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from Signs of the Times, No. 21 - Apr 2006
At its February meeting the General Synod of the Church of England voted by 348 votes to 1 to pursue an approach to women bishops in England 'along the lines of Transferred Episcopal Arrangements (TEA) expressed in a Measure with an associated code of practice. A few brave souls abstained, such as Christina Rees and Mary Johnston of WATCH, Giles Fraser of Inclusive Church, and Vivienne Faull, Dean of Leicester, and others afterwards expressed the wish that they had done the same.
The Synod was urged to accept 'Transferred Episcopal Arrangements' by the Archbishop of Canterbury who moved the motion and the Archbishop of York who supported him. This decision has left many women priests and their supporters, angry, depressed and near despair.
During the debate it was left to a lay member of Synod, who is also an MP, to say 'Where is the joyful celebration of women priests?' Where indeed? When the measure to ordain women priests was originally passed in 1992, those of us who were singing a thankful alleluia to God in Dean's Yard were rebuked for being 'triumphalist'. Even ten years later in some dioceses women celebrating ten years of priesthood were told that the services must be 'low key' in case they upset those opposed! No Archbishop has ever publicly defended woman priests or told other churches he is proud of them.
When I attended my first Archbishops Council in York after the 1992 debate there was an atmosphere of doom, gloom and grief for the death of the Church of England. When we were urged to meet at the foot of the cross, I said I actually thought I was in the garden of the resurrection in a new time of hope. I was looked at as though I were a dangerous mad woman.
John Habgood, who had always told women that it was a matter of theology and not emotion suddenly got swept away by the emotional grief of those men who never thought it would happen and let his heart rule his head. He instigated the system of 'Flying Bishops' and brain washed General Synod into showing compassion and accepting it. His concept of 'extended Episcopal authority' soon became 'alternative Episcopal authority' - a heresy unacceptable to many of our ecumenical partners.
The Act of Synod entrenched division, bad doctrine and sexism. It perpetuated division in the Church and allowed insults to women priests. It produced a theology of taint. Now, in the case of women bishops, this is to be perpetuated in a system of 'Transferred Episcopal Arrangements', which a retired lay woman (previously high up in local government) described to me recently as 'institutionalized sexism'. It is a real case of the 'Forward in Faith tail' wagging the whole dog of the Church of England.
Christina Rees objected in General Synod to the idea that people needed 'safeguards' from the faithful ministry of women priests. I was furious when I read that Rowan Williams told the Synod that women priests should be grateful that those opposed recognize that they do some good pastoral work even though they are not proper priests. What planet does he live on?
Under the terms of TEA all existing provisions for the non-acceptance of women priests would be cancelled. All parishes which did not want a woman priest or bishop, nor a male bishop who was prepared to ordain women priest and join in their consecration as bishop, could ask that transferred episcopal arrangements be made. The Diocesan Bishop should forward this request to the Archbishop who would be required to delegate his functions as the Ordinary in relation to the parish by authorising a Provincial Regional Bishop (PRB) to exercise pastoral care, sacramental and disciplinary functions in relation to it, and by delegating all other functions back to the diocese. The Parish would remain part of the diocesan administration in respect of finance, church schools etc.
Clergy in such a parish would make oaths of canonical obedience to the Archbishop of the Province through the PRB who would administer the oath and personally exercise this special jurisdiction. PRBs would be sponsoring bishops for the selection of ordinands and would ordain deacons and priests opposed to the ordination of women. These parishes would then be ' protected from' women priests and bishops and male bishops who ordain them and form a kind of enclave within the C of E.
When ideas such as this were discussed in the York General Synod in the 1980's John Arnold, then Dean of Durham, described them as 'living in a looking glass world.' I think that from the point of view of women priests it is a much more sinister place. Robert Runcie opposed the idea and stressed the need for all Bishops and clergy to be in communion with the see of Canterbury. His successor finds a way to enable clergy to swear loyalty to someone else and then pretend that they are semi-legally still in communion. This is casuistry gone mad!
Worse than that it leans towards heresy, favours Donatism and embodies sexism. Just put the word 'black' in every place where 'woman' appears and see what the reaction would be! Britain may still be a racist country but at least its legal system, and that of the church, makes racism illegal. The state outlaws sexism but the church claims exemption! General Synod repents the sin of slavery but continues to subject women priests to this legal humiliation.
Supporters of WATCH wanted a single clause measure with pastoral provision and a code of practice to support the right of parishes to choose not to have a woman priest or bishop. Our ecumenical friends rightly said that this is still sexist but WATCH put forward this concept with compassion and a desire for inclusiveness.
Such provision would depend on grace and trust and mutual respect. It works in America. In England however, the Archbishop insists that those opposed need the protection of law and measure. What a failure to show grace, respect and trust. What a witness to the world around us! Robert Key MP said ' the danger was of sidelining the Church from God's people.' My woman churchwarden said that the Church is just making itself utterly irrelevant.
Our archbishops seem to desire unity at all cost - and the cost is to be paid by women, the marginalised and gay and lesbian people. In the end the cost will be the life of the church itself. The Archbishops will be left presiding over a small irrelevant body, which keeps its unity by its own rules while the rest of society gets on without it. I believe that if Christ were here today he would be cheering on faithful women priests and rejoicing that at least British society reflects his mind even if his Church (meant to be his body) has failed him once again. No TEA for him.
Jean Mayland is a retired priest and former Co-ordinating Secretary and Assistant General Secretary at Churches Together in Britain and Ireland.