Women bishops – enter the CofE Ombudsman
From Brother Ivo:
There appears to be a degree of relieved satisfaction expressed at the recommendation for a Church of England Ombudsman to assist in resolving the problems surrounding the implementation of its policy to appoint women bishops.
The early reporting of controversy over the "failure" to "modernise" the Church frequently overlooked the fact that the Church has already committed itself to the appointment of women to its highest offices, but, as always, the devil was in the detail. The last vote of General Synod was about the 'how' not the 'if', but having sent the matter off to a widely-drawn committee to find a way forward, the recommendation is now forthcoming and will be considered at next month's meeting in London.
It is pleasing that a degree of support came from across the board, with representatives of both 'pro' and 'anti' groups represented. As its chosen chairman, the Bishop of Rochester James Langstaff brought not only a conciliatory voice to the committee's deliberations, but also good knowledge of the opponents' case. Some of the leading resistant voices in the Synod debate came from his diocese and so personal contact and pastoral responsibility would have added to his appreciation of what might or might not prove a useful area for exploration.
It appears that there were only two abstentions from the committee of 15, which sounds promising, yet Brother Ivo has his doubts.
He does not want to have doubts, and hopes the steering committee has made those personal contacts and developed that level of confidence and trust that was often missing from the emotionally-charged debate on the floor of the House of Laity debate. He hopes that the near unanimity bodes well.
On every side there was honest opinion and sincere conscientious belief. Even those with whom Brother Ivo disagrees could not be regarded as having no case, and this very integrity of disagreement is what leaves a lingering suspicion that the Ombudsman route may not prove the panacea which nearly everyone hopes it will be.
There are two key questions. Who will be appointed as the Ombudsman? What principles are to be applied by them as they address the transition difficulties?
The first is tricky enough. It may be possible to find someone from within the debate attracting sufficient confidence all round, but that cannot be certain. A complete outsider to the debate might prove equally problematic, with protagonists from either side not unreasonably wary of an unknown quantity. Brother Ivo has previously written on the question of the inevitable subjectivity of all judges, and does not apologise for reminding readers of the views of the American Realist school of Jurisprudence which teaches: "Tell me who the Judge is and I will predict the outcome."
That is neither as cynical nor as naive as it may first read.
That problem pales into significance, however, when one moves to the second question.
As its Scandinavian name suggests (we never did find an acceptable anglicised alternative), the role grew within a highly specific context. It was an early means of helping citizens resolve complaints of maladministration within a highly homogenised society with very clear shared values of right and wrong. Whether a public official had strayed beyond his remit and/or applied his discretion improperly in an individual case was and is a relatively discrete factual issue. If disputing parties share the same starting premise, reconciliation is not so very difficult.
When the disputing parties approach a matter from very sharply differing starting positions, however, the value of the easily approved Ombudsman becomes revealed as superficial. What chance is there of mediating or reconciling the views on kosher slaughter between an Orthodox Jew and a New Age Vegan? The question is posed to illustrate the limitations when this kind of "issue resolution" is offered by the conciliation culture.
Will the Church Ombudsman (or woman) work from principles hammered out in advance or might they be free to propose or devise their own scope and strategies? There is coherence and merit in either approach, but pretending that outsourcing the resolution of the problem from Synod somehow resolves it is a little optimistic.
It is entirely right and noble to attempt to hold disparate opinion within the Church of England. Schism has not served the wider Church well, but we may also need to prepare for the possibility that honest people of integrity may be irreconcilable on this issue, and that the practical consequences of this may also need to be faced. It may, of course, be that the contemplation of those identified consequences will influence some of those voting. The cost might outweigh the values in contention, however fervently those opinions may be held.
An old priest friend used to confess to managing his Parochial Church Council by always insisting upon consensus, but he was canny enough to ensure always that he drew the summary of what that consensus comprised. It worked perfectly well on that micro scale, amongst people of broadly similar mind. Readers will forgive Brother Ivo if he is less than confident that a similar strategy will be viable on the larger stage.
Brother Ivo is the Patron Saint of lawyers