Anglican Anorak post

The Sunday programme asked me to say something about women bishops, so I thought I had better read the report so enthusiastically splashed by the Times on Tuesday. It is, I think, noticeable that nobody bothered to follow up the Ruth Gledhill splash. She has reached, or she is fast approaching, the Chris Morgan zone: you can go to the newsdesk and say “it’s a Gledhill story” and they will stop demanding that you stand it up. It is of course technically true that the Manchester report suggests that there might be special, non-contiguous dioceses where the opponents of women priests might congregate; the next step would have to be for these bishops to demand their own primates. But I don’t think there is a cat’s chance in hell that this will actually happen. It has been put in the report because that is what the Conservative Evangelicals want (and what they have been working towards for the last thirty years or more). The rather less conservative evangelicals who now run the Church of England, people like Tom Wright and John Sentamu, are not going to surrender so much of their power.

Yet there is some interesting stuff in the report, quite outside the Gledhill story. The real story is that the ordination of women priests was bought on credit, and the church can’t ever pay down more than the interest on the bill. When women priests were ordained, the Church of England was only held together, to the extent that it was, by both sides making solemn promises that they didn’t believe they would ever be called on and had no real intention of delivering. In particular, the supporters of women priests solemnly promised that there would always be an honoured place for their opponents within the church, even though they thought of the arrangements as entirely transitional; in return the opponents solemnly declared that women priests were legally and validly priests, even though they did not believe this could possibly be true. They still don’t.

In the normal course of events, what would happen, in such a situation, is nothing at all. But the report does not believe that this, though the most congenial option, is going to last forever. If the church decides that it has to take a decision, there are three that it might take: the first option is just to declare unambiguously that women can be bishops, and priests as well for that matter. This would lead to the departure of the irreconcileables, protesting that they had been lied to and betrayed. The second is to say that the church is irredeemably split on the matter, and that the only thing to do is to recognise this: to have women bishops in the majority part, and entirely separate male bishops for the priests and clergy who could not accept them. This is the option that the Times hyped up. If it does happen, it would be hard to see why the split could stop at bishops: surely the new ones would want an Archbishop of their own as well. They certainly wouldn’t accept an Archbishop who consecrated women bishops.

The third option the report presents is to muddle along more or less as things are. What is in dispute here is the degree to which the present compromise is written into law. Obviously, the supporters of women priests want their concessions to be recognised as generous and temporary, while the opponents want a law, which could in the last resort be enforced by the courts, stating that they are under no obligation to accept a woman bishop or a woman priest. These parts of the document get into some pretty fined grained distinctions, but what interested me was that all of the proposed compromises cede a huge amount of power to the opponent bishops. In particular, %(sane)”pastoral and sacramental care, clergy discipline, sponsorship of ordination candidates, appointments and ministerial review”.% This is, I believe, the settlement which has already been negotiated in London. What it means, of course, is that the opponents already have all the elements they need of a church within a church. They have used this to build up a steady resistance to the idea of women priests, not just in London (10% of the parishes in Burnley, something like 20% in Sheffield, are quoted by the report). If they get this compromise, they will use it further to strengthen their position. It’s not really a compromise at all; just a ceasefire, or, as I believe it is known in Gaza, a _hudnah_.

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6 Responses to Anglican Anorak post

  1. H. E. Baber says:

    Precinding from crass economics and power politics, the drive to maintain institutional unity is the tail wagging the dog. The early church wanted institutional unity in order to maintain doctrinal uniformity. The church needed a clear, standardized package of doctrine to prevent the Jesus cult from being reabsorbed into the surrounding amorphous paganism–in the way that Buddhism in India was reabsorbed into amorphous Hinduism, with the Buddha cast as yet another avatar of Vishnu.

    Now (in the US at least) most who press for institutional unity don’t care two straws for doctrinal uniformity. Of course, no one’s prescinding…

    I suppose the CofE’s being the established church creates further difficulties but I’m sure a deal could be cut. Globally, religious realignments are inevitable and the Anglican Communion is no longer viable. In the long run duking it out to keep refusniks in the institutional fold is going to be more expensive in a variety of ways than losing revenues from churches that pull out because they don’t want to ordain women, don’t want to bless same-sex unions or whatever. Send them off happy, with their buildings, silverware and endowments, bishops and archbishops, to band together with like-minded churches in the Southern Cone and Timbuktu.

    Of course no institution willingly lets go of territory and no bureaucrat will tolerate any shrinkage of his bailiwick. But that’s just an example of market failure.

  2. you’ve got that †coding problem back again

  3. simple country vicar says:

    Sorry to bring it down to realpolitik (though great to read Dr Baber again. It’s been too long, professor!)

    In our deanery we have to move from eight stipendiary clergy to 6 in five years. One of our benefices is a Resolution A, B & C outfit which means they have alternative spiscopal oversight.

    The committee trying to reorganise the area for six clergy found incredible that a letter from a layperson from this A, B & C benefice should be sent to us, assuring us that they would settle for nothing less than a full-time-priest with a daily mass, and untained by anything to do with women in the sanctuary.

    Time will tell. Their incumbent will retire, and I think the congregation will change its tune very quickly, especially if a replacement isn’t found until they reconfigure their parish grouping.

  4. acb says:

    Simon: I know. I am fixing it. The trouble is that the entities at the moment get processed twice. Well, not all entities. ONly the sodding quote marks.

  5. H. E. Baber says:

    Thanks, simple country vicar! It’s just less complicated in the US where the economic arrangements are stark. Parishes (as distinct from missions) maintain the facilities, pay the priest and kick in their “mission share” to the diocese (which, in turn, kicks into the national church).

    I wonder why not do as the RCs in some places, with a severe clergy shortage, do. You get a retired priest who is senile or just a gibbering idiot, who can be wheeled to the altar daily to say mass. All the real business of the parish is conducted by lay staff and volunteers–if they’re very, very lucky, under the direction of a member of the near-extinct species of nuns, who can address the congregation–though, of course, their “addresses” can’t be called “homilies.”

    That should be theologically satisfactory for any good Anglo-Catholic (you did say “mass”, right?). Let them put their money where their mouths are or watch ’em change their tune.

  6. Pingback: Finally someone speaks some sense! « Priests and Parents

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