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Gerry O’Brien: Synod Insider [CofE]
titusonenine ^ | 8/21/2005 | Gerry O'Brien

Posted on 08/21/2005 8:20:59 AM PDT by sionnsar

When we got to York, Synod was rather demob-happy. We had great fun mauling proposed changes to standing orders in a debate that was spread over most of the five days of Synod. The new Ordinal survived, but only after the House of Bishops had agreed a number of significant changes at a very late stage to defuse a threatened rebellion in the House of Laity. The Bishops were understood to have had Plan B ready to extend the authorisation of the ASB ordinal if the Common Worship one were to have been defeated.

We started the ball rolling to consider how the legal restraints on the consecration of women bishops might be removed. Only simple majorities were required at this stage, and these were duly forthcoming, but at the end of the process two-thirds majorities in each house will be required. This time there was a two-thirds majority in the House of Laity but by only three votes. However these votes were really only of academic interest since the all-important vote will be in the Synod to be elected this September. Who knows what the views of the newly-elected House of Laity may be?

It is now two years since the Synod agreed the Anglican-Methodist covenant and a progress report In the spirit of the covenant was presented to Synod for debate. The subtitle was ‘Interim Report (2005) of the Joint Implementation Commission under the Covenant between the Methodist Church of Great Britain and the Church of England.’

It sounded like something in the genre of Yes Minister, and so it proved to be. The JIC consists of six Methodists, six Anglicans and one participant from the United Reformed Church and apparently ‘once the membership had been established and crowded diaries had been consulted, it was not possible to have the first meeting before December 2003.’

Since the text of the report before us had been agreed by March 2005, we had what amounted to a report of one year’s work, but we were two years down the track.

The Commission had grappled with the problems of a covenant between the Church of England (which operates in every European country except Ireland and those parts of Great Britain which are Scotland and Wales) and the Methodist Church which operates in all of Great Britain. Having agreed to have a covenant, they felt it desirable to have some theological reflections on the meaning of covenant since ‘it was only at a comparatively late stage that the Formal Conversations realized that the proposals that they had arrived at, for a new relationship between our two churches, were of a covenantal nature.’

There was an admittedly selective review of some significant developments where Anglicans and Methodists have been working together at ground level, and then the report focused on three major issues. These were the nature of the eucharistic elements, the question of non-presbyterial presidency (which happens in Methodist circles) and the issues raised by the interchangeability of ordained ministries.

Synod was invited to commend the report for study, but the Revd John Hartley from Bradford had other ideas. He was happy to commend the good practice publicised in the report, but had serious doubts about the report’s methodology.

He spoke of tensions in a marriage when one partner leaves the shampoo by the sink in the bathroom, but the other one leaves the shampoo in the shower. Visions of dripping bodies stumbling around the bathroom in search of shampoo delighted Synod, and we learned that the standard marriage guidance advice would be to buy two bottles of shampoo.

It was less easy to resolve the problem of the partner who liked to sleep with the windows open, but whose spouse liked to sleep with the windows closed. ‘The two bottles of shampoo method isn’t going to work here,’ he observed.

He went on to point out that wine has to be alcoholic or non-alcoholic. It is difficult to see how a compromise could be reached. Bread has to be broken during a communion service or cut up beforehand. ‘The Commission really hasn’t grappled with the fact that the two bottles of shampoo methodology simply can’t provide a solution,’ he complained.

The Bishop of Peterborough however was having none of it. His response was to dismiss all of Dr Hartley’s concerns and drive through them as if with a JCB. It was not clear to those listening to his comments what he thought was the main purpose of the covenant. Perhaps it was simply to let the Church of England get its hands on the Methodists’ lucrative property portfolio, in which case the two bottles of shampoo are merely a smoke screen. On the other hand the whole process may simply be ill thought out and its architect may, in due time, be revealed as a graduate of the Forrest Gump School of Theology. We will have to wait for the next interim report in a few years’ time to find out.

It is the custom to hold the Nikaen Club Dinner in York on the evening before the Synod begins on the Friday. This year was a solemn occasion, the day of the London terrorist bombings, and some guests were unable to travel because of restrictions.

It was hosted by Archbishop Rowan Williams, who that afternoon had been visiting religious groups in West Yorkshire. He spoke of the horror amongst all Muslim leaders at the carnage and quoted one of them who described the Muslim principle of ‘honesty in the family and tolerance in the community’ – no bad motto for all in society and in the Church.

