The Rochester Report:

another failure of prophetic imagination?

by Elizabeth Macfarlane

from Signs of the Times, No. 16 - Jan 2005

There is an instructive contrast between the publications of the Rochester report, and the Windsor report which preceded it by a fortnight. International news teams swarmed around the crypt of St. Paul's for Archbishop Eames' press conference, and there was a febrile excitement, and much poring over the document's contents, and discussion of its meaning. By contrast, the Rochester report spluttered weakly into the public domain like a damp firework, buried deep within the bowels of Church House. Of course, Windsor held relevance for the entire Anglican communion, and Rochester only for the Church of England, though when an established church is considering whether half the human race should continue to be excluded from its leadership, one might have hoped for a greater show of interest.

But the reports must stand together as church statements regarding issues of conflict, and it is in this light that Rochester's shortcomings are manifest. Whilst the Windsor report is concise, its language controlled and nuanced, Rochester is prolix, intemperate and confused. It is often badly written, which may stem from its being a composite work, rather than a coherent response: the paragraph and bullet point division is not standardized, giving the impression of whole paragraphs of non sequiturs, which make reading its 235 pages and appendices tiresome. The chief distinction between the reports, however, lies not in their style, but in their analysis.

The working party convened by the Bishop of Rochester was set up after the Venerable Judith Rose's General Synod motion of July 2000, which requested 'further theological study on the episcopate' in order to facilitate future debate on women as bishops in the Church of England. After four years, we are offered a report depicting a church detached from any agreed founding ecclesiology, which concludes with five options for possible pastoral arrangements, ranging through no change to consecrating women by implementing a single clause measure. The abiding impression is of a work produced amidst anguish and division: perhaps the wonder is that it was produced at all.

The report advertises itself as descriptive, not prescriptive, and yet its understanding of the current 'status quo' appears to be founded in a picture of a church at once uncertain and hostile towards women priests: the painstaking research carried out by Ian Jones, looking at the parochial experience of women's ministry which was published earlier this year is acknowledged, but more weight seems to have been given to unsubstantiated assertion and anecdote, and the underlying subjectivity of the writers. The fact that the Working Party received a presentation from only one of the eleven women bishops within the Communion speaks for itself: it is hard to avoid the conclusion that some people's experience is seen as substantial, and privileged. Of course, experience is only one of the guides, but some of the 'hard theology' that is invoked is problematic. Foremost among these is the language of reception.

Reception is not an Anglican concept, but one borrowed from the Roman Catholic church, and bastardized in the process. As far as I am aware, its adoption into the ecclesiological vocabulary of the Church of England came about through the discussion of the ordination of women, and in particular, it is noticeable in the Eames report of 1988. The absence of any authoritative definition of reception bedevils its use in arguments: within the conciliar church, from which it was taken, it has a particular meaning which is understood, but outside that structure its use is open to question. Does reception mean that we are looking at the experience of the Church of England, the Anglican communion, the Porvoo churches, or the universal church? How can we tell whether something has been received? What is the period for reception? How long can talk of the 'provisionality' of women's orders be allowed to be the theological mask of denial? Presumably, all Anglican orders might be said to be in reception as far as the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches are concerned, and as far as I am aware, they have not yet been received: to our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters, my orders are equally as spurious as those of my male Anglican colleagues. It is not the individual person, irrespective of their sex, but their orders which are rejected.

If the invocation of reception is unhelpful, it must equally be observed that some of the grounds upon which arguments proceed within the report seem to stem from dubious hermeneutics, or indeed, category errors: at one point, it is suggested that God created in Adam and Eve not persons but roles (8.1.4-5).

The list of options does not suggest an open process, so much as the proliferation of opinion, and, possibly, an inability or an unwillingness to make discernments. Whilst it was not the Working Party's task to make recommendations but to focus on the issues to be addressed preparatory to the debate on women in the episcopate, I am reminded that according to Dante, the first souls encountered after entry through hell's gate are the futile, those who have agency but refuse to exercise it. As far as most people outside the church are concerned, the absence of women from the most senior level of its leadership is inexplicable, and the questions we are being seen to agonize over scholastic, yet another symptom of our irrelevance and self preoccupation.

Let's ignore the deeply offensive title chosen for the report, Women Bishops in the Church of England? , with its gratuitous question mark, and pretend that the Church of England would gladly publish a report of similar title in which the word 'women' was replaced by 'black'. Let's set aside too, the idea that the Church of England is "experimenting" with women priests (7.2.13), and gloss over the assertion that consecrating women would be "missiologically damaging as it would contribute to an increasingly feminized Church . even less able to attract young men than at present". (4.3.17). What really bothers me about this report is its failure to focus upon the church's task: when a list is made of 'the questions that need to be faced' (7.4), only the last considers 'the ability of the Church of England to bear effective witness to the gospel in the life of our nation'. If we care so little for the gospel of Christ, and the people we are called to serve and love in Christ's name, that we let them slip so low in our order of priority, then perhaps we already have the church we deserve, dysfunctional, doubting and riven from within.

Elizabeth Macfarlane is Chair of the Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod (GRAS) and a team vicar in Marlow, Buckinghamshire.