Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Women Bishops - Tom Sutcliffe's reasons for voting NO

Tom Sutcliffe is a respected layman of the Church of England. He is the Chairman of Laity in the Southwark Diocesan Synod. Though he is a supporter of women bishops, he urges a "NO" vote at today's meeting of General Synod. His letter makes compelling reading. Let's pray in these hours that remain for voices like his, together with those of Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals who take seriously the Church of England's description of herself in her historic formularies to be heard and to prevail. 

I voted for women priests in 1992 and I am in principle keen that we should have women bishops in the Church of England. But I shall be voting against the Measure being proposed for final approval this November. I shall have two main reasons for voting no. 

It simply is not true that appropriate provisions have been made for the minority of less than a third of Church members who cannot accept the ordination or consecration of women as being consistent with their understanding of scripture and tradition. It may well be that traditionalist Anglo-Catholics would find it not impossible to live with the Measure as proposed were it to get through (which I sincerely hope it will not). But conservative evangelicals will be severely affected and in an impossible position.

People seem to have forgotten the promises that were made to the minority that their integrity would not be challenged as fully-fledged and authentic members of the CofE during the current and ongoing “period of reception” of the whole issue of ordaining and consecrating women. I don’t think it is good that a Church should choose flagrantly to over-ride assurances it once gave. 


The truth is that, in July with 5.1.c as then proposed, the Measure stood a chance of being accepted by those most adversely affected by it and I might have voted for it then. But now that that clause has been watered down and talks merely of respect – a word which is no reassurance at all to anybody who has been attending to developments in The Episcopal Church on the other side of the Atlantic – it will be likely to lead to further departures. And I absolutely do not want to see the Church of England ending up as a result of our in my view correct determination to include women in the ordained ministry at all levels with an even smaller footprint. I do not want the Church to vote to shrink more, and there is no doubt that the ordination of women has had the reverse effect from what was promised. It has not led to an increase in the membership or effectiveness of our church, however good most women priests have been. The decline in numbers and in status and in the respect in which we are held by ordinary citizens who are not active members has become precipitate. 

This Measure was drawn up on the wrong basis and is I believe fundamentally misguided in its approach. All along it has been far too influenced by Synod members who believed that the Act of Synod needed to be displaced if at all possible. That is why the Measure before us is so clerical – especially in its removal of the right of parish laity on their own account (and without the approval of the their parish priest) to decide whether in their church they want to have a woman celebrating the eucharist. The determination that women bishops should be exactly the same as men bishops ignores the reality that right across the Anglican Communion, there are many who do not accept women as bishops or in many cases as priests – many on both the conservative Evangelical and conservative Catholic wings. Those of us who want women to be bishops as I do simply have to accept that what we are doing with our change in the law is to enable a possibility not to insist on a new theological certainty. While there are many (though a minority) who do not accept women as bishops, women bishops are simply not going to be the same as men bishops. A women bishop in Hereford diocese would be uncontroversial in that territory. But a women bishop in London or Chichester would be out of the question. That is the difference between women bishops and men who are bishops – and nothing we can do in a Measure to permit women to be bishops can change that. 

So the determination that lies behind the proposed Measure to over-ride all that has been learnt about living with difference during the last two decades – thanks to the Act of Synod and the arrangements for alternative oversight which it put in place – is wilfully misguided in my view. The assurances given to those in the minority of a traditionalist view are worthless because the Code of Practice, even when it has been set up, will be open to constant revision and will be adjusted when the campaigners from GRAS and Affirming Catholicism have managed to squeeze out of the Church all those people with whom they disagree on this matter and whom they do not think belong within the reformed liberal Anglicanism that they seek. We cannot safely allow a process stretching into the future of continuing ferment and argument about how to accommodate or manage those who cannot accept women clergy. It will be debilitating for the Church and very bad for mission. The Church needs to speak not with one tongue, but with many tongues as it always has. Legalism and intolerance are bad Christianity, but they are what the currently proposed Measure is very likely to increase. We are being told over and over again that provision is being made for those who reject women clergy and bishops. I have to say that this is simply untrue. It is a lie. They have sought arrangements on which they could rely. But instead what they have said they need has been consistently rejected – or, when the Archbishops made some effort to achieve a compromise that would work for them, neither Archbishop managed the process of promoting what they were proposing at all well. That is how we have arrived at this situation fraught as it is with dishonesty and illusion. 

There is a much simpler way of proceeding and it is what we should adopt if this Measure is defeated. We should follow what looks like being the Welsh Anglican way, which I believe will suit us much better too. A simple Measure will be proposed to allow women to be eligible for the episcopate in future, but it will be stated that that Measure cannot come into operation until a second Measure making proper and full arrangements for those who cannot accept women bishops has been passed and has come into operation. By such means we can honour the promises and commitments given to the minority. We can ensure that in principle there is absolutely no difference between men and women in the episcopate. But at the same time we can provide watertight legal processes whereby those who cannot accept women bishops are catered for properly by the institutional Church as a whole – and without the incredibly unwieldy separate diocesan systems proposed in this Measure. The idea that we should simply write off the valuable lesson and practical effectiveness of the last 20 years living and growing more mature with Archbishop Hapgood’s cleverly constructed Act of Synod is ridiculous. Nor can we over-ride the promises that were made when we embarked on the in my view vital reform of including women in the ordained ministry at all levels. No doubt my voting against the Measure if it fails will make me, as a former Affirming Catholic and convinced liberal, even more unpopular than I suspect I currently am. As a supporter of the ordaining and consecrating of women I have given this matter very serious thought. I will vote against the Measure as proposed because it is a bad Measure, and absolutely not because I oppose permitting indeed encouraging women to become bishops now that they have served with such distinction at all other levels of the Church. I regret having to make this decision. But I believe it is right. 


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