General Synod's Phony War
  • Thursday, February 9, 2012

While Britain and France declared war on Germany in September 1939, it took until the following May for military operations to begin. “There is something phony about this war,” U.S. Sen. William E. Borah said, and ever since the prelude to the 1939-45 conflagration has been dubbed “the Phony War.”

In the matter of deciding whether women should be appointed as bishops, the Church of England is engaged in a process with all the hallmarks of a Phony War. People criticize the General Convention of the Episcopal Church because it appears to make momentous decisions on the basis of minimalist debates.

In contrast the Church of England moves at glacial speed, such is the minutiae involved in its decision-making processes. Having met this week and having spent a full day debating women in the episcopate, the General Synod is effectively in the same place it was in July 2010, 20 years on from when it approved ordaining women as priests.

In 2010 Synod set its face against a compromise put forward by the two Archbishops to provide legal protection to traditionalists who cannot accept women bishops. Since then a new Synod has been elected and this week a motion from the Diocese of Manchester gave Synod a chance to reconsider the key elements of the archbishops’ failed package.

It sought a compromise creating “co-ordinate” bishops, a move that probably would satisfy many traditionalists. In a heated debate, however, Synod endorsed the view that such a compromise would “legislate discrimination.”

So again Synod delivered what some see as a snub to the Church of England’s two senior leaders. It supported a motion from the Diocese of Southwark which, while it did not rule out fine-tuning of the draft legislation, requires no substantial changes.

The Most Rev. John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, urged the Synod to back the co-ordinate plan, saying it was the only way to give the House of Bishops time to find a solution. The Most Rev. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, also called for the Synod to “leave the door open” for compromise.

This means that when Synod meets next July it will face a straightforward measure paving the way for women becoming bishops. Once it becomes law a voluntary Code of Conduct will be added. A draft of the code was released earlier this month.

Opponents have always hoped for mandatory legal safeguards. Gradually opposition to this has hardened. Advocates of appointing women to the episcopate insist that safeguards would consign women to a second tier. Many said they would prefer to lose the vote in 2012 and try again after the next Synod election rather than leave women in this position.

The Rt. Rev. Peter Price, Bishop of Bath and Wells, said before Synod that a failure in the final vote next summer would plunge the church into crisis. “I wish I could say there is a plan B. I don’t think there is. The implications of this going down are so far-reaching that we almost dare not face it.”

Observers of the 450-member Synod say the final vote may well be decided by the intentions of as few as three or four voters in the House of Laity. The signs are that the vote will achieve the required two-thirds approval in the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy.

Conservatives signaled they would fight right up to the wire. Both conservative evangelicals and Catholics were still pinning hopes on concessions from the House of Bishops which is now tasked with bringing forward the final draft for approval.

“I want to give the House of Bishops a chance to see whether the situation can be salvaged,” said Martin Dales, of the Synod’s Catholic group.

Rod Thomas, chairman of the conservative evangelical Reform network, said: “If the draft legislation comes back to General Synod for final approval next July unchanged, then we will have the unsavory dilemma of either having to vote for a measure [law] which will lead to disunity and division, or of voting against it and thus prolonging the debate for another five years.”

John Martin, in London

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