Leader: Archbishops’ plan: can it save the day?

23 June 2010

LAWYER’S TRICK or work of theological insight? Probably the former. Cutting the Gordian knot, or teasing out enough of a thread for people to cling on to? Probably the latter. Whatever the verdict, it was a good sign that the Archbishops’ intervention in the women-bishops saga on Monday was met, in the main, by puzzled silence. The debate has been going on so long that all the players are adept at spotting hidden agendas, sometimes even when there isn’t one: yes, this sounds concessionary, but where’s the beef? Well, in this instance, the Archbishops claim to have served a generous portion to the traditionalists without taking anything off the plate of the women bishops. Is this true?

There is no doubt that, under the Archbishops’ proposal, discrimination will persist within the Church of England. There will continue to be parishes where only men may minister. At the same time, traditionalist parishes have to swallow the fact that they will be under the direct authority of the diocesan bishop, whether man or woman. In this respect, the new solution seems no solution. The new element (though to those who remember Transferred Episcopal Authority, it is only new in the sense that it is being given renewed weight) is the belief that a joint authority can be exercised in the relatively few parishes where women’s ordained ministry is not recognised. The new co-ordinate bishop will not be subordinate to the diocesan, but neither will he be separate. Although his authority will derive from the legislation, he must work alongside the diocesan bishop in his or her diocese. As for any future diocesan bishop, the key question is whether an authority shared is an authority diminished in some way. The Archbishops say not, and in an arrangement that works well, with a respectful relationship between the two co-ordinates, authority can even be enhanced. But the present debate has become such a wrangle that both sides are trying to imagine how the system would work when personal warmth and trust are absent.

Here is where the traditionalists will look at the new proposal with greatest scepticism. In the gap between the cup of this proposal and the lip of its acceptance can be found the national Code of Practice, as yet undrafted, and the diocesan scheme. In Clause 2 of the present draft Measure, the diocesan scheme is essentially a device to get each diocesan bishop to sign up to the national system, “taking account of” the Code of Prac­tice. But it contains the proviso that the scheme “may include such additional arrangements for the exercise of episcopal ministry as the bishop of the diocese thinks fit”. We have yet to see what amendments to this clause the Archbishops suggest, but this is not an area where vagueness is helpful.

Will it get through the General Synod? Because the proposal arrives so late in the day and out of the blue (or purple), we predict some bristling about process — not out of synodical touchi­ness, necessarily, but because the whole point of the revision-committee process was to scrutinise all the implications of every suggestion. There are clearly several elements that need consideration. Where, for example, will the co-ordinate bishops come from? The present draft Measure talks of members of the House of Bishops, but this might not satisfy the traditionalists. The timing could have been better, and the Synod will struggle to make sense of the proposal in the time it has at York. But this is an annoyance rather than a hindrance, and the Synod must ask itself the more important question: might this work? Until now, the parties have watched each other to see who will blink. Neither has. There are traditionalists who want to carry on as if women bishops did not exist; and liberals who want to act as if tradi­tionalists did not exist. If each side acknowledges now that the other is giving some ground, there is a chance that the spirit of generosity, noticeably absent from the debate, might accomplish the unity that all are supposedly committed to.

As we have said, discrimination will continue; but it is a fiction to suppose that it might be ended by the unamended legislation at present before the Synod. The discrimination would just shift from one group to another. What the Archbishops have con­structed is another fiction — that all can exist constructively with­in the one body despite opposing views. But, arguably, this is a fiction that accords more closely with the Anglican project, at least, as we have understood it hitherto — much more Anglican, we would suggest, than wrangles about jurisdiction. Nor is this a romantic fiction, in that it tampers very little with the grit of the draft Measure and the Code of Practice. But if it manages to re-introduce good will into the debate, it has a chance to succeed.

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