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by Paul Brett
from Signs of the Times, No. 15 - Oct 2004
The recent General Synod debate on the Clergy Discipline (Doctrine) report was a curious affair. The Press greeted it with dramatic headlines, exciting everyone with the prospect of 'heresy trials'. Were bishops to be burnt at the stake, and bonfires made of forbidden books? Well, no, of course not!
The background is important. Back in 1996 a Synod report called Under Authority had examined the inadequacies of the 1963 Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure and proposed a new system of offences, procedures and penalties for clergy who were accused of professional misconduct. The subsequent Measure came into force in 2000. Early in the discussion it had been agreed that questions about 'doctrine, ritual and ceremonial' should be considered separately, and a second group, chaired by Peter Forster, Bishop of Chester, looked into the matter and produced their report shortly before the Synod debate on 10 July 2004 in York.
At once, some of us smelled a rat! There were only a few days to consider the document and the detailed draft Measure attached to it. There was no preliminary, and customary, 'take note' motion for the debate. We were simply invited to vote 'that this Synod instruct the Business Committee to introduce draft legislation to give effect to the recommendations in the report'. It looked like an attempt to rush things through.
As it happened, when the package of Synod papers containing this report arrived, I was in the middle of reading The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy, written 25 years ago by Douglas Adams, a famous old boy of the town in which I live. Was the Discipline (Doctrine) report to be a 'Heart of Gold', like the Vogon spaceship that saved Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect as the earth was destroyed to make way for a hyperspace highway? Would the provisions of the report provide Christian hikers with the answer to 'Life, the (doctrinal) Universe and Everything'? Those who have read this crazy book will know that the answer to this question is famously and incomprehensibly said to be '42'. Should the doctrinal disciplinary tribunals proposed in the report be called - in flippant shorthand - '42' Tribunals?
More seriously, I found much to commend in the document. After a fascinating historical review of 'heresy' accusations, it declared that 'if a bishop or a priest is not witnessing to the faith of the Church in a way that the Church can recognise as faithful and authentic, the Church's integrity requires that there be a proper and credible means of addressing the situation' (para 50). Yes, I thought, every organisation has the right to define and set its boundaries, and indeed to require a commitment to them from its officers. But how do you apply this to the Church of England?
As I read on, a furrow began to crease my brow: an offence was proposed of 'professing, advocating or promoting beliefs which are incompatible with the doctrine of the Church of England by preaching or teaching or publicly communicating such beliefs' (para 61). Yes, again, but what exactly is our doctrine?
Further worries began to surface: the group had agreed that the 'exploration of doctrinal issues was permissible but that the promotion or profession of false doctrine was not' (para 63). Exploration ... promotion ... profession? Would this mean, I wondered, that I could question, for instance, the scientific possibility of the resurrection of the body, in the Apostles Creed, or the philosophical basis of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity implied by the Common Worship words: 'In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, let us pray to the Father', though not with any emphasis that suggested I wanted anyone to take any notice of me? Where was the boundary between digging down deep into the meaning of the historic words and phrases of our faith, trying to interpret them afresh for our generation, and beginning to deny their validity? And could a tribunal (chaired by a 'legally qualified person' with three bishops, two lay persons and two clergy, meeting in private, and by a majority) actually make a valid decision on such a question?
More worries emerged: the group addressed the issue of 'expressing false doctrine implicitly rather than expressly'. Examples of such implicit action were given such as 'a bishop knowingly ordaining someone known to hold unorthodox views or to have a lifestyle inconsistent with the doctrine of the Church' (para 64). The group had been advised that their procedures would cover this sort of thing if it could be seen as 'promoting beliefs'. What worms, I thought, might this can contain? Would a '42' Tribunal try to open windows into the episcopal soul? Or what should a bishop do if an ordinand questioned, say, the biological accuracy of the virgin birth on the grounds that it rested on a mistranslation of Isaiah 7.14 in the Septuagint ('young woman' being translated 'virgin')? How could anyone tell if his action in ordaining such a person knowingly promoted this view or not?
And lifestyle: more wriggling worms in the can. A hundred years ago, I had read, there was a lot of fuss over birth control. It was condemned by most of the medical profession and by academics and legislators. Bishops at the Lambeth Conferences of 1908 and 1920 had also condemned it, on theological grounds. But by 1930 the bishops voted by 193 to 67 to permit 'other methods' besides self-control where there was 'a clearly-felt moral obligation to limit or avoid parenthood and where there is a morally sound reason for avoiding complete abstinence' (New Dictionary of Christian Ethics page 125). They had changed their minds within a generation! What might seem theologically wrong at one time might seem right at another.
