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Is there a better way?

18 January 2013

Edward Dowler looks at the deficiences revealed after the Synod vote

FIRST, let me state my own position, somewhat fence-sitting though it is. Although I long for closer communion with my Roman Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, I realise that there is an anomaly about a Church in which a certain category of priests cannot be considered for ordination to the episcopate. Some aspects of the reaction to the recent vote on women bishops, however, have none the less been deeply disturbing.

The first of these was majoritarianism. One bishop pronounced that "the clear majority of the Church of England demands it, the people of this country expect it, and I believe that the Holy Spirit yearns for it." Since 42 out of 44 dioceses (by a majority vote in each diocesan synod) expressed support for women bishops, it has been widely concluded that the legislation should certainly have been passed, despite not receiving the required majority in the General Synod.

But majoritarianism is not democracy: as the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, has recently pointed out, democracy is not just about enacting the will of the majority; just as importantly, it is also about protecting the rights of the minority, exactly the concern of the House of Laity.

Second, in the aftermath of the vote, there has been a nasty strain of clericalism in evidence. Members of the House of Laity were, it seemed, simply too thick and reactionary to get it. No matter that key swing voters were, in fact, people who actually support the ordination of women to the episcopate, uncomfortable at what seemed to them a "winner takes it all" piece of legislation.

Third, there has been Erastianism of the worst kind. As John Milbank has pointed out, the purpose of having an Established Church is so that "the political nation is answerable to the Church: to God, to Christ and to scripture". It now all seems to go in the other direction; hence the Prime Minister's remark that the Church of England should "get with the programme". Despite all of the lessons of the 20th century, even the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury seemed to believe that the Church should essentially keep in step with modern "trends and priorities", as if it were in these that true wisdom is to be found. Other bishops have contended that the answer to this disagreement within the Church is to put it all in the hands of the secular courts.

The threat of legislation, closely followed by the "quadruple lock" by which it is proposed that the Church of England should be forbidden by law from marrying same-sex couples, should alarm all of us, whatever view we may take on these particular issues. Those from the Catholic tradition cannot help but notice that a similar situation inspired John Keble to preach his famous sermon on National Apostasy in 1833 at the beginning of the Oxford Movement.

Fourth, we have seen what one might describe as a pneumatological deficiency. Are the prayers for guidance, the talk about seeking God's will, the eucharists, and all the rest of it, just so much empty flummery? For, rather than asking what it is that the Holy Spirit might be saying to the Church of England in and through this vote, the response has been immediately and hotly to protest that a way must be found to overturn the decision. In the words of the Greek Orthodox priest Fr Stephen Maxfield: "The Church of England is very odd. It invokes the Holy Spirit before meetings of its General Synod, but then it flatly refuses to believe that he has anything to do with the results of its deliberations."

One embarrassing problem was the chronic lack of theology in the debate. Since we do not have an agreed theology of episcopacy, we do not know whether bishops exist to provide leadership in the manner of secular gurus, or bureaucratic managers, or fathers within a family. And because we do not know this, the conversation all too easily defaults to regarding episcopacy as just another "senior position".

Similarly, since we do not have a theology of gender, or indeed of the human person more generally, we default to secularised discourses of rights and equal opportunities. Putting it bluntly, we have been trying to decide whether to have women bishops without really having a clue what either a bishop or a woman (or a man) actually is.

Perhaps Chris Bryant MP is right - although not for the reasons that he thinks he is - that we should simply appoint no more bishops of either gender for the time being.

Perhaps (and I owe this point to the Anglican solitary Maggie Ross) we need to put aside our anxious, self-preoccupied strivings, and our worldly perceptions that things can be fixed if only this or that group of people can be outflanked and defeated.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit has indicated to us in and through this vote that the old way of doing things has now reached a dead end, and that, instead, we must now just wait in stillness and silence before the Lord who waits to be gracious to us. If we did that, people really might take some notice.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of St John and St Luke, Clay Hill, in the diocese of London. An earlier version of this article was posted on the Elizaphanian blog.


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