I begin with the BBC’s report of an interesting Early Day Motion (EDM) recently tabled by the Labour MP Frank Field, who is someone I normally greatly admire – if only, for instance, he had been elected Speaker of the House of Commons rather than the present dire incumbent, respect for Parliament would, I am convinced, be appreciably higher than it is.
Frank Field is what is known as a “devout” (which means actually practising) member of the Church of England: and what he has just done adds even more conviction (if that were possible) to my deep thankfulness that I am no longer a member of that remarkable body. When I was, I was never really worried by the Church of England’s established status: I just ignored it, and carried on as a Catholic believer within my own little corner of the Anglo-Catholic ghetto. But Mr Field’s EDM makes it impossible to ignore the fact that the Establishment of the Church of England is no mere formality. I am shocked by what Mr Field has done: but I should not have been as surprised as I was. He is simply behaving as a convinced English Anglican has a right to behave. This is how the BBC reports Mr Field’s démarche, under the headline: “MPs push case for women bishops”.
A small group of MPs has called on the government to intervene to prevent the Church of England blocking plans to let women be bishops on a “technicality”. Labour ex-minister Frank Field wants to end the Church’s exemption from equality laws on gender discrimination.
He fears this loophole could mean the measure gets overwhelming support in the dioceses but is not passed by the General Synod due to the technicality. Mr Field’s Early Day Motion was signed by six MPs from all three main parties.
They were Liberal Democrat deputy leader Simon Hughes, Labour former Home Secretary David Blunkett, Diana Johnson, Labour ex-minister Stephen Timms, Natascha Engel, and veteran Conservative Sir Peter Bottomley.
In the motion, Mr Field said the General Synod expected to debate the final approval stage in July 2012.
The motion “encourages the House of Bishops to commend the measure as currently drafted; and calls upon Her Majesty’s government to remove any exemptions pertaining to gender under existing equality legislation, in the event that the measure has overwhelming support in the dioceses but fails through a technicality to receive final approval in General Synod”.
The issue of allowing women to become bishops has long been a divisive one in the Church of England.
Well, we all knew that. But I think most people supposed that the Church of England alone would decide this matter, that it was more or less self-governing in these enlightened times – that it had, in other words, moved on from the days when Newman could write (in a note in the French edition of his Apologia pro Vita Sua, explaining Anglicanism) that: “This remarkable Church has always been in the closest dependence on the civil power and has always gloried in this.” Newman went on to explain that “it has ever regarded the papal power with fear, with resentment and with aversion, and it has never won the heart of the people”. It has, said Newman “either had no opinions, or has constantly changed them… The great principle of the Anglican Church [is] its confidence in the protection of the civil power and its docility in serving it, which its enemies call its Erastianism.”
In Newman’s day, this Erastianism was particularly dear to the Tories: Mr Field has now shown that here at least there has been an advance towards modernity: the Erastianism of the Church of England is now an “all party” concern, uniting Mr Field and Mr Simon Hughes, Mr Blunkett and Sir Peter Bottomley (undoubtedly, if she were still in the Commons, this entente would include his lovely wife Virginia, a great advocate of women’s ordination in her day).
The point is that the C of E’s “docility” before the civil power has always been quietly taken for granted by its hierarchy. If Parliament insists that the legislation be passed in the Synod (and don’t forget that whatever legislation Synod passes has to be rubber-stamped by the civil Parliament over the road, normally a formality), then it will knuckle under, with only a few perfunctory protests here and there.
That’s why Mr Field has tabled his EDM: he knows that’s the way things have always been. It isn’t always necessarily such a bad thing: when several hundred Anglican priests resigned over women’s ordination in the early 1990s, thereby losing their homes, stipends and vocations at a stroke, Parliament insisted that they receive financial compensation for this involuntary change in their conditions of employment: if the C of E had been a real Church, answerable only to theological principle, rather than a “national institution” (Newman again) answerable to the secular ideological principles of the day, they would, ironically, have left with nothing: in this case, one secular principle (employment rights) trumped another (the “equality” of women).
So, in the end, maybe Mr Field’s EDM isn’t such a bad thing, after all. At least we know where we all stand. The state has the power to insist on “women bishops” in the Church of England, should it care to exercise it. It has no such power over the Church of Rome, and it knows it – and so does Mr Field. Those Anglicans of a Catholic mind who hope they can maintain intact the illusion that the Church of England is still the ancient Catholic Church of this land, that they can carry on somehow pretending that things are not as they have now once more unmistakeably been shown to be, should take careful note of these things. And then they should act accordingly.