The compromise reached by the bishops yesterday denies opponents of the ordination of women their wish for an automatic right to ministry by a bishop of their choice. That would have undermined the authority of diocesan bishops. Instead, a priest who rejects communion with his own bishop can ask for another, who may be a local suffragan, a visitor from a neighbouring diocese or one of a group of 'flying bishops' whose job it will be to care for opponents of women priests. Final authority remains with the diocesan bishop. In practice it is hard to imagine a diocesan bishop refusing entry to a 'flying' visitor, but it was necessary to retain the principle. Any alternative would have sanctioned the creation of a church within a church.
A hard core of opponents will remain unsatisfied, especially those who believe in the 'taint' theory, according to which any bishop who ordains a woman invalidates all his subsequent ordinations of men. These people speak of the ordination of women as a 'virus in the bloodstream of the church'. Nothing would satisfy them except the preservation of a 'pure' line of bishops untainted by any such ordinations. This is asking for the impossible.
For the rest, yesterday's compromise should fulfil its main purpose, which is to carry the broadest possible spectrum of opinion through the next few years in the hope that a number of today's opponents will gradually become reconciled to change. It should ease the pain, blunt the edge of dispute and retain the loyalty of some who would otherwise leave. But it is too messy to last. Even if no other problems arise, only a few years will pass before women will legitimately expect to become bishops.
By that time women priests will have become commonplace, accepted by most clergy and virtually all congregations, who will look back in surprise at the stress that the issue is now causing. That is the only direction in which the church can move if it is to maintain any relevance in British life. While it should always allow room for diversity of belief, attempts to accommodate dissenters on a major issue with complex organisational arrangements cannot be sustained over a long period. At some point the confidence will have to be found to declare these arrangements at an end and to accept that any remaining hard core of dissenters will be right to take their faith elsewhere. For the moment, however, it is sensible to move slowly.Reuse content