Dissidents examine painless transfer to Roman Catholicism: Tea-room conversations are revolving around women priests. Andrew Brown reports

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The Independent Online
For the last 15 years every meeting of the General Synod discussed women priests in the chamber of Church House and talked about appointments in the tea-rooms.

But since 11 November last year, when the ordination of women was finally approved, everything has been turned upside down. While the synod debated the influence of the state on church appointments, the gossip in the tea-rooms was largely about the Anglo-Catholic struggle against women.

Leaders of the Catholic Group in Synod held a press conference to promote interest in the meeting they will hold in the Methodist Central Hall today.

The meeting comes two days after an encouraging statement put out by Cardinal Basil Hume about the progress of his negotiations with a group, led by the former Bishop of London, Dr Graham Leonard, which hopes to convert to Roman Catholicism as a body, while keeping its own liturgies and congregations.

Fr Peter Geldard, the chairman of the Catholic Group in Synod, and one of its greatest enthusiasts for converting to Roman Catholicism, sketched out a picture of a future in which the transfer would be almost painless.

He hoped that the deal agreed with the Cardinal would allow his church 'Sunday by Sunday to carry on as it is, but as part of the wider Roman Catholic Church'.

Dr Leonard issued a statement saying 'the present informal and exploratory discussions are most encouraging and represent good grounds for hope'.

The real issue rumbling beneath all this posturing is what will happen to the churches and the congregations of the clergy who may leave. Fr Geldard held out the prospect of disaffected priests refusing to leave their churches, and of whole congregations preparing to opt out.

However, bishops were unimpressed. One of them remarked with some satisfaction that the first recorded eviction of a heretic was as early as AD400. Before that, he said, there had been no specialised churches so the problem did not arise.

However, he and others indicated that they were not inflexibly opposed to handing over redundant churches to priests who left. What they would not do was abandon traditional parish churches which are in use.

Not all the members of Forwards in Faith, the umbrella group for opponents of women priests, share the dreams of Fr Geldard of a painless transition to Roman Catholicism.

Many do not want to become Roman Catholics, but are using the threats of the Romanising faction to get better terms for their own preferred plan of 'Flying Bishops' within the Church of England. This would enable a network of opponents to continue their lives as if the ordination of women had never happened.