Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

What went wrong?
November 21, 2012, 10:22 am
Filed under: Opinion

Let me say straight away that yesterday’s vote in General Synod, which failed to gain the necessary majority to approve women as bishops, was for me the best available outcome, in that it enables the present arrangements for dissenters to continue for the time being. Nevertheless, the narrowness of the margin must give us all cause to ask, under what circumstances the result might have gone the other way.

In the first place, I think it almost certain that if supporters of the Measure had accepted the wording offered last summer, and still more if they had accepted proposals made a year earlier, and which were supported by both Archbishops, there would have been enough favourable votes, or at least abstentions, in the House of Laity to carry the Measure. There were those who said that they would rather not have women bishops at all, than accept “second-class” bishops. Well, they have got their wish. Meanwhile, opponents who have had perforce to accept “second class” bishops (i.e. bishops without jurisdiction) rejoice that they continue to have at least that. I am reminded of the late Yasser Arafat, of whom it was said that he never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. The determination of a vocal minority not merely to have women bishops for those who wanted them, but to force them on those who did not, has ensured that they have, at least for now, failed. If the issue returns, I hope this lesson will have been learned.

Secondly, some supporters of the Measure have made little or no effort to understand the grounds of opposition. It has been dismissed as simple misogyny, or at least hide-bound conservatism. There has been no engagement with the arguments that have actually been made, and which even many fair-minded supporters of the Measure (such as the Archbishops) have agreed are valid and tenable positions. I will outline a few of them, from a Catholic perspective.

The Christian priesthood (and a fortiori the episcopate) is not a matter of power in the secular sense. They are not “top jobs”. Actually, the fact that it was the laity who scuppered the proposals, so overwhelmingly supported by bishops and clergy, shows how little power the clergy have! Any parish priest will tell you the same: you have to persuade people, not bully them. Of course some bishops and clergy do act dictatorially; but I do not warm to the argument that, in that case, we should have some female dictators. To say that priesthood is all about power, and then to say, “I want some too”, is hardly a Christian attitude.

The retired bishop of Bristol said on television last night, “This is not about the will of God.” He referred (I hope) to the method of deciding the issue, not about the issue itself. Well, I have never thought that the voting-figures in Synod were an infallible guide to God’s will; but they do at least indicate that there is profound disagreement about what the will of God is, in this matter. That is why it is so wrong to argue that “we must be in tune with modern Britain,” or “respect the majority view”. God is not necessarily on the side of the big battalions, as Napoleon thought.

A priest or bishop is, first and foremost, a representative of Jesus Christ- St Paul uses the word “ambassador”. This reminds us that whatever authority a priest or bishop may have, it is derived directly from above, not from below. Without going into too much detail, Christian priesthood is something symbolic, “sacramental” and not simply functional. The relationship between Christ and the Church (St Paul tells us) is analogous to that between husband and wife. The priest represents the “husband” side of the relationship, although individually and personally he is a member of the Church.

A bishop is not just a regional manager, nor is a priest simply a branch manager, of “Church plc”. There are important administrative and executive roles in the Church (such as archdeacon): but these are not essentially priestly. I would be quite happy for a senior deacon (male or female) to be an archdeacon. We must not confuse ministries. I fully believe in the equality of men and women in non-sacramental matters. This is where we should be concentrating our efforts. More power to the House of Laity.

A final point. The oncoming struggle is likely to be not about Orders, but about Marriage. Cries of “misogyny” will be joined by cries of “homophobia”. Neither accusation is just, but we shall have to bear it. At least on this issue it looks as if bishops, clergy and laity can be broadly relied upon to support traditional Christian teaching. The two issues are not entirely unrelated, as my earlier remarks about “marriage” symbolism and priesthood may indicate. The Creator made mankind in his own image, and he made us male and female. From the moment of conception, a new “image of God” comes into existence, to be cherished and nurtured far more intimately by women than by men. Mary’s vocation was to be the Mother of the Lord, not to be Lord herself. Every mother is mother of an image of Christ. Only a woman can be a mother (although not every woman will be). The priest’s primary role is to “image Christ” in a different way. In the Incarnation, both male and female worked in partnership, Mary the new Eve, Christ the second Adam. It is not unjust if the Lord has decreed that, in the sacramental order, priesthood belongs to the male sex, to counterbalance the role of women in the natural order.

I shall welcome discussion!



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