In reaching for the brass ring1, sometimes leaders forget, as one of the sayings apocryphally attributed to Yogi Berra observes: the future is always coming. Reality seems to have bitten the Church of England in a tender spot this week.
About fifteen years ago, that church began ordaining women deacons and priests, while implementing what many progressives refer to as the, "infamous flying bishop compromise." The church permitted those who rejected the change to decline not only to employ women, but also to reject bishops who did. Episcopal blackbirds, "flying bishops," began "fly in" and exercise the sacramental office of diocesan bishops whose sin was obeying canon2.
The proposed measure permitting the ordination of women bishops, voted down this week, among other things would have replaced this non-solution with a to-be-drafted, "code of practice."
Traditionalists were assured it would be fair and enduring. This even though most bishops responsible for drafting it voted against them; the last, flying bishops deal left the evangelicals out completely, and the flying bishops were supposed to be enduring. "The Code of Practice" was conceived by the soon, (not soon enough) to be retired Rowan Williams. Today's conservative has no idea what might be coming, from whom, and yet were supposed to simply believe that it would hold. Conservatives may be wrong, I think they frequently are, but they are not stupid.
The critical error was that flock of flying bishops. This was a solution that solved nothing. It did expose a remarkable lack of moral courage.It also demonstrated a hyper-sensitivity to the minority that has led Archbishop Rowan to a failed policy of appeasement.
Flying bishops as all birds of ill-omen do, have come home to roost. The attempt in the recent measure to reduce conservative opposition with the promise of the code, was doomed to failure. They could see the campaign to kill the code of practice coming sooner than they saw the code arriving.
So, how might England address this? I think it is time for would be code drafters to try a new thing: honesty. Honesty that says, this is what the church has decided to do. Honesty built on the example of the Elizabethan compromise saying, "We are not going to tell you that you must believe. None-the-less, this remains where the church is going." Honesty that says, "Please stay, but if you must leave, would you care to buy some largely unused church buildings?"
Had the current resolution passed, it is easy to imagine a new crises a few years down the road, arising from a woman candidate for archbishop. So, honesty now, letting everyone know now, that the times have altered, really represents a payment forward. The appeasement policy of Dr. Williams, conflict avoidance at its worst, simply moves problems into the next generation.
The decision in synod and the resulting recriminations leave the failed arch-episcopate of Rowan Williams exposed for what it has been, an effort to push problems on his successors. The problem, the Donatist heresy on the right-wing, is not going to go away. Honesty would deal with it. Dishonesty always carries a cost and this is at least a minor price -- we all know.
1) "reaching for the brass ring" American slang for seeking victory, arising from the somewhat risky moves made by young men riding carousels reaching for a brass ring token redeemable for a free ride.
2) We should perhaps note that some of the fly bishops were in fact retired men, and all came as near as I can tell from the "Anglo-catholic" right wing Roman wannabees. So for CoE "evangelicals" the fly bishops were not their birds.