Amending Canon C2: Open reception (aka the mind of the church or the Gamaliel principle) what is it?
Synods, both deanery and diocesan, up and down the country will be voting on motions on the consecration of women bishops in the next few weeks. One of the many pieces of paper floating around is A8 (WE) Background, which aims to explain the proposed amendments to Canon C2 “Of the consecration of bishops.” One of the terms used in the paper is “Open reception” or “the mind of the church.” This post seeks to explain what this phrase means, how it is being used in the debate and to explain its limitations as well as its potential effect on the church.
The concept of open reception comes from the account of Gamaliel the Pharisee in Acts 5. He argued for Peter and the apostles to be free to teach about Christ. Gamaliel believed that “if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail; but if it is of God, you will not be able to overthrow them. You might even be found opposing God!” (Acts 5:38-39). In other words, let these men teach what they teach about Christ because time will tell whether God is behind this new teaching or not.
This is a strong argument for the consecration of women to the episcopate. Gamaliel’s principle supports innovation and it provides space and time for the results to be seen. As the Church of England still speaks in terms of mission, those who argue for the consecration of women want to let them have a go at being missionary bishops and to let the results speak for themselves (of course the question of what mission is and how “success” is measured needs to be discussed). On the other hand, the argument is also strong for making provision for those who can’t in conscience accept the oversight of a woman bishop. Gamaliel was not arguing for the new teaching to replace the old, merely for it to be allowed to flourish beside it.
If Gamaliel’s principle, the mind of the church, open reception, leads to only one view being permitted by an Act of Synod then the principle has not been properly applied. Gamaliel was not arguing for consensus and uniformity of teaching. He argued for multiplicity and for God to reveal himself in time. If synod decides that it knows the mind of the church in this matter, potentially ruling by as little as one vote in one house, which in theory could be a significant minority of synod as a whole, then God will not be permitted to bless one or other or both teachings because the synod will have ruled out one option. The mission of the church will be constrained and restricted by synod as it rules for one and against the other. Women may have the opportunity to become Bishops but by voting for those who oppose women bishops not to be given the opportunity to follow a bishop of their choosing synod might even be found opposing God!
For Gamaliel’s principle to be properly applied to this situation, all views on women in the episcopate must be allowed to exist in the church by synod, and legislation should provide for this, and then the results of the innovation to speak for themselves in generations to come.
In an age when 90% of the nation neither knows nor cares about Christ we should not be seeking to limit potential growth by neatly trimming the church to fit one size of bishop but to allow networks of churches and movements of people to follow missionary bishops of their choosing, whilst, in the person and work of Christ, the church remains united in a real way whilst being free to seek and save the lost.