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Summer job for the House of Bishops

by
24 March 2010

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From Mr O. W. H. Clark

Sir, — As Mr N. J. Inkley has rightly concluded (Letters, 5 March), the critical question before the General Synod in July next will not be the introduction or otherwise of women bishops. On that issue “the collective mind” — of the present General Synod — is made up. Whether that “mind” will survive the final-approval vote by Houses in a newly elected Synod is another matter — of no relevance in July next.

In July, the critical question has to be: Does the General Synod want to provide in a Church of England with women bishops for the co-existence — within the one body — of those opposed to that devel­op­ment?

If it is concluded that the mere existence within one Church of “those opposed” would of itself diminish incurably the nature and status of the episcopal office of a woman bishop and her capacity to offer an acceptably “inclusive” episcopal ministry, then we shall all know where we are, and the General Synod should proceed forthwith to legislate “opponents” out of the Church of England.

If, however, that view does not prevail, and the Synod decides that it wants — sincerely wants — co-existence on the basis of some mutually acceptable accommoda­tion, then the non possumus verdict of the present revision committee cannot be allowed to stand. Ways and means to give effect to the Synod’s decision will have to be sought.

This is a fundamental issue of faith and order. Co-existence or not? In that situation, an episcopal Church cannot but look to its House of Bishops for guidance both substantially and procedurally. It was the House of Bishops (albeit by an ill-drafted motion) which in July 2008 launched the present programme for the legislative consideration of this matter. Given the present impasse, the House of Bishops must now intervene.

There is no reason to think that any draft legislation now likely to emerge from the present revision committee will be remotely acceptable to any conscientious opponent. Such “loyal Anglicans” cannot be dismissed as a grudgingly tolerated oddity to be regulated as necessary as each diocesan bishop thinks fit. That is not tolerable co-existence. It would be a disastrous waste of time and money for any draft legislation so based to be referred to the dioceses.

Tolerable — that is, gracious — co-existence can derive only from sensitivity and mutual recognition and respect with scrupulous fairness, integrity, and goodwill from both parties. Each will have to make painful concessions over what it wants and thinks it must have. That will call for much wrestling with the “balance of freedoms” to which the Archbishop of Canter­bury has recently referred. There is no perfect solution.

But is it worth the effort? Mutually agreed rights, respons­ibilities, and obligations of each party would need to be set out in parallel, and safeguarded in and by the same legislative instrument; only so can the two parties co-exist with honesty and integrity. Fiat justitia.

The result would not be unity in diversity, but it could be unity in co-existence. That would be a gracious and not unworthy starting point in peace and harmony.

But opponents must know first: are they really wanted? The House of Bishops in July should formulate a motion to enable the Synod to pronounce on that vital question. If the Synod votes for co-existence or at least for one last effort to achieve it, then the final report of the present revision committee and the subsequent revision stage should be dealt with as briskly as possible.

The Synod should then recommit the present legislation as revised for further revision, and leave it to the newly elected Synod to appoint a further revision committee with the crucial task of seeking ways and means for the achievement of an acceptable co-existence. The present Synod will have done all it properly can.

O. W. H. CLARK
Sometime Chairman of the House of Laity of the General Synod
5 Seaview Road, Highcliffe
Dorset BH23 5QJ

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