Sunday, 12 October 2008

Ubi Caritas et amor, Deus ibi est.

Father Anthony Howe sends this article with his own personal take
on the Forward in Faith meeting this weekend in London.

I am going to make myself unpopular now (or at least less popular than I might have been) by suggesting that Bishop John Broadhurst was wrong to state in his speech at the Forward in Faith National Assembly, that July’s vote in General Synod on the Consecration of Women to the Episcopate was a ‘sin’.

We might, by now, have become used to the bishop’s fiery rhetoric. As one clergyman aptly commented 'neither subtlety nor diplomacy have ever figured in John Broadhurst's armoury but he has never wavered from his defence of the cause.' This is very true, and for that one can not fault him. However, I really do believe that, on this occasion, his choice of words was rather less than fortunate. For one, he has played straight into the hands of an already sceptical and hostile press. His speech was, in fact, a gift for those who are looking for a little light relief from the collapse of capitalism. You can imagine what those who don’t know a woman bishop from a tabernacle have made of that! Even the Telegraph was not impressed!

Moreover, such inflammatory language can only serve to try the patience of those on whom any future of catholic order within the Church of England depends, that is the House of Bishops. After July 2, there was a remarkable groundswell of popular sympathy within the Church of England for those who had been treated so badly by what was an appalling debate. Some of this came from the most unlikely quarters. As I have said before, I have encountered again and again a genuine desire from all sides for us to work to find a solution, which whilst not perfect, would at least keep some sense of unity in what still is, after all, the National Church. However, Bishop Broadhurst’s language could only go to upset that delicate balance, and rather than giving out a strong message that Catholics mean business, it might possibly actually jeopardise any future that we might have. Charity is a Theological Virtue, the point of which we forget at our peril.

There is, however, another theological principal at stake, and one which, incidentally, encompasses the whole issue surrounding the Ordination of Women. It is the necessary difference between doing wrong and sin. To sin, involves a wanton going against the will of God. It is rightly condemned. However, an act of doing something wrong is not necessarily wanton. It is possibly to err under illusion, and to make mistakes. An individual may do something that is wrong, but if they do so in what they perceive to be good faith, it is possible to claim that they are not sinning. St Paul makes this point very clearly in Chapter 7 of his letter to the Romans: one can only be guilty of 'sinning' that is, watonly breaking the law, if one is aware of the law in the first place. It could, however, be argued that if a person is genuinely convinced that what they are doing is indeed in accordance with God’s law, and act in such faith, they can not be said to be sinning.

Take, then, the female priests. I doubt whether any were ordained simply to spite those who disagree with them. They must have discerned some sort of vocation. Their Church has told them that they can be ordained. Their bishops have performed a ceremony that in the eyes of the Law at least is an Ordination. Most, I guess say their prayers. Most are faithful Christians. They honestly believe that they are doing what God wants them to do. I might utterly disagree – which I do, but I, nevertheless, respect their belief. I would certainly never even presume to say that they are wantonly 'sinning'.

Such is also true of the July 2 vote. Whilst I do not doubt that a lot of sinning was going on (it was General Synod after all) the greatest sin was that of the lack of charity. That is what appalled the Bishop of Dover. That is what upset nice Mothers' Unions up and down the country. However, many who voted for that fateful outcome did, either under a genuine (but mistaken) belief that to do so was in accordance with God’s will, or even because they were confused. I doubt actually whether that many really wanted to see a part of the church annihilated for the sake of it. Yes, there were, and are, some and by their lack of charity they shall be judged. But they are, I believe, a minority.

All of this begs the question, then, as to how one ought to react. It may be churlish of me, a simple parish priest, to condemn Bishop Broadhurst for his perceived outburst. After all, he too is only saying what many of us have in our more uncharitable moments actually thought. He does so because he cares; and for that we should thank God. But I do hope and pray that that in caring, he might not be in danger of falling into the very same trap as those who really do seek to drive faithful traditional Catholics out from the Church of their baptism and for some ordination: a lack of charity. That really would be a sin.