I write to mourn the Church of England, not to praise it. The Church, headed by a woman (below), has (as almost everyone in Britain knows) managed to vote against ordaining female bishops. And for all the Church’s faults, this is against the will of the Church while at the same time reflecting its fatal flaw.
The actual will of the Church of England is extremely clear. Forty two out of forty four diocese voted in favour of female bishops. The bishops voted 44:3 and the priests 148:45. Fairly overwhelming results – even the “House of Laity” voted 132:74.
Wait. House of Laity. Who are the “House of Laity”? Even Wikipedia doesn’t have much. (Yet). But what up to two hundred and fifty of them are is delegates elected by the Deanery Synod. Not heard of them? Don’t worry. You aren’t alone. The laity on the Deanery Synod are themselves elected – and most people who are happy to stand election stand for the PCC (parochial church council) because it’s nearest and handles things that matter the most to them. Many deanery synods are lucky if they get enough people so it’s one candidate per post. And the House of the Laity being even further off gets even fewer candidates. It’s a recipe for both cranks and people with a specific agenda they want to push to make it into the synod because few others can be bothered to stand
And that’s what happened. A lot of dedicated minority interest candidates stood for obscure elections and won (often unopposed), and got into a position where they could block something they didn’t like. No one cared until it was too late and, by the skin of their teeth, a tiny alliance that was against the will of the CofE and standing at the right place had blocked the vote.
Why was this allowed to happen?
To do this, we need to go back to 1992 and the provisions that allowed for female priests, and into the psychology of the Church of England.
The Church of England is an established state church – which means that its primary goal is to provide for all its adherents. And therefore, although the conservative wing feels free to speak out against people, the wing trying to reform it tries to always offer escape routes and keep everyone already there onboard. This (plus a reverence for Tradition as one third of Hooker’s Tripod of Scripture, Reason, and Tradition) is why the votes needed to pass the measure are a ridiculous seeming two thirds in each chamber. Even with the packing of the House of Laity and the absurd barrier to passing it was only short by six votes.
The desire to keep everyone onboard was demonstrated in 1992, when the General Synod voted for female priests. This vote came with room for bishops who did not accept female priests under the condition there would be no more such ever ordained. The then Archbishop George Carey was very clear on this as recorded in Hansard.
It was strongly argued in evidence to the Ecclesiastical Committee that Clause 2 should either be withdrawn or extended to cover future diocesan bishops. Left as it is, the argument went, priests opposed to the legislation would be unlikely to accept senior office in future. To make such an extension, however, would in effect be to legislate for the continued geographical separation of the Church of England into areas where women priests may operate and areas where they may not. The provision restricting Clause 2 to bishops in office when the canon comes into effect was included at the request of the majority of the House of Bishops in order to maintain the unity and collegiality of the episcopate.
The idea was not to continue by locking female priests out of anywhere in the Church of England. It was to provide some means to give people time to adapt and to not throw out the current bishops. The current bishops (as of 1992) who opposed female priests were all going to either die or retire, and there were going to be no new ones. This same speech is often quote mined to say:
Our intention is to give continued space within the Church of England to those of differing views on this subject.
Which is, indeed correct. There was a provision for such on a temporary basis. This temporary basis has existed for about twenty years – surely an adequate length of time for a temporary provision to last. The provision in question was that of explicitly pastoral alternative episcopal oversight (or in English ‘Flying Bishops’). In the same speech in the House of Lords quoted above, then Archbishop Carey was clear on this.
The arrangements the House envisages are designed to ensure that appropriate pastoral Episcopal care is provided for those in favour and those opposed to the legislation, without undermining the authority of the diocesan bishop.
This was a monumental concession, potentially fracturing the episcopate (the structure of bishops). The only recently retired former Archbishop of Canterbury Robert Runcie was absolutely clear about how monumental a concession this was (Hansard, ibid).
