one of whom were nominated by diocesan bishops who did not ordain women. If suffragan bishops are to be appointed by non-traditionalist Diocesans, it will also lessen the burden on dioceses such as Chichester and, until recently, Blackburn, who have arguably borne an unreasonable burden on behalf of the wider church.

We need to see firm evidence of the rebuilding of trust and this new commitment through forthcoming appointments to Diocesan and Suffragan sees. What better signal can there be that the Church demonstrates its commitmentnow, and certainly before the new legislation reaches its final agreement in the Synod.

The Church of England, as we know, is a complicated body and whilst we may dare to trust the House of Bishops Declaration, if adopted, and we may dare to trust Archbishops who are very publicly committed to the flourishing of diversity, the most senior appointments are not in their gift.

Establishing trust

The Crown Nominations Commission must play its important part in facilitating the vision suggested by the Draft Declaration and, arguably, this is the body with most ground to make up when it comes to establishing trust. By the end of this year, The Bishop of Chichester will be the only serving traditionalist Diocesan Bishop under the age of 65. No diocesan bishop who ordained women has ever been replaced by one who does not. There is a need for change if there is to be trust and the proposed settlement is to work.

There is no time for delay and we look to those who have it in their power to give us something in which to place our hope and trust. ND

Richard Mantle is a member
of the House of Laity of the General Synod and
Guardian of the Shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham
(He is also General Director of Opera North in Leeds)