Last weekend the General Synod of the Church of England met at York University to try and find a way forward to enable the church to have women bishops.
We all spent Saturday in groups of about ten reflecting on how we had ended up in the mess that had been created. The groups were all mixed up and there were some who had voted against the measure, some who had been desperate for it to be passed and others, like me, who had voted in favour but had done so with a heavy heart out of concern for those who couldn’t accept the legislation. Spending hours together with a facilitator was hard work and there were expressions of anger and frustration, even tears. However, there was value in having to engage in depth with the various views of members, not in regard to their theology but their feelings.
When Synod met together later, we inevitably reverted to a more confrontational style. A proposal from Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden and an old mate of mine, that a new steering committee be created with a much larger membership than usual to include the key leaders of the various groups in Synod, was warmly welcomed. This is effectively what we agreed to do.
My own view has been, since the measure was defeated in November, that the only way forward is a negotiated settlement. Personally, I would choose thirty key people and make them negotiate behind closed doors for two days a week for a month. They could then use the other three days for prayerful reflection and referral to their constituencies. This is effectively the Good Friday agreement model used in Northern Ireland. It's not perfect, but it has proven to be an effective way of brokering an agreement. I believe that Pete Broadbent’s proposal is a weaker but probably more realistic version of my idea, so I support it.
The essential issue is not about women bishops, it’s about how a majority moves forward whilst honouring the needs of a minority – which was also the case in Northern Ireland. Is it right that a minority can stop the majority moving ahead? How much time should the majority give to enable an acceptable compromise to be hammered out? What if no agreement can be made?
I desperately hope that some sort of compromise can be found. However, a compromise on unity cannot be made at the price of compromise on equality. So the whole process has been started off again. But now the clock is ticking and the Church cannot just muddle through for years to come; a decision has to be made. Should an acceptable agreement prove to be beyond the ability of the parties in conflict to reach, then I have come to the deeply troubling view that the Church will have to proceed with a simple measure. This may lead to further disunity, which would be deeply painful. But we cannot dither forever.