THE ANNOUNCEMENT on Monday that five bishops are to leave the Church of England for the new Ordinariate was hardly a surprise. They will still be welcome at an Anglican altar, of course, but Anglicanism has long tolerated fuzzier edges than the denomination they intend to join — though the Ordinariate might be seen as an intriguing Roman experiment in fuzziness.
The five will encounter less democracy in their new Church, an experience that will not trouble them, since it was democracy that pushed them towards their decision. In two weeks’ time, the Church of England will mark the 40th birthday of the General Synod. For the Church to effect a significant change — to open up the episcopate to women, for example — it requires a two-thirds majority in each of the three Houses. What has never been clear, though, is the fate of the other third. Is it supposed to bow to the will of the majority? Or is the majority supposed to take account of the minority? Probably a bit of both, but until those proportions are established at the final vote, both sides can realistically be expected to argue their point, and then it is too late for compromise. Thus the synodical system militates against the accommodation of opposing views — except that, in practice, Synod members often seek agreement earlier in the process. The women-bishops debate has been so uncomfortable because the sides have been unusually, if not unsynodically, obdurate.
The final vote is still to come, however, and it is for this reason that the departure of the five, and the signal this gives to their flock, will be regretted by those whose views most coincide with theirs. There is now a strong possibility that last-ditch attempts to preserve a more substantial form of provision for those unable to accept women bishops will be undermined by an exodus to the Ordinariate, whatever the numbers involved. The five cannot be blamed, of course: the debate has been a wearisome and damaging business, and they are likely now to be experiencing the sort of relief felt in the United States when conservatives split from the Episcopal Church to form the Anglican Church of North America. Both sides there found themselves wondering why they had struggled for so long. Sometimes divorce is the best answer, especially when, in the English case, the split can be seen as a reunion, albeit, as some would argue, a little premature and on uncertain terms. But, for the time being, the bishops’ departure must be seen as something to regret, the sign of a failure in the Church of England to live up to its high standards of tolerance and comprehensiveness.