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, “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.