New Paths for Old Minefields

Simon Cawdell talks about reconciliation for our General Synod

New Paths for Old Minefields

by Simon Cawdell

Bridge builders are coming to Synod this July. That the Church of England is calling in the ecclesiastical equivalent of the UN is both a creative response to the needs of the moment, and a clear signal of the difficulty and seriousness of the task before us, as in a novel move members of General Synod will spend the majority of the Saturday in facilitated groups, and then a closed plenary in order to enable a listening process to take place. I hope it works, and the test will be the quality of the debate on the following Monday, and whether any new approach can be found to square the circle in enthusiastically and unequivocally moving to allow women to become bishops, a cause fully espoused by Fulcrum, whilst at the same time creating a space in which those who object to this on theological grounds can be both acknowledged a loyal Anglicans, and enabled to flourish.

Since the failure of the legislation in November there has been much anger, much pressure, and a great deal of soul searching. The anger has been from those who feel that their concessions, which were believed to be generous failed to be enough to satisfy dissenters, even in the face of such overwhelming support from the dioceses, and the nation beyond the church, which not being party to the nuances of the debate have simply seen this as a piece of raw discrimination. The pressure has come both from within the church, and of course from Parliament, and we have felt it. As a consequence the Bishops have come close to promising that legislation, in a new form will be passed by 2015 and in good faith they have taken active steps to see this through. The soul searching has then come firstly from the group that has been set up to see what proposals might command a sufficient majority in all three houses of Synod, but then from all of us as we contend with the difficulty of recognising on the one hand the obvious desire of Synod as a whole, but the vast majority of the wider church to see this step taken wholeheartedly and without reservation, and on the other hand the bald fact that those who voted against the legislation in November are hardly likely to vote for a Measure containing less provision for conscientious objectors than existed then. To further complicate the picture Parliament is hardly likely to endorse legislation that gives much, if anything more than was offered then.

Thus we are faced with the competing demands of simple legislation without statutory protections, and then need to achieve this by 2015 which demands significant compromise. I genuinely hope we can achieve it, but past precedent is not good, and we need to wonder what the alternatives are.

There has been talk of pushing through the initial stages up to, but not including the final approval stage on the basis that this can be done on simple majorities, and that it is only the last stage that requires the complexity of a two thirds majority in each house. That is dangerous in the extreme, presupposing as it does that the electorate will deliver a result that enables that to happen. We should not forget that similar calculations took place in the last Synod, which meant that the Measure had been sent out to diocese before the present Synod sat, and therefore we are in a position where we could not amend it. It would invite Synod to fail to pass the legislation a second time with consequences for the mission and very future of the church that would be unthinkable.

The only way of avoiding this mistake again is to leave a space, whereby if clear consensus cannot be achieved then the legislation should be held up in the revision stage, until after the next Synod elections. This would mean that the new Synod would be free to work out the package that would pass during its lifetime. Those who presume to know the result of elections in advance treat the electorate with a dangerous arrogance, and it is not a mistake we should make. This reality means that great care needs to be taken in the opening stages of this debate. That begins this York Synod and we need to see whether there is a realistic chance of compromise that everyone can live with this Synod up to 2015. If the two thirds majorities are not there in the early stages it may be better to wait to progress matters until a new Synod has a chance to have its say. The alternative of attempting and failing to achieve final approval in this Synod is unthinkable.

In the meantime the thought of what might happen in the next elections might be just the spur to all sides on this debate to make real and gracious debate the reality it needs to be now. It is good to hear that there is innovative thinking taking place, not least involving the use of the Canons alongside other possible instruments to ensure that the position of women is not compromised, whilst enabling a provision for those opposed they can trust. We must pray that members of Synod are in a mood to listen, to the Holy Spirit, and to each other as we seek a way through this impasse.

Rev Simon Cawdell is the Vice Chair of Fulcrum. He is a Rural Dean and Team Rector in Bridgnorth and is a member of General Synod.

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