The Synod should stick to its guns

23 June 2010

Does the Church really want women’s ministry to be equal with men’s, asks Jane Shaw

THE General Synod in July 2008 voted that legislation for the consecration of women as bishops should be prepared with a single-clause Measure. Any provisions for priests and parishes that could not accept the authority of female oversight would be handled sensibly through a code of practice, not enshrined in law.

It was the will of the majority in Synod that women should be con­secrated as bishops on equal terms with men. In a faith that believes that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, that was the theologically right thing to do. In a Church that believes in the author­ity of bishops, it was also the ecclesiologically right thing to do.

A vociferous minority — those who have never been able to accept the ordination of women — began immediately to try to undermine the decision that had been duly decided by the democratic process of our church governance. Having failed to get their own province or the pos­-sibility of super-flying bishops, they could not accept what the Synod had voted for.

The revision committee, charged with preparing the legislation, was lobbied intensively to reverse the Synod’s decision, and make a legally enshrined provision for opponents. They wobbled at times, but ultim­ately — taking all opinions into ac­count — stood firm and produced a draft Measure that was in line with the Synod’s vote in 2008. The House of Bishops wobbled, too, but in the end it backed the work of the revision committee.

So who was left to wobble? The Arch­bishops of Canterbury and York, who this week not only wobbled, but toppled on the subject. They have produced their own amend­ment, which begins with profuse thanks to the revision com­mittee, before proceeding to under­mine that committee’s long discern­ment of the right way forward.

THE Archbishops’ idea for a “co-ordinate jurisdiction” tries to hold together the potentially conflicting ideas that a bishop would have full authority in the whole diocese, and that, through a “Letter of Request”, any parish could have another nom­inated bishop to exercise episcopal functions for them.

This may or may not work. Synod may or may not vote for it. But, whatever happens, it raises ques­tions. First, does this work both ways: would a parish that found itself out of sympathy with its male bishop because he did not accept the or­dina­tion or consecration of women be able to ask for another nominated bishop through such a “Letter of Request”? If we were to be fair, the answer should be yes.

Second, what about the validity of the synodical process: do we really accept democratically arrived at decisions or not?

Third, why do people feel that on this issue in particular they can disregard the 2008 synodical vote?

At play here is how the Church of England went about preparing for female bishops. It started at the wrong end. Instead of saying: “How shall we have women bishops?” it asked: “What do we do about the opponents?” This skewed the whole debate, and as a consequence its theological anthropology and its ecclesiology keep getting thrown out, or at least undermined.

This also meant that the Church of England has been so obsessed with its internal politics that, perversely, it did not go to other provinces of the Angli­can Communion to ask their advice on how the consecration of women was introduced, and with what results.

Why have the revision com­mittee, the House of Bishops, and the Arch­bishops themselves not spent some serious time talking with female bishops in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, asking how they handled opposition to their ministry?

Recently I heard a retired diocesan bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States speak about how she worked with the small number of parishes opposed to her oversight. She continued to visit them officially, but at evensong. In turn, she gave per­mis­sion for a male bishop to conduct con­firmations and celebrate the eucharist.

But because she still officially visited those parishes, over time they got to know her and formed real relationships. This is at the heart of any way forward: the forging of mutually trusting relationships. En­shrining opposition to women bishops — what many would call misogyny — into legislation operates against that.

ALL of this leaves a bitter taste. Where is the celebration of women’s ordained ministry? Where is the valuing of the experience of other Anglican female bishops? In the recent pathetic “Mitregate” episode, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori — not just any female bishop, but the Presiding Bishop of another pro­vince of the Anglican Communion — was commanded by the Arch­bishop of Canterbury not to wear her mitre when preaching in South­wark Cathedral (News, 18 June).

This seems to symbolise the mealy-mouthed attitude not only to women but also to particular parts of the Anglican Communion. Whether it means to or not, the Church of England sends out a signal that it does not need to learn from or respect either.

What Synod needs to decide next month is not just whether it will have women bishops, but whether it will stand by what it voted for in 2008 — and whether it really, after 16 years of women priests and all they have contributed to the Church, appreci­ates and accepts the ordained min­istry of women on equal terms with that of men.

The Revd Dr Jane Shaw is Dean of Divinity and Fellow of New College, Oxford, and Canon Theologian of Salisbury Cathedral.

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