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UK: Synod Evangelical supporters of women bishops are "liberals in disguise"

UK: Synod Evangelical supporters of women bishops are "liberals in disguise," says Theologian
Fulcrum is a tiny pressure group that exists only in the blogosphere but claims to represent the 'Evangelical centre'

By Gerald Bray
November 24, 2012

A lot of people seem to be confused after the decision by the Church of England's General Synod not to approve the consecration of women as bishops. Let us begin by establishing the facts.

1. All sides agree that the church will have women bishops at some point, whether they like this or not.

2. All sides also agree that provision will have to be made for those who cannot accept women bishops.

The disagreement is not about either of those things but about the nature and extent of the provision to be made. Basically, is it to be decided by the (essentially unsympathetic) majority, which will then impose its solution on a reluctant minority, or will the minority be allowed to determine what it needs in order to feel safe and get the majority to accept that? What has happened so far is that the majority has tried to impose its own will on the minority, which has protested loud and long but been ignored because the majority thought that it was big enough to get its way. This belief has proved to be wrong - hence the lost vote.

Unfortunately, rather than accept that it was wrong and change its approach, the majority has so far retreated into a massive sulk that in some cases has become bitter and hateful towards the minority. If this continues, there will be no solution because the minority will not submit to something that it believes to be unfair.

What we must hope for is a statesmanlike approach from the leaders of the majority who recognize that they have gone wrong, offer the minority most (if not all) of what it wants and accept that compromise, however painful for some, is inevitable. Will this happen? I don't know, but it is surely what all Christians ought to be praying for.

Let me attempt to provide this for those who are not familiar with the English scene or who are out of touch with recent developments.

The General Synod consists of three houses - bishops, clergy and laity. The bishops are there ex officio, so they are the most representative, but since virtually all bishops are from the liberal centre of the church, the conservative wings (Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical) are left out. At the present time there are only two definitely conservative Anglo-Catholic bishops (Chichester and London) and no Evangelicals at all. There have been many protests about this, and even an independent report (known as the Pilling Report after Sir Joseph Pilling who chaired it) that has criticized this situation and called for a remedy, but so far no action has been taken. The bishops have achieved homogeneity but at the cost of credibility - nobody in the conservative parts of the church trusts them.

The house of clergy is elected by the diocesan clergy but it also includes a number of chaplains (university, army etc.) and other oddities. It ought to be the most representative of the houses, and in a way it is, but the trouble with it is that the best clergy tend to be so busy in their parishes (and uninterested in church politics) that they do not stand for election and the places go to politically-minded types who would rather sit on committees than do the work of a minister. As a result, they are a disaster waiting to happen and an embarrassment, especially when they start pronouncing on subjects they know little or nothing about - like theology.

The house of laity consists of lay people elected by the dioceses. The process of election is complicated. Anyone can propose people for election, but the voting list is restricted to those who are already on diocesan and deanery synods. The ordinary people in the pews do not get a vote. As a result, the lay representatives tend to be highly committed individuals with time on their hands - retired people, self-employed people and housewives with tolerant husbands mostly. Some of them are well-educated and among the best synod members, while others hardly know what is going on and tend to respond to emotional appeals of one kind or another.

Back in 1992 the General Synod voted to allow the ordination of women (which began in February 1994) but only by a majority of two votes in the house of laity. The trade-off was that those who could not accept this were protected by an Act of Synod that gave them separate bishops (the so-called Provincial Episcopal Visitors, or 'flying' bishops) who are directly under the two archbishops and who can minister to any parish or clergyman who requests them. It is also possible for ministerial candidates opposed to the ordination of women to be ordained in separate ceremonies.

On the whole, the Act of Synod has worked quite well, but there are problems. Some of those in favour of women clergy and bishops have always resented it and have formed an organization called the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod (GRAS) which campaigns for all tolerance accorded to the dissenting minority to be struck down.

Needless to say, the very existence of this group is an insult and a threat to those who make use of the flying bishops and the other provisions, and they have probably done more to stiffen opposition to themselves than anything else.

There is also the fact that most bishops and dioceses do not like to be bothered having to make special arrangements for what they see as the awkward minority, and so they put pressure on conservatives to conform for the sake of 'unity'. Those who resist this pressure are marked out for discrimination and some of them have been refused jobs in certain dioceses.

In fairness, I think that the problem is more bureaucratic than theological. Church administrators, including many bishops, have no theology of their own and cannot understand why anyone else does, or at least, why they would let it interfere with the practicalities of everyday life. Making special arrangements for perceived nutters is uncongenial and they try their best not to have to do it.

Another problem is that there are no Evangelical flying bishops. One of the main reasons for that is that back in 1992 the Evangelical bishops of the time all voted for women's ordination and then claimed that it was not an Evangelical issue. In other words, Evangelicals did not care about it one way or the other. Many Evangelical organisations protested and petitioned for Evangelical flying bishops, but they have always been refused.

This is a Catch-22 situation for Evangelicals. Most of them see no reason to desert their current bishops for an Anglo-Catholic one, merely over the women's issue. But if an Evangelical one were to be appointed, they would flock to him in droves - not so much because of the women's thing as because he would be a fellow Evangelical.

What this would mean is that most of the large and wealthy parishes would desert their dioceses, taking their money and resources with them. The bishops know this of course, and so they resist the Evangelical requests for flying bishops of their own. (If there is any still innocent person reading this post, THE CHURCH RUNS ON MONEY ALONE AND HAS DONE SO SINCE JUDAS GOT THOSE 30 PIECES OF SILVER. IT WAS MONEY THAT CRUCIFIED JESUS AND DON'T YOU FORGET IT.)

One side-effect of all this is that whereas twenty or thirty years ago most Evangelical organisations contained a mixture of people for and against women's ordination, battle lines have now hardened. Today, an Evangelical who claims to be an 'egalitarian' in such matters is simply a liberal in disguise.

Anyone who doubts this need only look at the Fulcrum Anglican website. Fulcrum is a tiny pressure group that exists only in the blogosphere but claims to represent the 'Evangelical centre', for which read 'slightly right-wing liberal'. (It is officially against gay marriage but in favour of 'dialogue' - you get the picture.)

Evangelicals cannot be defined by the women's issue, which remains secondary to their chief interests (evangelism, mission, teaching the Bible and other things that the rest of the church only talks about once in a while), but after the most recent events I would be surprised if anyone who supports women bishops would be welcome in most Evangelical circles. As happened before, the extremism of those people is alienating the Evangelical constituency and causing the latter to close ranks against them.

Gerald Bray is the Distinguished Professor of Historical Theology at Knox Theological Seminary. He is also the Research Professor of Divinity, History, and Doctrine at Beeson Divinity School and teaches church history, historical theology, and Latin. Before coming to Beeson in 1993, he lectured in theology and philosophy at Oak Hill College in London. He is also editor of The Churchman. http://www.churchsociety.org/churchman/index.asp

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