In the debate on Women in the Episcopate, there was an outward show of tolerance towards opponents, but whether or not there was ‘honesty in the family’ remains to be seen.

The arguments

It was opened by the Bishop of Southwark, who dealt with five arguments in favour of women bishops. He transported me back to university days when I studied formal logic and, whatever arguments there may be for consecrated women, I have to say that Tom Butler in each case broke the rules by arguing from the particular example to the general conclusion. It was a bad start.

The heart of the Bishop of Chichester’s response was that the Church had still not had the promised theological debate for which the Rochester Report was prepared, even though the motion being debated implicitly assumed it had already taken place. Yet Rochester had shown ‘clearly that there were weighty arguments on both sides.’

But Synod was not intending to be confused by reasoned argument on an issue of this magnitude, with the result that theology was notably absent from most of the speeches from the floor. It was replaced by secular arguments, which in no debate of this kind should validly be given more credence than those which are the bedrock in any discussion – at least for the orthodox Christian. But emotion and sentiment has often had pride of place in contentious debates throughout the life of the Synod.

As chairman, the Bishop of Dover had the necessary lightness to diffuse any real unpleasantness, though he did by my count call 19 speakers in favour of the proposal and only 10 who were against.

Assessing the result

One hopeful sign was the acceptance of an amendment asking that attention be given to ‘the issues of canonical obedience and universal validity of orders’ as they would affect opponents. The Bishop of Oxford, in one of the best speeches of the day, pleaded that the comprehensive nature of the Church of England should prevail, and he swayed enough votes for the amendment to succeed – but only by 233 votes to 216.

Some simple mathematics might help here. In the vote on the final amended motion, 127 members voted against women bishops, with 367 in favour. It is safe to assume that those 127 members were among the 233 in favour of the amendment, leaving only 106 supporters of women bishops ready nonetheless to allow some measure of ‘tolerance in the community’ of faith – that is to say, about 29% of them.

Then consider that the total voting on the amendment (449 members) was 45 less than the total of 494 voting on the final motion, perhaps taking a break from the intense July heat of the Central Hall at York. It is fairly safe to assume that almost all of the 127 who finally voted No would also be present for the amendment, and that even with the help of 106 supporters of women bishops, it was only passed with a majority of 17 votes.

So even in the Synod membership of this quinquennium, it is clear that the possibility of some form of accommodation for our minority, be it by some form of third province or by a development of the provisions of the Act of Synod, was remote.

Battle commences

The election to the 2005 Synod takes place soon and is certain to be a bitter battle, likely to make the tactics employed in the recent General Election look like a Mothers’ Union tea party by comparison. And because we are a church the fierceness will not be that of a parliamentary election. There will be no Michael Howard or John Prescott. Rather it is a churchy ‘niceness’ that will prevail: ‘Don’t be nasty to those lovely women clergy, don’t let the prejudices of the horrid opponents prevent that which the secular world knows to be right and proper.’

With a reduced membership making it all the harder for minority interests to gain representation in the 2005–2010 Synod, it could be that in November there will be still stronger pressure for a simple one-clause Measure. Even if this were to be defeated, it is quite clear that any form of new province is hardly going to be offered on a plate.

Lack of trust

From day one, most of the House of Bishops have ignored the assurances given in 1992 that both views would have an equal place in a Church of England with women priests, with no discrimination in appointments at any level. Consequently, legislation within a Measure, rather than the gentlemen’s agreement of an Act of Synod, would be necessary to overcome the lack of trust in episcopal promises now deeply embedded in the heart of every orthodox priest or lay person.

And from where the Press is corralled, one has an overview from which can come a greater sense of the mood of Synod – from body language, from the nature of the applause, sometimes from lightness and laughter or from the lack of it.

As the fundamentalist liberal agenda has progressed, we have become a church without ‘honesty in the family and tolerance in the community.’ Ruth Gledhill, The Times religion correspondent, recently reported a survey showing that one in 33 clergy doubt the existence of God, 20% deny the resurrection and 38% the virgin birth. It will soon be possible to deny the core doctrines of Christianity and remain in the Church; or to believe all of them and yet be rejected because one cannot accept women in the episcopate.

As the debate drew to a close, I looked along the press bench to Ruth, also The Times ballroom dancing correspondent, and wondered if I ought to ask for the last waltz.

–from New Directions, August 2005, page 9

TOPICS: Mainline Protestant

1 posted on 08/21/2005 8:20:59 AM PDT by sionnsar
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