Leading Article: Lands of make-believe

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IT SEEMS after Saturday's vote by the General Synod's House of Laity that there will be no women priests in the Church of England this century. Without a remarkable change of heart the legislation will be lost for want of a two-thirds majority among the laity when it is debated for the last time in November. This should shame the Church.

The two main strands of principled opposition to women's ordination in the General Synod come from Anglo-Catholics who believe that the priest is an icon of the male Christ, who cannot be represented as a woman, and from evangelicals of a fundamentalist disposition who believe that women are excluded from any position of authority by holy writ. Both these positions appear ridiculous or repugnant to the great majority of the unchurched population and both rest on notions of ecclesiastical authority that are not only incompatible but have been decisively rejected by most Anglicans.

We may admire the energy, the determination and the imagination with which the opponents of women's ordination have managed to yoke these incompatible arguments together; and it is worth noting that some of the most formidable of these opponents are themselves women. But it will be a great blow to the Church if, after five years of grinding through every level of the synodical mechanism, the measures fail for want of a handful of votes in the House of Laity. The decision would appear incomprehensible to the outside world. So, too, would the route by which it had been reached.

However, failure in November would not be the end of the matter. After 1995, fresh legislation could be introduced and certainly would be. There might even, for once, be grounds for hope in the prospect of fresh synodical legislation. The currently proposed legislation has little that is right about it except its aim. It would set up a complicated structure of overlapping vetoes to permit opponents of women priests to exclude them from particular parishes or even dioceses, at the expense of denying such opponents any hope of advancement to the bench of bishops. The theory is that this would provide room for dissent. In practice, it would provide little pools of make-believe in which the opponents of women's ordination could pretend that nothing had changed - until they died and the problem went away.

Such a treatment of dissent demeans everyone involved. If women are priested in the Church of England, it cannot be allowable for other priests in the Church of England to pretend this has not happened. But within this constraint, neither supporters nor opponents should be forced to act against their own consciences. If a man should be nominated bishop who cannot in conscience ordain a woman, then let him still be consecrated. But he should not thereafter keep his diocese free of women priests ordained elsewhere.

It is better that women priests should be ordained into a divided church than that they should not be ordained at all. But if these divisions are to become a source of Christian strength they must be treated as occasions for charity and mutual forbearance in the exercise of agreed authority, and not, as the present legislation would make it, as an endless opportunity for the grudging interpretation of legalistic rights.