Skip to comments.Women bishops in the CofE: The impasse has arrived
Posted on 06/15/2006 5:08:41 PM PDT by sionnsar
It comes as no surprise to learn that the bishops of the Church of England have been unable to agree on what the next step should be over the introduction of women bishops. News reports of a very recent meeting of the House of Bishops which took place in preparation for the impending session of the General Synod in July, suggest that the bishops have not been able to accept the latest proposals on Transferred Episcopal Arrangements (TEA) emanating from the bishops of Guildford and Gloucester.
Quite apart from the absurdly short timescale which the General Synod allowed the two bishops to prepare a revised draft set of proposals for TEA, to many observers it was quite clear that any revamped proposals would almost certainly continue to be unacceptable to proponents and opponents of a plan for women bishops, given that the gulf between them is far too wide and could not be bridged by compromise.
Growing demands of the pro women bishops' lobby in the last few years, culminating in a climax of expectation at the time of the February meeting in York of General Synod, created a head of steam that was going to be difficult to damp down, even if final decisions were postponed at the coming session of General Synod.
Reportedly, a compromise plan drawn up by Guildford/Gloucester which would still permit traditionalist parishes to be ministered to by sympathetic bishops within the TEA framework, has apparently dismayed some members of the vocal pro women's lobby in the last few days who want TEA watered down until there is practically no TEA in the plan. They do not wish, as they see, it to have women consecrated as "second class bishops". Indeed one senior lady cleric has opined that she would not wish to become a bishop in such circumstances.
Very recently (May 2006) Watch and Affirming Catholics, two of the most vocal church pressure groups, confident in their claim that "nearly half the members of the Church of England General Synod" supported them, issued a joint statement. In this they outlined "a list of key non-negotiable principles for moving forward on women bishops".
These principles coalesce around the assertions that there must be no discrimination in a future enabling Measure and that all women and men who are appointed as bishop must have the same authority and responsibilities. What Watch and Affirming Catholics are demanding is that the Church should renege on undertakings given to opponents of the ordination of women that a structural solution would be secured giving traditionalists a sustainable ecclesial life. These two pressure groups must surely know that if their "non-negotiable principles" are met, there will be no sustainable ecclesial life and therefore no future for traditionalists in the Church of England.
Quite clearly in making their demand the two groups had hoped to exert pressure on the members of the House of Bishops to come up with the right recommendations for presentation to General Synod. In effect the twosome threw the gauntlet down and challenged the bishops to retreat from too extreme (as they see it) concessions already made (and being made) to traditionalists.
In February General Synod decisively rejected the notion of a one-clause enabling Measure for women bishops. But Watch and Affirming Catholics in their joint statement - ominously for traditionalists - want General Synod to agree to a "short and simple" Measure with detail embodied in a code of practice or other secondary legislation which would, they say, avoid the requirement to go to Parliament for endorsement of the Measure.
Since the February debate the Forward In Faith position has been maintained in quiet anticipation of the deliberations of Guildford/Gloucester. The FIF's position was that many improvements had to be done to TEA and many unanswered questions answered to make it palatable to traditionalists.
After the Guildford Report had been published, Forward In Faith reactivated its two teams, legal and theological, which had originally been brought into being to contribute to the book, "Consecrated Women?". The two teams published on the FIF Website their measured comments on why and in what manner the Guildford Report was so unsatisfactory to traditionalists. The difficulties for traditionalists focussed (as ever) on four main areas - canonical obedience, collegiality, sacramental assurance and validity of orders -and these remain increasingly incapable of resolution
Notwithstanding the weaknesses endemic in the Guildford Report, Forward In Faith stated that it was prepared to make a positive contribution towards improving TEA. This willingness was articulated knowing that General Synod had voted by 348 votes to 1 endorsing the Guildford recommendation that "TEA merited further exploration as a possible way forward should the Church of England decide to proceed with the ordination of women to the episcopate".
Forward In Faith has now issued a response to the joint statement of Watch and Affirming Catholics in which it reminds everyone on all sides of the debate that "overwhelming support for TEA must be seen in the context of a need to frame legislation giving attention to the issues of canonical obedience and the universal validity of orders throughout the Church of England for those opposed on theological grounds to the ordination of women". This, it must be emphasised, was the subject of a successful amendment moved in General Synod in 2005 when the Guildford Group was first established.
The chief speaker at the House of Bishops' meeting was Cardinal Walter Kasper, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. He reminded his assembled hearers that if the Church of England proceeded with its intention to make women bishops, then the whole complexion of the quest for unity between the two churches, Roman Catholic and Anglican, would change. The goal would no longer be the restoration of full church communion. This would be gone, though the ecumenical dialogue would continue. Both churches would come together henceforth for information and consultation, and there would be cooperation on many matters of joint interest, but not to strive for the shared partaking of the one Lord's table.
