A new beginning?
What should have been a joyous new beginning for women’s ministry at General Synod on Monday, has been spoiled. Most women I know will not welcome the fact that progress towards ordaining them to the episcopate has been soured by the prospect of an exodus of many traditionalists from the Church of England amid an atmosphere of bitter recrimination.
The choice facing Synod was simple and straightforward. It was to pass legislation with structural provision for traditionalists or not. A code of practice was neither here nor there, because it clearly failed to meet the needs of those for whom it was designed. I am reminded in this of The Episcopal Church’s offer of ‘Delegated Episcopal Oversight’ to traditionalists. This provision was counted a success because it was so rarely used precisely because it was designed only to preserve the rights of diocesan bishops and not to meet the needs of parishes alienated from those very same bishops. It seems that exactly the same ‘winner-takes-all’ attitude has begun to prevail in the Church of England. As I listened to the debate, I sensed a new mood abroad in the Church of England as Synod members coldly and systematically voted down any amendments conceding crumbs to the Anglo-catholics. The Bishop of Winchester described the outcome as ‘mean-spirited’, Andrew Dow referred to a ‘scorched earth policy’.
Let’s make no mistake about it, Monday’s night Synod opens up the possibility of a very serious exodus from the Church of England. The loss of large numbers of Catholics will not leave us with a ‘Reformed’ church, a mouthwatering prospect for earlier generations of evangelicals, but will leave us with yet another liberal protestant denomination. Far from being a national church with coverage throughout the entire country, we will end up with little or no presence in many communities where traditional catholics have ministered so courageously.
The vote to break the stained glass ceiling on women’s ministry may come to be viewed as the moment the whole structure fell, rather than a moment of hope and opportunity.
We are meant to be ‘episcopally led, synodically-governed,’ but there was a strange dearth of leadership from the House of Bishops on Monday night. The best that could be managed was a last-ditch failure by the Bishop of Durham to adjourn the debate as the train wreck happened.
Observers reported that the Archbishop of Canterbury was visibly discomfited at times by the tone and direction of the debate. His deputy in Canterbury, the Bishop of Dover, Stephen Venner, was reduced to tears. Yet while Dr Williams has often given traditionalists hope that he would back a structural solution to their problems of conscience, he seems to have completely ruled out strong leadership on theological and ecclesial issues. Wearing permanently now, it seems, the persona of the mediator, Dr Williams was seen by Synod trying to have it both ways. “I am deeply unhappy with any scheme… which ends up structurally humiliating women.” But he was equally unhappy about marginalising traditionalists. He therefore came “not very comfortably to the conclusion”, we needed a “more rather than less robust form of structural provision”.
The Archbishop by his thoughtfulness, gravity and seriousness carries great weight and affection in General Synod but he failed to use this credit on Monday night. And as for the House of Bishops in general, the one word you will never hear them using these days is ‘collegiality’. The Bishops are pulling in all directions at once. It is no surprise then to see that the Church of England is now synodically-led and governed.
Bishop Tom Wright has been bemoaning the fact that this controversial debate was scheduled to take place on the eve of the Lambeth Conference. He at least will not be surprised if it raises the temperature considerably at the 10-yearly gathering. Following so soon after Gafcon, the tensions and anxieties are already running high. Speculation will be feverish about possible defections to the Roman Catholic Church and a long-rumoured deal between the Vatican and traditionalists. With Gafcon already forming an enclave within the Anglican Communion, the prospects for a united Anglican future look very bleak indeed.