What structural solution is the Guildford Group likely to offer? John Shepley has been reading the tea leaves and senses a depressingly inadequate understanding of what will be needed

How could a group with a member called Tetley come up with an acronym like TEA? It is a question you will have asked yourself. But those in charge of the modern CofE are not noted for their sense of humour. So TEA it is; and to TEA we must respond. Let us have a stab at guessing what TEA (Transferred Episcopal Arrangements) amounts to.

If the Church of England were to proceed to the ordination of women as bishops, parishes would be able to take (at an extraordinary parochial meeting of all those on the electoral roll convened for the purpose) a resolution something like this:

i) That this parish would not accept a) a woman as the minister who presides at the Eucharist or pronounces Absolution; b) a woman as the priest-in-charge or incumbent; c) a woman as a bishop exercising jurisdiction in the diocese.

ii) consequently requests either a) transferred episcopal arrangements, unless the diocesan bishop declares his intention not to ordain women to the priesthood or the episcopate; or b) transferred episcopal arrangements, in the event of a woman being appointed as bishop of the diocese.

Such a resolution would be referred by the diocesan bishop to the archbishop of the province, or presumably (if the archbishop were a woman) to a male diocesan in the province, who would authorize a new kind of bishop (shall we call them ‘PEVs+’?) to minister to the parish in all pastoral, sacramental and disciplinary matters, other functions remaining with the diocesan.

Dividing powers

More provisions (already shadowed in the Blackburn Report and elsewhere) are to be expected: the petition would be renewable every five years; faculty jurisdiction would continue as at present; finance, church schools and the rest would remain in the hands of the diocese.

What would be transferred to the PEV+ or to others? Patronage, where the diocesan had been patron; oaths of canonical obedience to the archbishop (‘through the PEV+’?); sponsorship of candidates for ordination. All this would presumably replace Part 2 of the 1993 Measure and the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod.

Supposing these to be the proposed arrangements (and there is very good reason for that supposition) then those of us opposed to women’s ordination – but determined so far as possible to remain in the Church of England – need to ask what is good and want is bad about them. Alas, there is very much more of the latter than the former.

Some good, mostly bad

The arrangements allow something approaching jurisdiction to those who would be our bishops. Areas of current controversy (like parochial appointments and the sponsorship of ordinands) would clearly pass to them. They would take over prime areas of pastoral concern, presently in the hands of those who discharge that role inadequately, because they scarcely know those whom they pastor. It is important for the professional development of orthodox clergy that ministerial reviews should be in the hands of the PEVs+.

It is good, too, that the attempt is being made to build on the present Act of Synod, so enabling a continuity of ministry and service. They allow women priests and bishops to operate freely among their enthusiasts. The glass ceiling to senior appointments of women (right up to the archbishops) would be removed: there would, in consequence be a greater degree of theological coherence. Both proponents and opponents would surely, in time, appreciate secure but permeable boundaries between them.

All this is good – and an advance on the current situation. Thanks, one suspects, to the intervention of the Catholic bishops and the unanimity of the current PEVs, real progress seems to have been made.

That said, there is more bad than good. The bad comes in two kinds: the pragmatic and the theological:

Important practical problems of the proposed arrangements appear not to have been addressed. No consideration, for example, seems to have been given to the role of the PEVs+ where closure or amalgamation of parishes and reduction in staffing levels is concerned. In order to respect the integrity of petitioning parishes, the least that would be needed would be a mechanism whereby such matters were not to be dealt with exclusively by the geographical diocese, which might well be inclined to sacrifice those parishes before its own.

Nor does consideration seem to have been given to the level of participation of petitioning parishes in the synodical structures. The synods of the Church of England are made up of houses – laity, clergy and bishops. Opponents of women’s ordination would obviously be unable to accept the decisions in matters of Faith and Order of such legislative bodies, two of whose houses would be increasingly made up of those they supposed to be neither priests nor bishops. At the least there would need to be an opt-out provision (not unlike similar arrangements for the Isle of Man), and a competent body established to negotiate the opt-out and determine the alternative.

Theological errors

But these and other practical considerations pale into insignificance beside the theological issues raised. To put the matter frankly, there seems, at the theological level, to be a fundamental misunderstanding on the part of those who are crafting the proposals. After more than ten years of patient explanation on the part of the opponents, this is more than a little disappointing. The proposed arrangements, in so far as they have emerged from the conclave in which they were conceived, deal adequately with problems which the opponents of the ordination of women do not have. They do little or nothing to address the real difficulties of Catholic Anglicans.

Opponents are not (as some have persistently asserted) sexist bigots who simply want to avoid women. Most of us are women! Opponents sincerely and genuinely believe, from a reading of Scripture and an understanding of the tradition, that neither the Church of England nor the Church Universal has authority to innovate in this way. Proposals which have as their unspoken assumption that we will change our minds on the matter given long enough, dishonour that opinion; nor are they realistic.

We uphold the doctrine of the collegiality and interchangeability of orders. Orders exist to effect and express the unity of the Church in apostolic faith and mission. We understand that to have been the doctrine of the Church of England until now (powerfully but incompletely expressed in Canon A4); and we hold to it.

Opponents do not seek, and have no use for, arrangements which merely throw a cordon sanitaire around certain female ministers. A male archbishop who does not ordain women to the episcopate, but who remains in unimpaired communion with female bishops (and consecrates bishops who will consecrate women), is no use to us as a focus of unity or as the Ordinary of our parishes.

That silly notion

This is not, and has never been, a question of ‘taint’. Individual actions of individual bishops have never been the focus of our concern, relationships of communion within the House of Bishops and so across the Church, are what matters. It is a good thing that the Guildford Group has grasped that jurisdiction should pass from the diocesan bishop. But the question is: where then is jurisdiction to be located? The answer cannot be with the archbishops (whether they ordain and consecrate women or not). The archbishops are the heads of the colleges in which women bishops will take their place. Because of that real and symbolic role they are arguably the least, and not the most, acceptable location for that jurisdiction!

It is often said (though on what authority it would be hard to determine) that ‘being in communion with the See of Canterbury is a necessary part of being an Anglican.’ Supposing that to be the case, it is at least as obvious that ‘communion with the See of Canterbury’ is by now a slippery concept. If Canterbury were a woman, that degree of communion would presumably, in the case of many provinces, have been rendered merely notional. It is hard to see why English Anglicans should be obliged to a closer communion with that See than their sisters and brothers in other parts of the world.

Much has been made of the principle of ‘sacramental assurance’: that Christian people have the right to sacraments which are authentic and sure. Guildford, it seems, has grasped that there might be doubt about the validity of the sacramental ministries of women bishops and of those whom they ordain and authorize. But the matter does not rest there. There must, in that case, logically be doubt about the seriousness and probity of a Church which wilfully authorizes ministries which it knows to be doubtful.

Does TEA signal the end of the doctrines of ‘reception’ and ‘reversibility’ which have been so important in the past? If it does, then provisions more robust than these will be needed by opponents. If it does not, then the Church of England is clearly altering the understanding of the episcopate which it articulated in the Cameron Report as recently as 1990.We need to be told.

In fine, TEA will not do. It will not do because its provisions, as they presently appear, are clumsy, over-complicated and ill thought out. It will not do because its undergirding theology and ecclesiology are open to serious question. This is ‘ecclesiology lite’. Something like it might well prove to be a useful way of addressing the concerns of those whose allegiance to the Church of England is being tested over questions of human sexuality. It will not suffice for opponents of women as priests and bishops. It is a basically Evangelical solution to an essentially Catholic dilemma.