Thursday, 6 June 2013

Episcopal doublethink?

Well, further to my promise to myself to try harder at keeping this blog going, there's no time like the present.  And given that a great many of my earlier posts have been about the way the Church of England is dealing with getting women into the episcopate, I suppose it's only natural for me to take up with the same topic.

Incidentally, although there might be something trainspotter-ish about coming back to this again, I've dealt with it so much partly because it was the big issue around at the time I started blogging, and partly because it is fairly important to quite a lot of people in the Church.

So, where are we up to? Well. we had the "disastrous" General Synod vote last November, which led to all sorts of recriminations and the setting up of a new working group to find the way forward. This working group met a few times with representatives of the various campaigning groups plus others, and invited submissions from anybody who could be bothered. The working party reported to the House of Bishops, who have published the report along with their own comments and a proposal for the next step - together these are GS1886. Various responses have been forthcoming - from Reform, Forward in Faith, the Catholic Group on Synod and Affirming Catholicism. Doubtless other responses will come.

Here's the first part of mine.

I think it's a pretty good report, and it's probably worth reading if you want to get a flavour of where the Church of England has got to in all this. It sets out five elements of the vision needed to sort this out. They are given on pages 2-3 and 9 of GS1886, but in summary they say that:

1) once legislation is passed the C of E will be fully committed to ordination being open to all without reference to gender;
2) C of E ministers must then acknowledge the Church has made a clear decision on this;
3) this needs to be set within the context that Roman Catholics, Orthodox and some Anglican provinces don't ordain women as priests or bishops [figures are hard to get, but that's probably half of practicing Anglicans];
4) those opposed to women's ordination remain within the spectrum of Anglican teaching, and the C of E remains committed to enabling them to flourish;
5) provision for the minority will be without time limit, and in a way that allows maximum communion and mutual flourishing.

The report also places emphasis on the needs for simplicity, reciprocity, and mutuality (see pages 10 onwards), and wants to get on with things as quickly as possible. It says, and the Bishops agree, that "the way forward is likely to be one which makes it difficult for anyone to claim outright victory." Both say that trust needs to be built.

So there are four options offered by the report:

1) women can become bishops, and resolutions A, B, and C disappear; there is a declaration from the House of Bishops or an Act of Synod which set out national standards for the care of those opposed;

2) as option (1), but there would be an Act of Synod which would have to come into force simultaneously with the Measure to permit women bishops; this Act of Synod would be mentioned in the Measure, and could only be amended or repealed with two-thirds majorities in all three houses of General Synod;

3) an Act of Synod would cater for those unable to accept the ministry of women bishops, but at the parish level Resolutions A and B would be retained;

4) provision for opponents would be contained in the Measure itself.

Now the important point to note is that there is huge difference between an Act of Synod and a Measure. The former is no more than advisory and discretionary, the latter is legally enforceable. Thus options one and two give no enforceable rights to opponents, options three and four do. By the way, a declaration from the House of Bishops would have the same force as an Act of Synod, the difference lies in who is setting out their expectations of how people will behave - and surely it ought to be the whole Church in an Act of Synod.

So far, so good.

But then we need to consider the House of Bishops' recommendation, which is to go for option one. The only thing they add to it is an idea that there should be a mediation process included in the declaration/Act which sets out the expected pastoral arrangements. Now in one sense it's fair enough. This would be the simplest possible arrangement, and it would place more emphasis on trust and grace than law, which is very commendably Christian.

The trouble is that it seems to me to fall short of what's needed on several counts.

Most importantly, it looks like an almost complete victory for those who want to see women bishops without any substantive provision for opponents (like WATCH, for example). The only two differences from what they really wanted in November are that the arrangements would be at a national rather than diocesan level (which makes for relative uniformity across the C of E, not unreasonable), and there would be some process for parishes to seek redress if they felt hard done by: mediation. I'm not the only one who thinks this looks like victory for one side: Andrew Brown writing in Guardian thinks so too. I don't think the Bishops can have been ignorant of this impression, which makes it hard for opponents to feel they can trust the bishops, who appear, doublethink-style to say one thing ("no victories") and propose the opposite.

Quite how that mediation process might work will need a lot of clarification.

Opponents, naturally enough, want the maximum legal provision - clearly they'd favour option four, out of those suggested. They point out, reasonably, that options one and two fall some way short of what was rejected in November and so there is little chance of this present Synod passing them. To move forward quickly with something which looks so deeply flawed to opponents of women in the episcopate hardly seems to accord with respecting them. Again, there is not much room for the creation of trust in this.

To be fair, the bishops are saying that they propose option one as "the natural starting point for the debate," suggesting they'd be happy enough to see a shift - but then they also think it is "what most [Synod] members currently favour," which again might read like a snub to the minority.

Trust will be hard to come by. The Editor if the Church Times also thinks so.

Much prayer is required.

Next time ... which option I'd choose.

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