It’s Increasingly Obvious that the Church of England Dodged a Bullet

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So by now we all know (or where have you been?) that the Church of England decided against Women Bishops by the narrowest of margins. The vote, of course, wasn’t about the principle of having Women Bishops (conservatives having conceded the inevitability of that a long time ago) but over whether proper provision could be made for those who could not, in good conscience, accept the oversight of a woman bishop.

A number of groups made their case prior to the vote. Conservative groupings such as Church Society and Reform on the evangelical wing and Forward in Faith representing Anglo-Catholics all pointed out that the provisions on the table were simply unacceptable. What concerned them particularly was not simply that the provisions did not appear adequate (especially since the previous provisions of the 1992 Act of Synod were to be wiped away) but that they purported to affirm an atmosphere of “respect” and “working together” when the reality of the matter was that conservatives have long been marginalised in the Church of England.

So, for example, this from the closing speech by Angus MacLeay, the vicar of St Nicholas Sevenoaks and chair of the trustees of Reform, summarised the point succinctly:

… there will be no inclusivity for those with our biblical and theological convictions.  The Bishop of Chelmsford promises that we could look forward to the provision of conservative evangelical bishops but such promises seem hollow when there have been no such appointments over the last 15 years.  During that period, despite various promises as well as the Pilling Report, there has simply been no appointment of a conservative evangelical bishop which underlines the point that there continues to be no genuine respect for our theological position.  Words need to be backed up by actions but few have been evident.

MacLeay’s speech came almost at the end of a lengthy debate. I listened to the last 90 minutes or so. At 4.30am in the morning, after a restless night, I gave up trying to get back to sleep and lay in bed listening and praying. What soon became obvious was that there was a great concern amongst many that the legislation was flawed – simply inadequate for the protection of the conservative minority. It was also obvious that that didn’t bother some. The basic exchange went like this:

Conservative: We acknowledge that women bishops will come and we’ll be happy to vote in favour or abstain as and when proper provisions are in place. As things stand, we’re telling you that the provisions that you think are good enough for us are not.

Reviser: We all want to walk together in unity. These provisions are good enough. Let’s all unite together and vote on this.

In essence, the debate itself demonstrated everything that the conservatives have been saying for the past few months – no-one was genuinely listening to them. As one opponent of the legislation put it (ironically this was a theological liberal) – if you have a dinner guest who needs to be provided with alternative food then it is they, not we, who we should listen to as to what is acceptable and what is not. Otherwise don’t pretend that you’re being hospitable.

Immediately after the vote the #synod twitter stream was both fascinating and extremely disturbing. Pro-women bishops supporter after supporter took the opportunity to tell the world how outraged they were, how backward and downright evil the conservatives had been. How stupid the House of Laity had been and so on, and so on. What was strikingly absent was any real volume of tweets from conservatives. Perhaps they were feeling like me as I lay there absorbing the still overwhelming news that the CofE had rejected what I thought they would overwhelmingly receive – I was feeling very tired, and not simply from waking up far too early. What this debate had done was place out in the open some of the deep, even institutional divisions within the Church of England. Many had spoken publicly about things that our normal English reticence would have us keep deep under cover for fear of, well, upsetting things. There was no joy in doing that, nor in the knowledge that many would receive the result with deep antipathy. As indeed they did. I tweeted a little later…

Enter arch-liberal and darling of the chattering classes, Giles Fraser. I won’t quote the whole of his article in the Guardian (where else?) but here are the edited highlights:

 … ashamed … suicidal stupidity … dogmatic minority of biblical literalists … an even smaller minority of Roman Catholic wannabes … appeased in the name of some twisted version of inclusion … laughably claimed it is they who are the subject of discrimination … simply pathetic … militant tendency … hapless decision-making structure … thoroughly betrayed

Now we ought to be fair to Fraser. He is liberal in every sense. What began as malice against conservatives soon spread to the denomination and it’s structures as a whole. He has given us an insight into a large cadre of the Church of England,

We speak of opponents’ “deeply held convictions”, but few of us actually believe anything of the sort. What we say in private is utterly unprintable.

Except, of course, the Guardian prints it. Regularly.

Now, Fraser is not typical of all liberals. There are some who really do understand what is going on. So it was incredibly heartening to read this from Tom Sutcliffe (a prominent liberal lay member of General Synod from Southwark Diocese),

It simply is not true that appropriate provisions have been made for the minority of less than a third of Church members who cannot accept the ordination or consecration of women as being consistent with their understanding of scripture and tradition.

People seem to have forgotten the promises that were made to the minority that their integrity would not be challenged as fully-fledged and authentic members of the CofE during the current and ongoing “period of reception” of the whole issue of ordaining and consecrating women. I don’t think it is good that a Church should choose flagrantly to over-ride assurances it once gave.

This Measure was drawn up on the wrong basis and is I believe fundamentally misguided in its approach. All along it has been far too influenced by Synod members who believed that the Act of Synod needed to be displaced if at all possible.

