So is she or isn't she a priest?: The Act of Synod would make women's ordination a matter of opinion, says Margaret Hebblethwaite

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The Independent Online
WILL women be priests in the Church of England or won't they? This might sound like an absurd question to those who had understood that at last November's General Synod the Church had finally made up its mind on the subject. Today the Synod meets again and it looks almost certain that an Act of Synod will be passed that takes a distinct step back from last year's decision. If the act is passed, from now on two positions are to be officially recognised and maintained within the Church of England: one holding that women will be priests, the other that they will not.

No one had any idea when the Synod voted 'yes' last November that there would be so much fuss over the outcome. No one had any idea that so many people would be so upset for so long, or that so many clergy would talk of leaving. Most important of all, no one had reckoned on the enormous cost of the 'compensation payments'. (Financial provisions have been made in the legislation for those who leave the church's employment because of the ordination of women as priests.) It is still not known to what extent the threats of leaving are a negotiating ploy rather than a real possibility.

The House of Bishops cannot go back on last year's vote, but it has opted to do something rather close to that - to push through an Act of Synod that modifies what women's ordination means. It will not mean what men's ordination means. It will be an optional belief, a matter of personal opinion.

In the words of Bishop John Austin Baker of Salisbury, the only member of the House of Bishops who has refused to support the proposed Act of Synod, 'in practice the words 'canonically and legally ordained' are to imply no more than that certain outward ceremonies and procedures have been gone through. It will be perfectly admissible to say, 'this woman has been canonically and legally ordained but she is not a priest'. '

As someone who is not a member of the Church of England, and who does not have a background in the good Anglican tradition of fudging differences to achieve comprehensiveness, I have no right to object to the members of Synod agreeing to that, if that is what they want. But they might at least be aware that that is what they are doing.

Although most Anglicans seem to be blissfully unaware of the implications of the Act, not all are taking it lying down. Five hundred signatories placed an advertisement in the Church Times of 15 October protesting that 'the Church is paying a price that is unacceptably high in a desperate attempt to achieve togetherness'.

Many other women deacons and priests said they would have signed were they not afraid of damaging their work prospects by appearing to express ill-feeling at a time when reconciliation was the mood. Last Saturday a meeting of protest was held at Westminster Central Hall chaired by the broadcaster Rosemary Hartill, who declared that she felt 'passionate' about how wrong the Act of Synod was.

For a long time the Movement for the Ordination of Women maintained silence on the matter, but eventually it wrote to all the bishops warning them that they could not support the Act of Synod unless it was amended in its crucial 'no discrimination' clause. The clause reads: 'There will be no discrimination against candidates either for ordination or for appointment to senior office in the Church of England on the grounds of their views about the ordination of women to the priesthood.'

The word 'discrimination' is now being used in a somewhat comical fashion. The campaign is to outlaw 'discrimination' against those who wish to practise discrimination. But, of course, the opponents of women priests do not describe their position as 'discrimination'. They speak rather of 'theological reasons'. Basing their objections on 'theological reasons' does not make their position better. It makes it much worse. If I discriminate against black people because I prefer white people, then I am a prejudiced bigot, which is bad enough. But if I discriminate against black people because I think God has given them a different place in creation, then I am saying something much more sinister and dangerous.

All the 'theological reasons' against women priests rest in the end on some version of holding that women have a different place in creation and a different relationship with God from that of men.

Despite the fierceness of the disagreement, no one, as far as I know, wants to drive opponents of women's priesthood out of the Church of England: they are the ones who use the language of being driven out. There has never been a problem about anyone privately disagreeing with the Church of England's official teaching on this or any other subject. The question at issue is, rather, whether such people should be ordained to official positions with the intention that they should teach their dissenting views.

Nor is there any problem about ordaining new people to be priests or bishops who think, for a variety of historical or ecumenical reasons, that women should not be made priests. The problem arises over ordaining those who hold that women cannot validly be made priests. That distinction is no quibble. There may be many members of parliament who hold that John Major should not be prime minister. But were they to hold that actually he is not prime minister, they could hardly continue to operate in the same parliamentary system.

Questions of authority and orders are fundamental to the unity of a Church, and the setting up of a rival altar has long been a definition of schism. If the General Synod concedes to the bishops' request to pass this Act of Synod in its present form, it will not only have gone halfway to reversing last November's decision, it will also, in effect, have voted the Church of England into internal schism.

What then, can be said for this compromising attempt at pacifying the opponents of women's ordination? At best that it is a theological nonsense which is a political necessity. At worst that it is a theological nonsense which may turn out to be a political catastrophe.

The author is an assistant editor of 'The Tablet'.

(Photograph omitted)