I can’t come up with quite as many reasons as Ian Dury did, but I think there are three really important reasons to be more cheerful and (for those of us in favour) more hopeful about the prospect of women being admitted to the episcopate in the Church of England.
The first, and most obvious, is the new proposed legislation and the package of provision around it. Having spent many hours helping to prepare proposals, comment on amendments, and engaging in general politicking around the previous proposed legislation, it is a huge relief to see that the steering committee have come up with such a comparatively simple system. There is an excellent summary on Miranda Threlfall-Holmes’ blog. it’s not the substance of the proposals that I want to focus on, though. Equally important is the change of tone and atmosphere. Throughout this process, the church has found itself stuck between the desire to bring Christians together around the maximum possible unity, and the legislative processes which encourage not only debate but also division. The General Synod of the Church of England is particularly prone to this schizophrenia. It finds it very difficult to work out whether it is a Synod or a Parliament. The desire of most members is to be a Synod, understood as a body which seeks the way forward together. But the rules and regulations of the Synod push it towards parliamentary practice.
It is that dilemma, as much as the differences of principle, which has in my view been at the root of our failure to move forward. Some at least of those who have voted against the legislation have, I believe, been voting against the whole legalistic way in which Synod has worked. the establishment of a revision committee including the whole range of theological perspectives has opened up the possibility that these proposals might be considered in a different spirit. The committee themselves suggest
Given the measure of progress made within our Committee we venture to express the hope, however, that this debate might be an occasion when the Synod might be prepared to focus more on how to nurture the degree of consensus that has started to emerge rather than having a series of detailed and possibly divisive debates on amendments. (para 84)
To reuse a phrase in a more positive direction than normal, this is not parliamentary language, but synodical.
The other two reasons to be cheerful are the responses put out by Forward in Faith and WATCH. Yes, both of them. Cautiously (as one might expect), their press releases hold open the possibility that the revision committee’s hopes might be fulfilled. It was equally encouraging to listen in to Fr Paul Benfield’s report to the FiF National Assembly, which similarly seemed (to me at least) to hold out the possibility of a genuine conversation around the proposals which have now been published.
The question is, can this delicate flower of Christian love hold out against the synodical machinery? I would like to end by suggesting to all members of General Synod that they re-acquaint themselves with the late Walter Wink’s suggestion that we can only understand any human institution if we understand the “angel” which expresses its true nature:
The angel of a church [is] the spirituality of a particular church. You can sense the “angel” when you worship at a church. But you also encounter the angel in the church’s committee meetings.
The angel of an institution is not just the sum total of all that institution is; it is also the bearer of that institution’s divine vocation. Corporations and governments [and synods] are “creatures” whose sole purpose is to serve the general welfare. And when they refuse to do so, their spirituality becomes diseased.
The Powers That Be, pages 4-5.
I don’t think the Church of England General Synod’s angel is diseased, still less “daemonic”, as Wink goes on to suggest may happen. But I think it is a confused angel, uncertain of its vocation. A different sort of debate about the ordination of women to the episcopate might also open the way for a different sort of Synod: one in which the desire of Synod members to seek the way forward for the Church in love is more important than the rules of process and political power plays.