Saturday, 12 July 2008

From the Bishop of Beverley

Bishop Martyn writes the following letter, which means that we now have a statement from the three PEV's and the Bishop in the London Plan, which makes a full house!

THE JULY GENERAL SYNOD HAS COME AND GONE and now it is time to share my reflections with you. I have deliberately taken a day or two over doing this as I wanted to reflect carefully on what had happened before rushing into print. I have to say at the outset that, from my perspective, the debate on admitting women to the episcopate was one of the most unpleasant that I have experienced during my eight years on General Synod. It is always painful to lose in a debate over something in which one believes passionately and I must beware that such feelings do not unduly prejudice my response. I felt, nevertheless, as the debate progressed that our opponents were prepared to give no ground whatsoever in our direction and that from many there was something more than even theological hostility towards those of our position.

Given that I am the only provincial episcopal visitor serving on General Synod I had expected to be called sometime in the debate but, as the argument moved on and I redrafted one speech after another, I never succeeded in catching the chairman’s eye. Outside the chamber I could only remind people that I am a vegetarian. I meet people, from time to time, who think that vegetarianism is some kind of illness. They think that, if they serve me meat in small thin slices, I might gradually be cured. It felt like that in the debate except that it was not vegetarianism but traditional Catholicism that many people were regarding as an illness. No matter what Catholics could not swallow, no matter their conscientious objection to certain ecclesial diets, they were either to be force fed or left to starve. I hasten to add that, as far as I could judge, traditional Evangelicals were being treated in the same manner.

All that said about the tone of the General Synod, it is essential to keep in proportion the decisions made at it. Synod decided to reject those proposals from the Manchester Group that would provide those of our outlook with such provision that would have meant that we could have remained faithful members of the Church of England while, at the same time, permitting legislation to go forward that would admit women to the episcopate. Despite protests that a code of practice could not meet our theological difficulties, let alone our doubts that it could or would ever be operated fairly or guarantee a permanent place for us within the Church of England, the Manchester Group has now been requested to come forward with legislation drawn up on that basis. As I have pointed out again and again, however good or however bad such a code of practice might be, it could not meet our needs. Any code of practice that can only be operated on the authority of the diocesan bishop implicitly demands that you and I accept that we are under that person’s authority and that our sacramental ministry is an extension of his or of hers. Only a separate jurisdiction or, at the very least, transferred episcopal authority from one bishop to another, enables you and me to know that we are part of an authentic ecclesial community gathered around our own bishop and with a presbyterate clearly united with him and with each other.

It is all very well for our opponents to protest that such things as parallel jurisdiction create a church within a church and is uncatholic. Ordaining women to the priesthood and episcopate is also arguably uncatholic. Once the Church of England has done such a thing there can then be no shying away from facing the question as to what bearable anomalies there can be within our church, given its determination to press ahead regardless of the deep division generated by these matters. There is something near hypocritical about folk who abolish one Catholic practice after another within our church and then seek to hide behind the fig leaf of each territorial diocese and its bishop needing to be sacrosanct, as at present, in order to maintain Catholic faith and order.

What then for the future? Presumably legislation will be introduced into Synod offering a way forward by means of a Code of Practice. In due time such legislation will work itself through the synodical process and return to General Synod for final approval in two or three years’ time. Judging from the voting figures in the recent synod at York, I find it hard to believe that such legislation will then command the two-thirds majority required within each of the three houses of General Synod for it to be enacted. There will probably be, too, a new General Synod elected by then, in 2010. It is more important than ever that we organise well for those elections. An open letter signed by a very large number of female clergy said they would rather wait and continue not to be eligible for episcopal office if it were to be on the terms that we offered. So be it. It might now well be that no other way forward can be found and they have to be taken at their word. We are not going away. We are going to stay and continue in building up the Catholic life within the Church of England unless or until our opponents succeed in legislating us out of existence.

None of this is without cost or pain. The past few days at General Synod have been some of the most unpleasant in my ministry and I feel deep shame at much that has happened, particularly at the contributions made by some of my episcopal colleagues. I know from your many messages how much you are all hurting. Some of you, I know, have already decided that you can no longer walk with us. I understand and you are all very much in my prayers as each of us works through the situation in his or her own way. I have been deeply touched by your concern for me. I have never felt so upheld and cared for by so many of you than in the past few days.

Now we focus on the future. We pray; we regroup; we grow; we continue our passionate commitment to helping to forward God’s mission in His world; we continue to build alliances and to find an acceptable way forward. God ever calls us out into an unknown future, even to crucifixion. Yet He is always the God of hope, of resurrection and of surprises.

+Martyn Beverley