Thinking Anglicans

Necessary but not sufficient

Robert Cotton, Rector of Holy Trinity Guildford and a member of the General Synod, writes …


At various points in the Measure actions are described which, it must be presumed and hoped, spring from deeply held beliefs; but these beliefs are not described. For example, section 2 (5) says “ … includes a statement by the bishop that he will not ordain women to the office of priest…” This statement is a declared action with no reference to the supporting theological rationale. Moreover, the provision that must be made in the diocesan scheme flowing from the bishop’s statement does not need to refer to the attitude of the diocesan bishop. ‘Legislation is generally about the achievement of practical objectives’ (paragraph 35, GS Misc 1033). So there are already examples within the Measure of restraint being shown. Legislation is not the best place to name and describe theological convictions.

Necessary but not sufficient

This is partly because theological convictions appear different to different people. My passionately held belief may appear to you to be prejudice, or vice versa. The church flourishes when convictions are articulated and understood, and not merely held. In particular, spiritual discernment is made possible when theological convictions are articulated in the company of those who may disagree. Convictions may become held more passionately when we speak with our sympathisers, but they become better tested when we are not “preaching to the choir”. Indeed, it is a present danger for the church increasingly to fragment into pockets of ardently held beliefs where the ability to listen and speak is not fully practised. It is humbling to be in a position that our deeply held convictions are not convincing others. Such humility is needed both for conversations within the church and, even more pressingly, with those ‘in the world’.

So, theological convictions may themselves be necessary but not sufficient. The Archbishop of Canterbury identified that something was missing in section 2 (1) of the original Measure in his speech to Synod on July 9 (Para 33, GS Misc 1033). He pointed out that the church should be rightly fearful of accommodating itself to certain beliefs. But paragraph 36 notes that it is very difficult as well as contentious to seek to define what theological convictions are acceptable. It may also be seen to be inappropriate for legislation to attempt this task. What the legislation can do is commit all parties to become involved in further discernment by requiring there to be conversations that explore both the roots and consequences of firmly held beliefs. Indeed, the example that is frequently used is misogyny. Given that what to you appears to be misogyny may be to the other person a deeply held belief (a theological conviction), the example acknowledges that there are theological convictions that can be deemed unacceptable. The method for making that judgement must include conversation between interested parties; no legislation can be sufficient in itself to determine the rightness or otherwise of theological convictions.


The logic of these points moves us towards option 4. Restraint urges us to ‘prune the provision’ (Para 52); but this must be balanced by reference to process. So the suggested wording in paragraph 55, second option, captures these two aspects. Paragraph 56 raises a concern that there is no ‘assurance that the guidance would result in the provision of ministry that parishes would be able to receive’ – nor should it. For, as has already been established, there are deeply held beliefs, that will be presented as theological convictions, which the church should resist accommodating (see the archbishop’s remarks). Rather the inclusion of reference to process ensures that there will be opportunity ‘to discover more than is apparent from the Letter of Request’ (Para 60).

Seen as an enlargement of option 4, option 5 falls foul of the criteria of seeking to state too much. We have already recognised that a desire to have a male bishop leaves the theological rationale unsaid. This is inappropriate for relationships (where reasoning needs to be offered, heard and discussed), but appropriate for legislation (which is not the right forum for such discernment). In a similar way, the consequences that flow from having a male bishop should also be left unspoken within legislation, but articulated in the context of spiritual relationships between bishops, priests and parishes. The structure of the theological argument should be “we request a male bishop for XYZ theological reasons so that ABC may follow”. For example, a Traditional Catholic parish should be able to describe the particular ways in which it will flourish given the provision of a male bishop. Both reasons and goals, once discussed, heard and respected, will enable parishes, priests and bishops to work actively together with mutual understanding. The word “effective” in paragraph 67 is a good example of legislation over-reaching itself. No law can assure parishes of effective ministry; only proper training, active prayer and the blessings of the Holy Spirit can do that. So legislation itself is not the right place for reasons (XYZ) or goals (ABC).

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Frank Nichols
Frank Nichols
11 years ago

I have considered Robert Cotton’s proposals in the context of his blog from General Synod (6.07.12), to be found on his parish website. In this he makes clear his view that “traditional catholics” “are out of step with the nation and with their church” We are trapped, he tells us “in a Canute like position”. In his view we catholics are “fixated on church order” “rather than the quality of our discpleship”. I regret that he has such a low view of the faithful ministry of many church communities from this tradition. We are delighted that “the vast majority of… Read more »

John Wallace
John Wallace
11 years ago

I really appreciate Robert’s analysis. Let’s get away from legalism and act like followers of Christ – we are not under law but under grace. I am happy for Code of practice to enshrine safeguards but I would not want legislation to deal with the jot and tittles.

Gareth Hughes
11 years ago

Useful. I believe the measure should shape the ecclesiology of our way forward, with the code of practice reserved for the pastoral details. There is a significant difference between law and guidelines, and we need to know what should go where. Clause 5(1)(c) is bad ecclesiology because it makes it possible for small sections within the Church of England to exist in exclusive structures. If those opposed to women bishops want separate structures, it is a request too far: the idea of one church is more. Anglican ecclesiology gives much room for the coexistence of divergent practice and belief. However,… Read more »

Father Ron Smith
11 years ago

There can be no accommodation that enshrines endemic discrimination against 50% of the human race. The fact that women are made in the same Image and Likeness of God as men should better inform our ecclesiology.

Other Anglican Churches around the world that have struggled to be relevant to our day and age have accepted the wisdom and sheer justice of the ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopate. Why should Mother Church (C.of E.) be any different?

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x