The Archbishop of Canterbury is obviously furious that Synod rejected the Women Bishops legislation. You could hear it in his voice yesterday morning. It certainly came across when, bidding farewell to Bishop Peter Price, he mentioned that Bishop Peter was one of “an uncertain future” having been trained at Oak Hill Theological College. It was a bad joke from the usually courteous archbishop at the expense of one of the speakers in Tuesday’s debate. The speaker (I’m sorry but I didn’t get her name) made reference to conservative Evangelical students who are obviously very fearful that their views – indeed they themselves – might not have a future in the Church of England. I suppose really the joke was at the expense of those students. It shows just how bad things have got.
The Archbishop’s anger is understandable. He genuinely wanted this because he thought it would send the right message about what the church believes about God. He also thought it would send the right message to the many women who have served the church as priests, deacons and deaconesses for generations – that they were valued and appreciated. A “No” vote at this final stage obviously sent the opposite signal to the world and to women in general and to those in ministry in particular.
Alarmingly, the bishops seem to have completely failed to grasp that they must take their share of the responsibility for all this. Whatever outsiders think, there is no one on the General Synod who wanted this outcome. All were hopeful that legislation allowing the ordination of women would have passed that final hurdle on Tuesday; yes, even the Catholic Group and Reform wanted that. The legislation failed not because anybody was trying to stop women bishops; it failed because it was poor legislation – at least in the eyes of those who voted against it.
I listened to nearly all the debate on Tuesday (isn’t the internet amazing?) and I was struck by how much it was a debate of the deaf. The number of times those against the legislation said that the provision for traditional Catholics and conservative Evangelicals was insufficient was matched (and probably exceeded) by the number of times bishops and senior clergy told them that the provision was quite sufficient. Well, who is to say what is sufficient, those asking for provision or those supplying it? I have a picture in my head of someone going to an old fashioned petrol station, asking for enough petrol to get from London to Manchester and being told that he could have enough to get him to Birmingham and that that would be sufficient.
The truth is the Bishops knew they were not offering what was asked for. Conservatives and traditionalists (how I hate those labels) have been fond of saying that they haven’t been listened to, but I don’t think that is really true. I think the Bishops knew that it wasn’t enough but hadn’t got the guts to tell the truth: this isn’t enough but we can’t give you anymore. To his credit, Archbishop Rowan got closest to such an admission.
So why had we got to this place? How was it that on the final day of a process that had taken twelve years – yes twelve years – the fundamental problem had not been resolved? Actually, it wasn’t just the fundamental question, it was the only question. Looked at from this point of view it seems fairly obvious to me that it is the Bishops who must take responsibility for what happened on Tuesday. I am astonished that, so far, not one of them has been prepared to admit that. Perhaps when their anger has died down they will have clearer insight.
I am not going to suggest a way forward - I haven’t got a clue - but I would like to offer one insight: Throughout this process the Bishops have been seen, indeed may even have seen themselves as honest brokers between the liberals, Catholics and Evangelicals. The trouble with this dynamic is that it has disguised the fact that the Bishops themselves have had strongly held views on the issue and they are quite unrepresentative – as Tuesday’s vote shows. There is, for example, not one conservative Evangelical amongst them.
The Bishop of Manchester’s closing speech on Tuesday evening was revealing. He said that the House of Bishops had, from the outset of the whole process refused to consider any proposal which would fundamentally change the structures of the Church of England. I suspect that by doing that they had turned their backs on the only way out of this impasse!
But what is clear is that the Bishops are not the mediators. Perhaps we have come to the point where only truly independent mediation will do.