What? Can this be the Church of England? For well over a generation the debate on women’s ministry has been a permanent push-me-pull-you. If the supporters gain an inch, the opponents lose an inch. What is essential to one side is unacceptable to the other. Zero sum game.
Now suddenly there is an overwhelming majority transcending the impasse: yesterday’s vote in General Synod produced 378 in favour, 8 against and 25 abstentions. In what looks like a massive change from the equivalent vote a year ago, we all win prizes.
The Catholic Group in General Synod welcomes the new atmosphere of trust and reconciliation, together with the clear recognition that our theological convictions will continue to be within the spectrum of Anglican teaching, and the commitment to provide appropriate bishops and priests for our parishes.
Reform, while registering a reservation that ‘key issues remain unresolved’, nevertheless describes it as a
balanced package of proposals which show more sensitivity to the needs of those who cannot accept the ministry of women bishops than those in the previous draft Measure.
WATCH describes it as
very good news for the full inclusion of women alongside men at all levels in our Church.
It isn’t quite an equivalent to last year’s vote though. That vote would have settled the matter if it had been passed with bishops, clergy and laity all producing two-thirds majorities. Yesterday’s decision only paves the way for another vote, though the result gives reason to hope that those two-thirds majorities will finally be achieved.
Why this unfamiliar consensus? There are two obvious explanations, neither of which I find convincing. Firstly, the proposals are different. But the old proposals were supported by 42 of the 44 dioceses, apart from that silly extra clause 5(1)(c). I find it difficult to believe that the new mood is all about the small print.
Secondly, we have a new Archbishop of Canterbury. It may well be that Justin Welby has greater skills in handling this kind of situation than his predecessor had, and I do not know what he has been doing behind the scenes; but he there are battle-hardened campaigners on both sides of the debate and neither side was likely to keel over in response to his charms.
Personally I think there is another reason, but it is unmentionable. So I’ll mention it. An earlier blog post of mine, dated June 2013 and now at a different address, drew attention to the role of public opinion after the failure of last November’s vote. What made that vote look like a suicide note by the Church was not the result itself, which had always been a strong possibility, but the furious reaction by the mass media, commentators across the country and even the Government. It is that widespread reaction which church leaders had not foreseen, so engrossed were they with trying to stitch together enough of a majority of Synod members.
Until last November opponents of women bishops, evangelicals and catholics alike, had often complained that liberals were selling out to secular society – indeed, it was one of their commonest arguments. To us at Modern Church it seemed that they rarely checked out what liberals actually thought; it was enough to note that we agreed with secular society’s opposition to gender discrimination, while they stood out for a position which looked distinctively Christian. Since they had invested so much pride in standing out against public opinion one could hardly expect them to respond to last November’s public outrage by saying ‘Okay, if you feel that strongly about it perhaps you have a point’.
Yet that was the point in time when the mood changed and that, surely, is the real reason for the increased willingness by opponents of women bishops to reach a settlement. Public opinion.
So it should be. Theologically, the question is how God reveals moral and ecclesiastical insights to us. Do they come only through the inherited teachings and practices of our own church, or can they come from public opinion as well?
The God I believe in is bigger than any one church, or indeed all the churches put together. Public opinion often gets things wrong, but so do churches. We shouldn’t expect the opponents of women bishops to admit that they have been persuaded by public opinion, but this is what I think has happened.
If we all win prizes, there is one I am especially pleased with. At Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday, Tony Baldry asked whether the Government would
ensure that women bishops can be admitted to the House of Lords as soon as possible
Prime Minister David Cameron replied:
I strongly support women bishops and hope the Church of England takes this key step to ensure its place as a modern church in touch with our society.