Sunday, January 29, 2012

Church of England's fudge on female bishops is breathtaking (Comment)

The Church of England's House of Bishops – for which, read the archbishops of Canterbury and York – has explained how they hope to mollify the opponents of female clergy. 

The proposals are breathtaking.

The archbishops envisage that the Church of England, once it has female bishops, will continue ordaining men who do not accept these women, finding them jobs they will deign to accept, and promoting some of them to be bishops who will work to ensure the continued supply of male priests who refuse to accept female clergy. 

In fact, the church will pay three bishops (the formerly "flying" sees of Ebbsfleet, Richborough, and Beverley) to work full time against their female colleagues, and to nourish the resistance.

The General Synod, last summer, rejected the archbishops' plan to fix a reservation in law where the opponents could live as if nothing had changed. Now they have brought back the same proposals, but call them "a code of practice" instead. In theory, this gives both sides what they want. In reality neither will find it easy to accept.

Obviously this will be unacceptable to most supporters of women's ordination. But the cream of the joke is that it will probably be unacceptable to their principled opponents as well. The unscrupulous ones will, of course, be very happy with the deal.

Despite all these concessions, there will be female bishops, as there are already female priests, and these will be treated exactly the same as male ones – except by the men who don't want to treat them equally and who believe that God has called them to undermine women's authority wherever it appears.

This is apparently Rowan Williams's idea of justice.

It's also the logical outcome of a set of hurried choices made 20 years ago when the Church of England panicked itself by actually taking the decision to ordain female priests. People talked then as if the opponents – about a third of the clergy – would walk out en masse if they were forced to confront the reality of this decision. 

So in keeping with Newton's law of Synodical inertia (which states that every decision must be accompanied by an equal and opposite decision) the Synod then decided that anyone who wanted to pretend that women would not now be priests must be helped to do so. 

Parishes that did not want female priests were given a legal right to reject them. 

Priests who could not accept male bishops who were in favour of women were given their own "flying bishops".

Women, it seems, were legally priests but it was entirely optional to believe that they were really, or in God's eyes, priests at all.

The expectation, then, was that resistance would die out by natural wastage. This did not happen. Presented by the Synod with the opportunity to organise, the opponents of women did just that. They were nothing if not sincere. Nor were they all Anglo-Catholic. 

The Anglo-Catholic rump finally negotiated the deal it had wanted all along two years ago, and was allowed to join the Roman Catholic church as an "ordinariate".

This has been a monumental damp squib, and has no money, few members, and even fewer friends. 

Not even an archbishop could fear anything from that quarter.

But the conservative Evangelicals are another matter. They refuse to believe that anyone is a "priest" (as opposed to a "minister") but they also refuse to accept that women should have authority over men. They are much richer, better organised, more numerous, but just as disloyal as the Anglo-Catholics.

But they are also legalistic. 

They may be unable to accept any deal that spells out women will soon be on top – as, in principle, the proposed legislation leaves them: appointing a male surrogate "does not restrict or impair the authority of the diocesan bishop in any way", says the document.

This statement is extraordinary because it is unacceptable to opponents, because they might believe that it's true, and to the supporters of women, because they see very clearly that it is false. 

It may be possible to fudge questions about the nature of a communion wafer in this way. 

But I don't think it will do for a matter of employment law.