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

Bishops: where do we go from here?
November 25, 2012, 6:30 pm
Filed under: Opinion

Let me start with an illustration drawn purely from politics. Should Britain remain a member of the European Union? There are “Europhiles” who say yes, and “Eurosceptics” who say no. The division line runs through the political parties. The Liberal Democrats are strongly Europhile, while UKIP is strongly Eurosceptic. The Labour Part is probably rather more Europhile at the moment than the Conservatives are. If this issue alone were to determine my vote, then as a Europhile there is only one party I would definitely not vote for.

But of course, at a General Election there are many issues to consider. A totally different and unrelated matter is whether marriage should be re-defined so as to include same-sex couples. If this were the only issue, then as someone opposed to such re-definition, I would be in a quandary. It seems as if the Lib-Dems, Labour and now even the Conservatives would favour this. For which party should I vote? Assuming (I do not know if this is true) that UKIP would be against the idea, should I set aside my Europhile position in order to safeguard my stance on marriage?

There is no General Election in sight, so for the moment I may work within my chosen party (whichever it is) in favour of Europe, and in favour of traditional marriage, unless that party makes adherence to a contrary policy a condition of membership.

Similar considerations apply to the Church. Churches hold positions on various issues, not all of which appear (at least at first sight) to be essentially linked. This is true even within the more restricted area of Church organisation and government. Unless one is a strict Congregationalist, everyone accepts that there needs to be some Church structure wider than that of the local congregation. But should it be Episcopal? Or Presbyterian? If Episcopal, are bishops part of the structure instituted by Christ, or are they merely part of the way the Church itself has decided to proceed? How necessary are they? What constraints are there on the way the Church is organised? Not only do different Churches take different views on these questions, but there is often disagreement even within a particular Church itself.

From the point of view of civil law, all Churches are voluntary associations, in that no-one (apart from the Monarch) is legally obliged to belong to any of them, or forbidden to. Each Church can make its own rules as to who can or cannot join, rules which may include adherence to particular doctrinal positions.

We are currently in a tangle, in the CofE, about women bishops (and priests). It may be worthwhile to clarify certain points. Some time ago, the General Synod decided (by majority vote) that there were no reasons in principle why women should not be ordained to the historic priesthood and episcopate. That was, and is, the majority view. However, there is a not insignificant minority which dissents from this, holding that the General Synod was wrong, and that it has no authority to make such a change. How is this minority to be accommodated?

The Synod has not made the eligibility of women for Holy Orders a matter of Faith, an essential doctrine of the Church. If it had, then clearly dissenters would have to leave. But their view has been repeatedly declared a permissible belief within the Church. What are the practical consequences of this? Since no-one should be compelled or pressurised to act contrary to his or her conscience, no dissenter should be put in a position in which they must accept a ministry they regard as invalid and without divine authority. This has been accommodated for nearly twenty years by the provision of Provincial Episcopal Visitors, and by the possibility of parish resolutions refusing to allow women to function as priests.

How should the Church arrange matters, if women are to be accepted as bishops? Clearly, the dissenting minority will not simply vanish, and will have the same problems as before, and even more acutely. It seems extraordinary therefore that the Synod should propose ending the present provision, and replace it with a “Code of Practice”, the contents of which are as yet unknown, and which will be capable of amendment by a simple majority of a future Synod. It is supposed to work on “trust”, while at the same time it abolishes a system which, twenty years ago, was understood by those benefitting from it as having been guaranteed for as long as it was wanted.

Supposing that dissenters from the majority view are, in effect, forced to withdraw from the Cof E, where might they go? Some, of course, may see the new English Ordinariate as a possibly home. But that cannot be taken for granted. Not all those who believe the CofE to be wrong about women bishops believe that, therefore, the Roman Catholic Church must be right about the Papacy. Some may come to that view, but many will not. The situation is not totally unlike that in my political example previously: how do I choose between a party whose policies I reject on one issue, and party whose policies I reject on another?

If General Synod, and the Bishops, are sincere in saying they want the minority view on female Ordination to continue to be a legitimate part of the Anglican spectrum, they must offer a way in which the minority can operate within the Church. That has not so far been done. If they refuse to do so, it would be better if they resolved in a clear-cut way that the minority view is definitely not acceptable within the Church of England, and wish us “God-speed”. Meanwhile, we have a right to remain, and to argue and vote in accordance with our consciences.



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