Really, you couldn’t make it up. The Church of England, because of its arcane and dysfunctional, though supposedly democratic, voting procedures, has yet again decided that someone who really is a priest (that’s what they believe), and is worthy of promotion, is not necessarily eligible to be made into a bishop.
I say nothing about the question of what is known as “the validity of Anglican orders”, except that I can’t see why any Anglican takes offence when we say that by Catholic criteria they are invalid, when it is quite clear that apart from a few Anglo-Catholics, who think they are sacrificing priests in the same sense as Catholic priests do, what the Church of England as a whole thinks a “priest” is and does is utterly different from what the Catholic Church believes about Holy Orders: in other words, we are both using the same word to describe utterly different things.
Nothing, surely, illustrates that better than the debate about “women bishops” which took place yesterday. The discussion wasn’t about the sacrament of holy orders at all: did anyone even mention such a thing, even in passing? It was all about women’s rights. In other words, this was the governing body of a wholly secularised Church talking about a wholly secular issue.
As Jemima Thackray put it in the Telegraph, “as I listened to the debate unfold, hearing progressives pitched against conservatives … I found myself being too often oddly impressed by the cases made by the anti-women bishops lobby, despite the fact that nothing would’ve pleased me more than to see women enter the episcopate. One argument kept ringing true: the claim that the pro-women campaigners were too quick to try and make the church like the world.
“Uncomfortably, I had to agree. Too many of those in favour of women bishops just sounded too… well… worldly. My reasons for thinking this differed wildly from the evangelicals who think that the church needs to be set apart, not conforming to a society which no longer sees man as the head of the woman. My main concern was that some arguments for women bishops just sounded too much like a contrived government initiative to get women into the boardroom.”
Nor, however, do I have any sympathy with those who voted against the proposed legislation because they were dissatisfied with the measures proposed to allow them to opt out of having the governance of a woman bishop over their own parish. As I argued here the last time the question came up in the Synod, simply by remaining in the Church of England, you have accepted that you are a member of a Church which has women priests: you accept, in other words, that women may be priests, that those women already ordained as such by the Church of England are validly ordained: so what are you on about? “If a woman is a priest,” as I argued last time, “then she is eligible to be a bishop. If she’s not, she isn’t. Either way, you are a member of a Church in which there are now hundreds of women priests: and whether you put yourself in a ghetto which doesn’t accept them or not, you are still in full communion with them (and don’t give me that stuff about “impaired communion”: you are in full communion with your own bishops (flying or not), who are themselves in full communion with the male bishops who ordained all these women, so you are in full communion with them: get used to it, or leave. Expecting special arrangements … that will allow you to imagine yourself on to some kind of fantasy island untroubled by women bishops as well as women priests is ludicrous.”
What has all this to do with us? Well, the Church of England is established by law under the crown; it is the state Church, so we too have a stake in it. Ultimately its affairs are regulated by Parliament: if, that is to say, the Synod had legislated to establish a female episcopate yesterday, its legislation would have had to be taken across the road and translated into English secular law by both the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Then the Queen would have given her assent. But in the process of becoming the law of the land, any special arrangements for dissident parishes might well have been removed: last time, members of the 30-strong parliamentary committee of MPs and peers known as the “ecclesiastical committee” (who would in effect have framed the legislation) were saying firmly that any special arrangements for dissident parishes would not be accepted by them.
So what will Parliament do now? I repeat, this is the state Church, and Parliament has the legal right to act. Chris Bryant, the Labour MP and a former Anglican priest, said before the vote that a rejection would “undoubtedly undermine” support for aspects of establishment, including bishops in the Lords.
Frank Field, who sits on the parliamentary ecclesiastical committee, said that in the event of a no vote, he would table a motion to remove the Church’s special exemptions from equality laws. “It would mean that they couldn’t continue to discriminate against women,” he said. After the vote Ben Bradshaw, the former Labour minister, said: “This means the Church is being held hostage by an unholy and unrepresentative alliance of conservative evangelicals and conservative Catholics. This will add to clamour for disestablishment – there is even talk of moves in Parliament to remove the Church’s exemption from the Equality Act.” That is an idea, it seems, gaining traction: if it happened, it would open the way for women to bring a legal challenge: and if successful, that could lead to women becoming bishops without any safeguards for traditionalists at all.
If those opposed are evangelicals, they have probably already opted out of their dioceses anyway. Evangelicals have little theology of the Church, and are essentially Congregationalists. So they’ll be OK, probably. As for Anglo-Catholics, there is a place prepared for them: it’s now time to come home. The Church of England is no longer (if ever it was) any place for those of Catholic mind and heart.