Bishops'silence

Jonathan Baker comments on some of the speeches from bishops at the February Synod debate and wonders why so many have been silen t for so long

So the draft legislation enabling women to be ordained to the episcopate has been sent by the General Synod for Revision in Committee, together with the illustrative Code of Practice. While the Code of Practice is still alive it is surely deeply wounded.

The debate in London in February was remarkable not only for the change of tone from that in York last July, but for the number and the quality of contributions from among the House of Bishops. Synods way of doing business - what one diocesan bishop calls 'the synodical escalator' - can take on a life of its own: perhaps it was necessary that we went through July in order to get to February. Yet there was something bewildering about hearing points made, and arguments advanced, at this stage of the process which, had they been made earlier, would surely have meant that we would never have got to where we are now. Synod was playing catch-up; and this means that those of us who have been living with these questions for a long time must realize that we must continue to explain and to argue our position, as if from first principles, and as if for the very first time.


The Archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury's contribution to the debate has been widely reported, and built on the content of his Presidential Address the previous day, in which he spoke of how 'the other' -those with whom we disagree - will not simply go away' While expressing unambiguously his hope that women would be ordained to the episcopate, he was no less clear in urging that the way in which such a development came about had to be good news' for everyone. (Whether there really can be away of making the admission of women to the episcopate good news' for those who do not believe that this is the mind of Christ is not a question I address here.)

The Archbishop drew particular attention to the previous speaker, the Bishop of Bath and Wells. His speech has been little remarked upon, yet it was indeed a significant one. The Bishop of Bath and Wells asked for a study of the wider theological and anthropological questions raised by the whole debate over women and the ordained ministry.

I recalled my speech in Synod in February 2005, when the Rochester Report was first debated. Then, I had suggested that the question of God's fatherhood was one which needed careful thought as we began to discuss the possibility of ordaining women to the episcopate; and the Archbishop of Canterbury replied (graciously!) in his speech on that day that perhaps I had got the relationship divine fatherhood and human fatherhood the wrong way around.


Too late for study?

That was four years ago, and the Synod has moved from taking note of a report which set out a range of arguments on women and the episcopate, to sending draft legislation to the Revision Committee: a process which historically (as Aiden Hargreaves-Smith explained to Synod) is to do with finessing detail, rather than wholesale reconsideration. Yet that theological debate, into which the Archbishop of Canterbury and I dipped our toes in York four years ago, has not been revisited. Three cheers, then, for the Bishop of Bath and Wells: but is it not too late?

A third speech of great significance from a member of the House of Bishops was that of the Bishop of Norwich. Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, he could not find good news' in the proposals before Synod; he could not discern the joy, the lightness of heart and the spring in the step, which should be the fruit of God doing a new thing. He urged a patient waiting upon God. If the Bishop of Bath and Wells was asking for further study of theological and anthropological questions, then the Bishop of Norwich concentrated on ecclesiology and our understanding of episcopacy.

The proposals before Synod for delegation to complementary bishops and the division of sacramental ministry from juridical function would leave episcopacy so damaged, so fractured, that it would scarcely be worthy of the name, and the ministry of all bishops - men, women, diocesan, complementary - would be irreparably diminished and flawed. Our understanding of what it means to claim membership of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church was at stake: and for the Bishop of Norwich, those who would be unchurched by the draft legislation were precisely those who held deep convictions about the catholicity and apostolicity of the Church of England.

It was a remarkable speech, brave and utterly convincing. Yet again, one wondered - why only now are these points about the integrity of the episcopate and the catholicity of the Church of England - basic to the thesis of, say, Consecrated Women'? - being advanced with such clarity?


Cause of the delay

What of bishops enthusiastic for the ordination of women, and sympathetic to the present proposals? In a gentle speech, the Bishop of Chelmsford recalled an evangelical Parochial Church Council in the mid-1970s not only agreeing that women could receive Holy Orders, but that the Church of England ought to get on with it right away. We could not, he said, be accused of rushing.

More problematic was the contribution of the Bishop of Lichfield. He suggested that the effort being taken to accommodate those who could not accept the ordination of women to the episcopate was indicative of a spirit of generosity on the part of the majority; but that the minority could not dictate the terms or the pace forever. This needs to be challenged.

Of course, true to theological conviction and their sense of obedience, opponents have spoken against the ordination of women in debate; and of course they have voted against proposals (such as the present ones) which offer an wholly inadequate way forward. But it was not in the meetings of the Catholic Group on General Synod, nor their orthodox evangelical counterparts, that TEA fell, but rather in the House of Bishops; and (continuing opposition to the ordination of women in principle notwithstanding) the 'minority' has not been slow to suggest ways forward for the Church which might just be good news' for everyone. Perhaps, at last, others will begin to listen. \ND\

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