Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Trouble With Democracy ...

When the Church of England was separated from Rome on the 11th February, 1531, it was a step taken to achieve a number of reforms. The King had his reasons - he wanted an annulment of his marriage, and the Pope, in thrall to Henry's wife's family, the Emperor in Spain, refused. Many of the bishops and clergy also saw an opportunity to reform a church obsessed with secular power and wealth and purge it of some of the worst abuses. Thus, in accepting 'The Sovereign' as secular Head and 'Lawful Governor' they joined forces to bring into being a church which returned to a form of synodical governance, regulated by the Crown.

The Church of England underwent some painful reforms and changes in those early years as first one faction - influenced by Calvin, Knox and others - tried to drag it into Presbyterianism, while others tried to find a way to hold to the best of the Catholic teaching and re-examine the whole to find a less "revolutionary" and more "evolutionary" path for the faithful. There was a savage return to Rome under Mary I which, it must be said, did more to reinforce the thinking and power of the "presbyter" faction than it did to win hearts and minds of even those who wished to 'hold the Catholick faith." Then, of course, came Cromwell. That the Church survived him and his fanatics is nothing short of a miracle and most of the older churches still bear the scars ...

Since 1662 the Church has managed, by and large, to find a middle way. That has been enabled by the fact it is not governed by "princes of the church" but by its Synods which include bishops, clergy and laity. This allows those who still cling to the Edwardian political decision to relegate the Mass to a minor place in worship, with the insistence on conducting it from the North End of the altar to do so, while those of a more 'catholic' practice stand facing East at the centre of the altar or facing west from the same position behind it. What the "North Enders" fail to understand is that the altar should not be against a wall for their practice, it should be placed lengthwise in the middle of the congregation. That means the priest stands in the centre of the long side facing South.

This argument over the Eucharist is one of the central differences between the "Evangelicals" (a misnomer, all Christians are Evangelical by definition, what this wing of the CofE is in reality is Ultra-Protestant/Non-Conforming and often the antithesis of evangelising) and the "Catholics" within the CofE (and wider Anglicanism) and it is often a source of amusement and wonder to me that both extremes often oppose the same things, ostensibly for different reasons. An "Evangelical" will tell you something "isn't in the Bible" while a "Catholic" will tell you the same thing isn't "traditional" or is not a "practice of the Early Church." Usually both are missing the point. Once this polarisation enters any sort of "democratic" forum you invariably have an unholy alliance in opposition to any change.

Which brings me back to the Church of England and the failed vote on the Measure for the Ordination and Consecration of Women. The General Synod is an unusual body It is established in law as the "Governing Body of the Church of England." Though Her Majesty is the titular Head as "Supreme Governor" in effect this function falls upon Parliament and, in its wisdom, that body has authorised the General Synod to determine what shall and shall not be done in the church. It comprises three Houses The Bishops, The Clergy and The Laity. For most "business" only a "simple majority" is required to pass the measure, for anything that makes a major change to accepted practice, doctrine or tradition you need a two thirds majority in all three Houses. That is where the problems begin. This was, no doubt, considered a sensible safeguard when the General Synod was created by Parliament in the 20th Century. But it also renders it a hostage to quite small groups deploying "tactical" votes. Quite small groups have the power to derail years of discussion and effort - and they do. That is one of the problems of democracy.

Often those outside the Church of England and other Anglican Provinces, have difficulty understanding this, but Anglicanism is NOT like Rome, where these discussions take place "in camera" and the Pope eventually decrees and everyone must do or get out. In Anglican Churches, once the General Synod or the relevant Provincial Synod has discussed (typically over years!) the subject, drafted the new Canon Law Measure and voted on it, if it passes, we must abide by it (though we reserve the right to ignore some - like the Measure that calls on us to boycott certain companies products) or find another spiritual home. If it fails, it fails, and the process must restart, taking into account the reasons it was rejected the first time round ...

That is what has happened in the vote taken yesterday that would have allowed, if passed, the consecration of women as bishops in the "Church of England." Not in the Church of Wales, Scotland, Ireland or anywhere else. It failed in the House of Laity despite overwhelming support in the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy. Just six lay members voting 'yes' would have passed it. The reasons the 'nay' sayers rejected it is interesting. On the one end, the "Evangelical" group calling themselves Together 4ward, voted against because they felt the Measure did not provide clearly for those who cannot, for reasons of faith, accept a woman as Bishop. Ironically the "Catholic" groups have voted because they cannot accept a change to "tradition" and because they wanted to be guaranteed an alternative oversight if it did pass.

Ironically the "all male" priesthood and bishopric is not Biblical, though it is often presented that way and has been reinforced by various Councils held since the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The Bible is ambiguous on this point - just as it is on the whole question of Papal Authority. There is, in fact, considerable evidence of women priests and bishops pre-Nicea and even of Apostlic activity by them. All of it now submerged and hidden by centuries of "tradition."

I am deeply saddened by the outcome of this vote. It is not about "relevance" but it is about listening to the Holy Spirit and laying aside our own prejudices, fears and ambitions - and finding a way to move forward. After all, the real issue here is to ensure that the Gospel continues to be read, to be revealed and to be shown to be relevant to everyone everywhere. Hopefully the Synod can find a way out of this failure of the General Synod to reflect the wishes of the majority of Diocesan Synod members, the majority of people in the Parishes.

But I fear it will take a miracle.

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