The assurances, the special provisions, the extraordinary episcopal oversight are all judged necessary—I accept that—but nevertheless they are symptoms of an illness which replaces trust and good will with the flawed logic of two integrities. It is a sad paradox that those most fearful of one development in the life of the Church should be blind to their collusion with another which seems far more obviously illegitimate within that same spiritual life.
So the settlement reached in 1992 and 1993 was for alternative pastoral care to be provided on a temporary basis that did not undermine the authority of the existing bishops. And this was only a temporary measure as was made clear by the fact that there would be no further bishops who opposed the ordination of women, but space and time would be granted for people to adapt. Even despite this it was a monumental concession in an episcopal (i.e. Bishop-centric) church.
So what actually happened?
To any of you who know the Church of England, does the description of flying bishops as only providing pastoral care seem accurate? Because it doesn’t to me. The former Bishop of Ebbsfleet (and now a member of the Roman Catholic Ordinariate) Andrew Burnham was open about what he was doing in the Catholic Herald last year. Far from providing supplementary pastoral oversight, he was quite deliberately setting up the See of Ebbsfleet, taking parishes away from the existing bishops. As he said:
We did all this as if we were setting out to be a diocese, which irritated people no end. It was done in consultation with the Archbishop of Canterbury because it was all about how best to care for people. And the apologia I gave was that of the Apostolic District, which was the term in canon law to describe a group that is not yet a diocese but might become so and has an apostolic administrator. Of course an administration, a jurisdiction, was the one thing we weren’t. We didn’t have the legal authority to do any of it. But that was what we were in search of becoming. And it fitted in with the Forward in Faith Free Province rhetoric and fitted what we needed to survive in the Church of England
I don’t think he could have been clearer. The mandate, the deal was that there would be some alternative pastoral oversight – but instead he (and I believe the other flying bishops) went out of his way to tear the existing provinces of the Church of England apart to create a full scale see. Something former archbishop Runcie had warned against back in 1993 and something that was explicitly not on the table. Indeed it is something that does far more damage to the Anglican Communion (the worldwide church of which the Church of England is just one part) as a whole than female bishops ever could – and the diversity of practice in the different Provinces (a Province is a geographic and organisational area – normally a country) of the Anglican Church is the reason for the 1998 Lambeth conference for the entire Anglican Communion saying:
Provinces of the Communion to affirm that those who dissent from, as well as those who assent to, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, are both loyal Anglicans and to make such provision, including appropriate Episcopal ministry, as will enable them to live in the highest possible degree of communion, recognizing that there is and should be no compulsion on any bishop in matters concerning ordination and licensing.
The passage by the Lambeth Conference is also taken out of context – it is explicitly talking about Provinces and opponents of the Ordination of Women would like to say that that means they have carte blanche hold whatever views they like at an individual level.
(Update: see my next post for a clear example of history not being as those opposed to the ordination of women claim it was).
If there is an underlying link to the Church of England it’s that people can agree to disagree while remaining part of the same structure – even the thirty nine articles merely need to be affirmed, and Yes Minister was joking about the balance between bishops who believe in God and those who don’t. However this is under threat – the “mono-episcopate” otherwise known as the Church of England’s structure is being opposed by some evangelicals and by some Anglo-Catholics. To do this some (normally Anglo-Catholics) claim that promises have been broken – I have never seen the full text of one of these promises that is more than wishful thinking. Others claim scripture and headship. Me, I think if there are any promises being broken it’s by the flying bishops who are so far exceeding their mandate as to twist its intent. And that is a better reason than any other I’ve seen to not allow alternative bishops – it’s been tried, and is a disaster (mostly because the people that want that job are the ones that shouldn’t be allowed to do it).
So there you have it. The whole thing’s a messy fiasco caused by a range of flaws in the Anglican Church – but mostly governance and oversight. The representative laity voted overwhelmingly in favour of female bishops, as did the priests and the bishops. Although the House of Laity may be elected, it is hardly representative.