IT IS no surprise that the Church of England's General Synod
returns to the topic of women bishops this month, and to the shape
of the legislation that may ultimately provide for their
introduction into these two provinces. But that this is not a new
subject does not preclude an element of novelty in the process.
Sure enough, the proposals on the agenda include a new idea: an
"ombudsman" - although that is certain not to be the official
title, if he or she becomes a reality. The appointment of an
independent individual to review decisions made concerning those
who hold the minority position is a prospect that, it is hoped,
will encourage waverers in the House of Laity, and even opponents
themselves, to have confidence that those who do not agree with
women bishops will be given space to flourish in a Church that has
them. And there is further the proposal that the Bishops'
declaration providing assurances on this will not be amended
without the approval of a two-thirds majority in all three Houses
of the Synod.
While the majority of the steering committee agrees that this is
the way forward - and the Archbishops have rightly pointed out what
an achievement this is - two members have withheld their
commendation on the grounds that its remit - restricted to the
Bishops' Option One, as agreed by a majority in the Synod in July -
was too narrow. This is a reminder that we have come far from the
level of provision that traditionalists originally hoped for in the
light of the kind of legislation that had been provided on women's
ordination to the priesthood. Yet there are indications that few of
them are willing to dismiss the new proposals out of hand. Much, of
course, will turn on what the declaration in its final form says,
and ultimately on the calibre of the figure appointed to review the
working out of the provision. As we have said before, much of the
bitterness on the traditionalist side has stemmed from finding that
the spirit of the 1993 arrangements, and occasionally the letter,
was not always honoured. Since a comparable charge is frequently
levelled at traditionalists, how far will an independent reviewer
be able to ensure that the new vision of mutual flourishing is
perceived in the same mode by the majority and the minority?
He or she, if rigorous enough, may deter the more egregious
forms of shabby conduct; but a change of heart by many people will
be needed if the new proposals are not to become as tarnished as
the Act of Synod and the assurances given in the House of Bishops'
document Bonds of Peace. Reconciliation, through
facilitated conversations and the like, is not a light task. We
detect a softening of tone in the leadership of Forward in Faith
since the establishment of the Roman Ordinariate for former
Anglicans; perhaps this will encourage those who are passionate
about the elevation of women to the episcopate to move on from the
anxieties of summer 2012 and the anger of last November to
something more propitious.