And then the biggest worry of all: if a bishop did ordain someone with unorthodox views or lifestyle, a small gang of zealots in his Diocesan Synod, who didn't like it, could proceed against him. A small gang? - my words. Well, a complaint against a priest or deacon could be initiated by a person acting on behalf of 'two-thirds of the lay members of the PCC' (para 75) or, in the case of a priest, deacon or bishop, by 'ten percent of the House of Clergy and ten percent of the House of Laity of the Diocesan Synod' (para 76). A quick enquiry round the dioceses revealed that this would mean, for example, eight clergy in Blackburn, Bradford and Carlisle, six in Newcastle and Bristol, five in Ely, and three in Sodor and Man, plus a similar number of laity. A small gang indeed, and far too easy to convene in today's heated theological climate.
What, then, was to be done about this? In the Synod debate powerful speeches were made opposing the report, notably by Christopher Lewis, Dean of Christ Church, Joy Tetley, Archdeacon of Worcester, and John Saxbee, Bishop of Lincoln, President of the Modern Churchpeople's Union. During the debate I proposed an amendment to increase the threshold from ten percent to two-thirds, the figure already proposed for PCCs and the majority already required in Synod debates on doctrinal matters. Another Synod member proposed a compromise figure of 40 percent, thus giving people a range of options to choose from. If either of these options were passed, it would make proceedings almost impossible to start, except perhaps in exceptional circumstances. In the event both amendments were lost, though the Archbishop of Canterbury voted for 40 percent, and several bishops, afterwards, readily agreed that ten percent was far too low. When it came to the vote, by Houses, the bishops came down in favour of the main motion by 27 to 12 (all having originally agreed to back it, we were told); the laity voted in favour by 164 to 51; and the clergy opposed it by 103 to 99.
Who influenced the three clergy whose votes secured this defeat? All sorts of interpretations have been put forward: the amendments were lost in order to stop the whole thing seeming less objectionable and so letting it through - the chair called Bishop Saxbee, who said he'd vote against, instead of the Bishop of Worcester, who wanted it passed so that those who had recently complained about his attitude to homosexuality could test his orthodoxy in front of a tribunal - the 'liberal ascendancy' in the church had undermined the purity of Christian faith and practice once again - self-interest had ruled rather than the good of the church as a whole. All I can say is that those I spoke to after the debate seemed privately relieved that it had not gone through, whatever might have been said in public.
So what happens now? It was clear than this proposal could not come back to the Synod, either this one or its successor, in its present form. Archbishop Rowan described it to me as 'unfinished business'. The Bishop of Chester told me the House of Bishops would have to look at it and decide - and he was clearly angry about what had happened to his report. All seemed to agree that it must not be too easy to start proceedings against those with whom we disagree.
Several deeper questions seem to need careful attention if we are to move forward responsibly on this important matter. First, we need to think carefully about truth and how it is to be discovered and promoted. Not a new question, of course, but a relevant one. Would we be better served by acting to exclude certain ideas and interpretations of ideas, or by concentrating on the best available scholarship to expound and promote our core beliefs? If we can't present orthodoxy in a form that is convincing today, so much the worse for us - and for truth.
In the modern - the post-modern - world, ideas are not accepted as true or false because some authority says so, but because they are convincing or not, as the case may be. Christian faith and practice has to take its chance alongside many other faiths and lifestyles. Our cause is not promoted by pulling up the doctrinal drawbridge to keep 'error' out, but by engaging openly, positively and convincingly, in the worldwide market-place of ideas and ways of living.
Secondly, we need to think carefully about boundaries . Would the Church of England, the church of the nation as a whole, be better served by having a 'Confession', like some continental churches, or a 'Statement of Belief, like the Scripture Union? These documents tighten up on the Anglican words in the Declaration of Assent , which speaks simply of the faith to which the scriptures, the creeds and our historic formularies bear witness. Or should we continue to be a forum for religious ideas resting on the interplay of scripture, tradition and reason, brought into relationship with experience, with problems dealt with 'pastorally' by bishops or archbishops? This, after all, has been the traditional Anglican way.
If we can do this, perhaps we will discover the real answer to life, the universe and everything. Putting The Hitch-hiker's Guide back on the shelf, however, I remembered the fuss over the Girton Conference in 1921 at which Hastings Rashdall queried, among other things, the virgin birth. HDA Major published the papers in The Modern Churchman (as the MCU journal was then called) and unleashed a flood of protest. The Doctrine Commission set up in 1922 to look into this, and other, matters found itself able to state that both the traditional and the modernist views of this doctrine 'are held by members of the Church, as of the Commission, who fully accept the reality of our Lord's Incarnation' (page 83) - and it took them fifteen years, until 1937, to reach this startling conclusion! Thank God three votes saved us today from opening ourselves up to endless argument, and expense, to no very edifying effect - and being ridiculed by the world.
Paul Brett is Rector of St Mary's Shenfield and one of the General Synod members representing the Diocese of Chelmsford.