Wednesday, 21 November 2012

A criterion: reflecting on the Synod vote (and other matters)

I have not followed the debate about women bishops that has taken place at the General Synod of the Church of England meeting in London. However, I have been very struck by the terms of much of the comment that has followed the votes that have stopped progress towards the introduction of female bishops for the Church of England. The sloppiness of media coverage that chooses to describe the three votes as a (single) vote against women bishops is worth noting. The figures for the votes in the three houses of the Synod cited by the BBC report put paid to this idea. A summary of print media comment is here.

It is, however, the characterisation of the decision of the Synod in relation to its responsiveness or otherwise to modern beliefs and feelings both within and without the Church of England that is very striking. It is striking because it is, so far as I can tell, an almost universal characterisation in the media. Indeed, the BBC report already cited suggests that Archbishop Rowan Williams has led the way in this characterisation:
 "Whatever the motivations for voting yesterday, whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society - worse than that, it seems that we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities in that wider society." 
The BBC report ends by citing the Equalities minister:
Equalities minister Maria Miller said the vote outcome was "very disappointing", and showed that the Church was "behind the times", sources said.
However, Archbishop Williams did go on to say (see the full transcript here), and the BBC does not report it, that:
We have, as the result of yesterday, undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society, and I make that as an observation as objectively as I can; because it’s perfectly true, as was said yesterday, that the ultimate credibility of the Church does not depend on the good will of the wider public. We would not be Christians and believers in divine revelation if we held that; but the fact is as it is.
This report, also at the BBC website, indicates the positions being adopted by politicians in response to the General Synod vote, also manifesting the criterion of popular opinion as the source of right judgement on matters of Divine revelation:
Mr Cameron - who is a supporter of woman bishops - told MPs: "I'm very sad about the way the vote went yesterday.

"I think it's important for the Church of England to be a modern church in touch with society, as it is today, and this was a key step they needed to take."...

During Prime Minister's Questions Labour MP Ben Bradshaw asked David Cameron what parliament could do to "ensure that the overwhelming will of members of the Church of England, and of this country, is respected".
Archbishop Williams' qualification is important because its omission in much of today's reporting suggests that he accepts the criterion of judgement on this question according to which it is the present day supremacy of "Equalities" as a principle that is determinative. And he does not.

It is odd, though, that those whose responsibilities are not immediately religious - the media and politicians - have been so ready to comment on the outcome of the General Synod vote. But not surprising that the comment has followed a secular agenda that has not captured the essentially religious nature of the debate.

Additional comment on the media coverage and the implications of politcal comment: Disturbing prospects after Synod vote and BBC and Sky enraged by CoE democratic vote against allowing women bishops (though, as I suggest above, the vote was more a failure to muster enough votes in favour than it was a vote against).

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