On Being a Loyal Anglican

General Synod, York, July 2008

Not long ago - and perhaps we should be warned - people counted the number of times Gordon Brown used the word "prudent" in his budget speeches; we might look back with equal wonder to the use of the term "loyal Anglican" during the debate on the terms under which women will be Consecrated to the Episcopate.

"Loyal", in this context, means the ability to do as you please, regardless of authority. The Act of Synod institutionalised this genteel anarchism by allowing congregations led by conservative clergy to shun women priests and the bishops who ordained them. That same supposed "right" has been re-asserted in the context of women bishops. In fairness, many women clergy said they would oppose any legislation which enshrined division in the form of special dioceses; the conservative 'loyal' response was that they would split the church to protect themselves from women and, if they did not get their way, they would leave it.

My own Bishop, John Hind of Chichester and I agree that the Church should not be Synodically governed. I would be content to leave theology in the hands of the Bishops, subject to an obligation on their part to consult widely. This would run the risk of the Church being divided between a fund raising laity and a spending clergy; but the irony for Bishop John is that it would have produced women bishops much more quickly than is now likely as there is an in-built 2/3 majority in favour in the House of Bishops. Such opposition in principle does not mean that we can leave the three house Synod in the hands of conservatives nor brand it as illegitimate. If the Holy Spirit can be supposed to have worked through King Henry VIII in establishing our Church, she can surely work through a Synod of dedicated and well meaning, elected volunteers.

My objection to this form of government is that it politicises people and forces them into factions. It also turns issues into problems and so the Consecration of women has been seen as a problem to be solved rather than a gift to be celebrated. All power structures reward bad behaviour and ignore good behaviour and this issue has been no exception; we have been fixated by supposed grievance instead of honouring sacrifice.

It is important to recognise that at York Synod followed the maxim that our Church is episcopally led and synodically governed: Synod passed the motion agreed by a more than 2/3 majority of the House of Bishops, only making two minor amendments. The first redundantly acknowledges that the proceeding has not been unanimous, the second makes a code of practice statutory which is a distinction without a difference. Both these minor changes were slightly in favour of conservatives. Nonetheless, as the final vote approached we, being 'good' (if not "loyal") Anglicans, were not allowed even to smile. The Bishop of Dover, in a quite extraordinary outburst, said that we should be ashamed of ourselves for following the House of Bishops; the Bishop of Durham said we should not have discussed the issue before Lambeth as our affirmation would be divisive, a point which would have been much more credible had he made it at the outset rather than after six hours of careful discussion. Throughout there was more than a suspicion that the Archbishops wanted more concessions for the conservatives but they never got round to saying so; and if they, together with Winchester, Durham and Chichester, could not persuade their fellow bishops to be more accommodating to dissenters, it was pointless, even disingenuous of them, to be annoyed with Synod. We were surely not supposed to heed the protests of those in the gallery, ordained only last week, who wanted us to reverse all our decisions on women bishops since 1975, and even our decision on women priests. They were ordained knowing full well all the decisions already taken and the likelihood of further progress which shows you how really 'loyal' they are.

Which leads me to the second part of the concept, that of being "Anglican". Now I have to confess I'm not an Anglican. Having left the Roman Catholic church, I have an inexpressible love for our Church of England founded on the principle of Elizabeth I that it does not do to look into the souls of others. Having detached itself from Rome and resisted Geneva, it must also resist Lagos, Sydney and the Jerusalem Declaration. In countries where it is either a minority Christian church or where Christianity is itself a minority religion, Anglicanism might take many forms but in England our commitment is that the Church is particularly for those who are not its members; it is parochial not congregational. I am prepared to live in peace and tolerance with those who think women should not be priests and to be patient with those who differ from me on the causes, nature and meaning of homosexuality but many of them, it seems, being "orthodox Anglicans" are not prepared to live with me. They want to destroy the Elizabethan settlement and turn us into a sect. In a typically generous contribution to the debate, Archbishop Rowan said that conservative Catholics and Evangelicals were a welcome presence because they sharpen up his theology; he clearly didn't go through the traumas of the Labour Party of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Just as Labour stopped existing to win power, we are being invited to stop existing to win souls. Extremists might be sharpening up his theology but they are blunting our mission. The women of the world - and even in England - who struggle to hold fractured families and societies together in the face of male fecklessness, violence and despair in the slums of London and Lima are not likely to be converted by men who tell them about the immutability of male headship and the unsuitability of women to preside at the Lord's table. Without them there would be no headship and no table.

Conservatives of both sorts face a difficult choice between mission and sectarian ecclesiology but the difference lies in this: whereas the Catholic conservatives are, by and large, so bound up in their sacramental pedigree that they have very little time for the mission to the unchurched, Evangelicals have a deep commitment to them which is being horribly impeded by their failure to see that whatever the Bible says about male headship, this is surely less important than what Jesus says about brining the Good News to the poor.

As for me, I shall go on being my own, strange kind of loyal Anglican: I will respect the authority of my Bishops, even if they cannot accept the decision of Synod; I will share the solidarity of the Eucharist with anyone who affirms the Creeds and the Dominical Sacraments, no matter how brutally are their ethics in contravention of the Gospels; I will let my "yea be yea" and my "nay be nay", refusing to grandstand or blackmail when discussing ecclesiology; and, finally, I will always rank the teachings of Jesus above all other teachings whether in the Bible or in the changing theologies of the Church.