So the determination that lies behind the proposed Measure to over-ride all that has been learnt about living with difference during the last two decades – thanks to the Act of Synod and the arrangements for alternative oversight which it put in place – is wilfully misguided in my view. The assurances given to those in the minority of a traditionalist view are worthless because the Code of Practice, even when it has been set up, will be open to constant revision and will be adjusted when the campaigners from GRAS and Affirming Catholicism have managed to squeeze out of the Church all those people with whom they disagree on this matter and whom they do not think belong within the reformed liberal Anglicanism that they seek.

So with all that said, let’s take a look at how the various “political” groups and others have responded to this vote. First, the conservatives. Reform:

We stand ready for any discussions that our future archbishop may wish to initiate and happily commit ourselves to approaching these positively. Our hearts go out to those who will now be disappointed and confused about the difficult position in which the Church of England now finds itself. We assure them of our prayers. We recognise there is now a need for everyone to take stock while working together to proclaim the good news of the Kingdom of God as Advent approaches.

Forward in Faith:

As we have done for the last decade and more, Forward in Faith stands ready to offer a better way ahead, which might indeed command that wider consensus which this draft Measure so clearly lacked.

Others have said much the same thing – that they are prepared to sit down now and negotiate so that this legislation can go forward once again but with proper provision.

Now the other side. WATCH:

 There is overwhelming support for women bishops in both in the church and in the country at large. We have been discussing this issue for a generation and working on the details of this compromise legislation for over ten years. 42 out of 44 dioceses supported the draft Measure: 75% of all votes were cast in favour.

Today, almost 73% of General Synod members voted in favour of women bishops. Both the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy voted overwhelmingly in support, but the Measure narrowly fell in the House of Laity where it failed to reach the required 2/3 majority:  by 6 votes.

The General Synod clearly needs to look again at how it represents the will of the people in the pews.

or what about Affirming Catholicism?

The Church in England is synodically governed but episcopally led: and our prayers must in the first instance be for the House of Bishops, meeting tomorrow (Wednesday) in emergency session to find a way forward. Bishop Michael says this must not mean “five more years of waiting for a development that will surely come. There will be women bishops in the Church of England. I have no doubt about that. Our response to the Holy Spirit and the effectiveness of our mission require it”.
Affirming Catholicism will continue to strive and work with all those dedicated to making sure this future becomes an early reality.

Those responses are strikingly different, aren’t they? On one side we have “we’ll talk to the other side to get this worked out properly” and on the other “let’s make this happen” but with no mention of further negotiation. (many more responses in an excellent summary on Thinking Anglicans here and here). Does anyone genuinely wonder why the conservatives went into this whole debate issuing fearful warnings? They have experienced this lack of inclusion for far too  long. Yes, had the vote actually passed Justin Welby may well have attempted the reconciliation work of a lifetime in getting the 2 sides together – but the current ArchBishops had little success when they both attempted to persuade Synod on this matter last year. You can understand why the conservatives were worried.

But, some may argue, this is (as Giles Fraser pointed out) just the political lobby groups. It’s not indicative of the Church as a whole. Except for the fact that these are the people that the Church appoints, and to prominent positions – beginning with Fraser himself. This refusal to take the conservatives seriously is institutionalised because so many of those how hold that position are the institution. Given what has been said over the past few days it seems we were proved right. We were never going to be respected. Can you imagine what respect and space we would have had if the measure had passed?

With this kind of mindset being displayed it’s not hard to conceive that the Church of England would have been in real trouble with conservatives being increasingly alienated and, ultimately, looking outside for help and oversight. And that refusal to deal fairly, if not graciously with conservatives, not the issue of women bishops itself, would have potentially ripped the Church of England apart. We have truly dodged a bullet.

And even now the liberals are reloading their weapons.

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Oh, I almost forgot. What did the bastion of the evangelical centre have to say?

We are glad that the measure met with such overwhelming approval in the House of Bishops and also House of Clergy. Given that the vast majority of lay members of the Church of England support women bishops we are perplexed at the unrepresentative nature of the House of Laity in regard to this issue. Fulcrum urges lay members of the Church of England to make a greater effort to be involved in its political structures in order to rectify this serious problem.

Fulcrum will remain 100% committed to doing everything that we can to work for women bishops, with the full status and scope that their Episcopal ministry must have to be authentic.

Yup, you guessed it – pretty much the same as what all the liberal bodies were saying. In fact I think the word we’re all looking for is indistiguishable. Their surprise at the vote is also quite ironic. Over the past few weeks they have been one of the prime voices pushing for conservatives to abstain – to join the turkeys voting for Thanksgiving and Christmas. They, with others, have contributed to the atmosphere of distrust amongst those same conservatives and so helped lose the vote, yet now we are told the blame should lie with the system itself. With friends like these…

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Andrew Reid

    Remember how a similar bill for women bishops failed to pass Australia’s General Synod, but then the Appellate Tribunal stepped in and decided we had approved them in an existing act on a technicality? I hope the Church of England doesn’t have a similar experience with the opinion of Synod being over-ridden by an external body.

  2. Joshua Bovis

    I am sure that more bullets will come.

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