‘And the lot fell upon Matthias’

Christopher Smith can’t see that either Hobson’s Choice or Buridan’s Ass has much to offer

II wonder whether it is true to say that we in the West have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with choice. Of course we want choice, but we don’t always want to have to go through the palaver of exercising it. I recently dropped my mobile phone down the open stairwell of the clergy house at Holborn, from the third floor outside my bedroom to the ground floor, where it landed with a hideous crash. A new phone had to be bought, so what did I want? Down I trotted to a shop on Fleet Street, hoping to be told. But of course, I had to make my own decision. Something not too basic, but not so fancy that I wouldn’t be able to work it. And the choice nearly had me running out of the shop in a panic!

Too much choice

Perhaps the same is true with the way we exercise our democratic rights. Maybe 70% of us vote in general elections because we understand the basis on which we make our choice, but only 15% in the Police and Crime Commissioner elections because we did not really know what we were choosing between.

It strikes me that there must be a point somewhere on the line where we feel we have sufficient choice, but are not intimidated by it. Perhaps the Crown Nominations Commission felt intimidated by the choice on offer of current diocesan bishops who might be translated to Canterbury. And perhaps that is why the Commission became so prone to leaks: too much choice. Still, now we have our man, and we await developments. But a comparison was drawn by a number of commentators with the election of the new Coptic Pope. You may have seen a clip on the news: a young server drawing a ball, one of three, out of a large glass ‘chalice’, opened by the acting patriarch to reveal the name of the name of Tawadros, Theodore II. In passing, I had a slightly wicked thought, that if Church of England archbishops likewise had to be drawn from the monasteries, perhaps our monastic communities would be in rather better shape today …

Democracy and consensus

The Coptic selection procedure is, of course, designed to mirror that of the Apostles themselves when they replaced Judas. First, there was wide discussion across the Coptic Church about suitable candidates, then the names were reduced to three, in whom presumably there was equal confidence. Immediately after the Ascension, according to Acts 1, the Apostles replaced Jesus by choosing by lot between two candidates in whom they had equal confidence. But they had a clear understanding that the choice was not random, but guided by God himself, hence their prayer, ‘show us which of these two you have chosen’.

All of this might make us ask a question about whether democracy should be the key determinant in church government, or whether in fact consensus might be more appropriate. Consensus is not simply about majority decision-making. It must, by definition, depend on consent. The point was strikingly made in the Christian Research survey reported in last month’s ND that there is clearly no consensus about the ordination of women in the CofE. There remains a remarkably solid minority opinion in favour of preserving the apostolic order of the Church in conformity with scripture and tradition. A vote has now been taken in General Synod on the ordination of women to the episcopate (the result of which I do not know as I write), almost 20 years to the day after the vote which allowed women to be ordained to the priesthood, and yet still a significant minority of churchgoers have doubts about whether they should have been ordained, and therefore, presumably, about their orders.

Inappropriate system

So just as clearly as there was no consensus in the CofE 20 years ago as to the possibility of women’s ordination, neither is there consensus now. However, as ND readers know to their frustration, consensus is irrelevant in a Synodical system which derives its method of legislating from the inherently confrontational system of Parliament. What matters is not working towards consensus, but achieving the requisite number of votes. When churchmen lobbied for an Assembly on the ground that legislating in Parliament was no way to govern a Church, they surely did not foresee the politicized Synod that would eventually evolve, taking to itself even the power to change doctrine.

And so we find ourselves saying again that this is no way to govern a Church. What is a clear choice for any individual Synod member always turns out to be Hobson’s choice for those in the pew, especially when they disagree with the neophiliac Synod majority who govern them.

The irony of it all is that, in a world in which we can choose from scores if not hundreds of mobile phones, church-goers have been denied any real choice at all. A real choice could have been offered by implementing the structures set out in Consecrated Women? in 2004. We all sometimes feel like Buridan’s Ass, paralysed into inaction between equal choices, even if that’s only, ‘Do you want chips or mash with that?’ But the paralysis faced by the Church of England is no mere philosophical paradox. It is the inevitable consequence of a system of government which is inappropriate for the Church of God. ND