Faith and Reason: Christ or Synod: whom do we obey?: Our series on the impact of feminism on Christianity is continued by Laurence Target, a solicitor, who argues that the Synod has no authority to ordain women

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The Independent Online
WHETHER or not God rules by an eternal decree and established His laws before the foundation of the earth, the presence of lawyers is always pernicious, for they have their being because we live in a fallen world. Its inhabitants are prone to misunderstanding, and worse.

The lawyers are called for when things have already gone wrong and adversaries want advocates to make the best of things or where failure and risk are so intrinsic to the project that it seems worthwhile to have professional arguments in advance. In human affairs law is a recourse when love has failed and justice is a cold virtue wherewith to clothe our iniquities once the warmer coverings of charity have slipped.

An ordinary lawyer seeks to enable people to conduct their affairs in an ordered way; an ordinary judge seeks to resolve disputes in a way consistent with an ordered system, applying its principles so as to do as little violence to its fabric as he may. Quite often a quarrel and a lawsuit bring out the state of the law, with most unexpected results to follow.

When the results are too unexpected or give too much offence to the common sense of those who are politically active in the group where the dispute arose, then the task of those who govern is to legislate and to change the rules by which affairs will be conducted - that can be done conservatively to correct the mistakes and irrelevancies of the lawyers; it can be done to reconstruct the community, changing the game by changing its rules.

The roots of legislation lie even deeper in sin than do those of ordinary legal work: it is not only that we harm one another in the conduct of affairs but also that the systems which we have established to regulate them produce injustices of their own.

The supreme legislature of the Church of England will shortly be asked to enact new laws for the ministry of the Church. If passed, the sex of an aspirant to the priesthood will no longer be relevant to the bishop who might confer such orders.

English lawyers have grown accustomed to the idea of an absolutely sovereign legislature, for it is taught as the doctrine of the Common Law about Parliament. Whatever Parliament enacts is treated as having a sublime authority. It is the law of England and will be enforced by the Queen's Courts. No doubt the same would apply in the Ecclesiastical Courts of England, and no doubt it would be so whether the enactment was from the General Synod or Parliament since both have the same authority.

The notion of sovereignty cannot be eradicated from any legal or political system: there must be some institution which makes the final decisions and which has the power to enforce them. And in the end that is the question - whom shall we obey?

In religion many have sought an infallible authority. Fundamentalists think that they cannot go wrong in their readings of the Bible. Roman Catholics pretend that the Pope is the sole infallible authority, wielding the power of God Himself. Newman thought so highly of that power, even before he renounced the Church of England, that he reckoned that the Pope had an indefeasible claim to obedience even when he erred beyond his special province.

It is a question for a lawyer to ponder when, if ever, the Pope could exercise that infallibility which the official dogma of his Church ascribes to him. When could he perform the function of universal pastor and teacher of all Christians in accordance with supreme Apostolic authority while Christendom is divided precisely about that infallibility?

It has never been pretended that the General Synod has such an extensive authority as is claimed for the Pope. According to Newman, if the Pope were to decree the ordination of women then women would be ordained and Catholic Christians would need to accept them as priests, no doubt rejecting former pronouncements against the possibility as infallibly wrong.

Newman said that the essence of religion is authority and obedience. Once the legislature was constituted it was to be obeyed come what may.

I should think rather that the essence of religion concerns the recognition of transcendence in the traditions of reflection and thought, of prayer and practice which we have inherited. The regulation of the affairs of Christians by bishops and synods, or even Popes and Councils, is regulation by no sovereign disposer.

In so far as the Church is a political society (and that is a long way) it has temporal and spiritual affairs to be regulated. The rulers of a particular church can make laws for its prayers and services, but only while remaining within its traditions; they can regulate its temporal affairs so far as the state in which they live will allow. The rulers of a particular church cannot go further. The Church of Scotland cannot determine the special doctrines of Ireland, nor the Gallican dispose of Spanish benefices.

And no local or particular church can dispose the affairs of the universal community of Christians. The priesthood is not an Anglican invention. It came to us and comes to us from Christ, and is constituted by the tradition in which it comes.

There is much passion about the forthcoming vote, and some compassion. But the only real question is that of how many members of the General Synod imagine themselves to be our own infallible Popes in little and think that they could decide that the Christian tradition which constitutes the Church is their own creature to be formed at their own will. It does not allow the ordination of women to the priesthood, and whatever the Synod does may change the law of England but cannot alter the Law of Christianity.