All this seems to suggest that the pro women's lobby may have overplayed its hand in pressing its own agenda. Although that there is little doubt that the House of Bishops is largely liberal/revisionist and almost certainly would opt tomorrow for women bishops by a large majority if it came to a straight vote, the enormity of what its membership might be about to do might at last be striking home. Are the lemming bishops now going to stop their headlong rush to destruction over the cliff edge? Are they going to stop at the edge, look down into the abyss and realise belatedly that that is not the place for them?
How can this impasse be broken? At this particular time in the history of the Church of England, it seems that one of three things could now happen.
Fear that the Church of England could now descend into chaos, may cause the bishops to recommend that General Synod postpone any final decision on having women bishops until a commonly held intention has emerged. At the very least, this would give time for a debate to be held on the Rochester Report, "Women bishops in the Church of England?". In the reckless anxiety of the pro women's majority in this and previous General Synods to get on with the job of ordaining women as priests and now bishops as soon as possible, this debate has never taken place. Such a debate would also allow the Church of England to decide what bishops are actually for, a subject also that has never been comprehensively addressed.
A postponement of decision by General Synod would also enable a revived Guildford/Gloucester Group to do a proper job, that is by constituting a representative membership of interest, by being given broad terms of reference and by calling for written and oral evidence from a wide background of church organisations and other interested parties. By employing in the last year only a small number of people, however distinguished their theological or academic backgrounds may have been, it was inevitable that the task could never have been more than half done. A second course of action would be for the House of Bishops and General Synod to plough on with, as has been rumoured as a likelihood, a weakened version of TEA or brief-enabling-Measure+code-of-practice. Such action would of course be music to the ears of Watch and Affirming Catholics. At the same time it would completely disregard and overturn all solemn promises made to the traditionalist minority that have been made during the last fourteen years.
But you cannot force individuals - priests or otherwise - to make oaths of allegiance to women bishops or male bishops who have taken part in female consecration ceremonies, any more than you can force them to join collegial activities involving women priests and bishops. Neither can you prevent them from refusing to recognise the validity of female orders or the integrity of female sacramental actions.
The outcome of action of this type is not hard to forecast. Some traditionalist priests (and bishops) will maintain a low profile and soldier on until retirement, continuing to undertake the tasks for which they were ordained with resilience and forbearance. Others will no doubt lay down their present responsibilities and take early retirement with whatever financial inducements may be offered.
Those priests who have sat on the fence for twelve or more years with regard to women priests (and there are unquestionably many of them), will be forced to decide whether or not they can live with female bishops. Unlike with women priests, as has been pointed out there can be nothing provisional about women bishops. A straight choice has therefore to be made by all male priests. They have to choose either to accept the ministry of women bishops in its entirety or not.
What effect will the advent of women bishops coupled with a watered down version of TEA have on lay people? If we are realistic we must assume that many people will continue to attend the church to which they have belonged possibly for many years, not necessarily because they have strong convictions but because it happens to be the church near where they live or because it is the church where they were married etc., etc.. Those committed to a traditionalist position will either just stop attending their local church and go nowhere, or join another church be it RC or whatever. The total effect will undoubtedly be that many traditionalist church congregations, mostly of Resolution C type, will be weakened in their resolve to remain faithful to their beliefs.
If the Church of England intends to destroy the traditionalist and largely catholic Anglican element, implementation of a weakened form of TEA (or no TEA) is the surest way of going about such a disastrous policy. There seems little doubt that that is the intention of pressure groups such as Watch and Affirming Catholics.
A third way in which the present impasse could be broken, would be for the General Synod to strengthen TEA, not to weaken it. Quite how this could be done in a manner that can meet the aspirations of traditionalists and at the same time not offend the pro women's lobby is impossible to say, and is undoubtedly one reason why the bishops have reached an impasse. Even though the intention of Forward In Faith has been to cooperate in achieving improvements to TEA, many observers - including many members of Forward In Faith itself - believe that this worthy objective is impossible to realise, foundering as it always will on the four rocks of canonical obedience, collegiality, sacramental assurance and validity of orders.
The only trade-off between traditionalists and those who want women bishops, that is going to achieve any meaningful result is this: Compromise on principles from either side is clearly impossible. If the greater part of the Church of England, as represented by a large majority in the House of Bishops and General Synod sincerely want traditionalists to remain part of that Church, they have to concede the demand for a free or additional province, the price that has to be paid for women bishops. If they are not prepared to make this concession, the traditionalist component will "wither on the vine" or disseminate elsewhere, and the Church of England will continue to implode.
--Roland W. Morant is a cradle Anglican who has spent his professional life as a teacher, and latterly as a principal lecturer in education in a college of higher education, training students as teachers and running in-service degree courses.
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