I remember some time ago an article commenting on a synod* debate that went something like this:
The insistence that it be written in that a Bishop should consult the laity on this issue was dropped at the suggestion of a member of the House of Bishops, who said that the clause wasn’t needed due to the fact that no bishop would fail to take the laity’s views into account.
The writer of the article did their best to oppose the removal of the laity’s formal expectation-of-consultation, but failed.
I can’t remember what the issue was and it probably wasn’t obviously significant in itself. But this particular aspect of the debate stuck in my mind: the assumption that “we don’t need it to say this because it is obvious and it will happen anyway and we can all trust each other” seems to me to be widespread, and to afflict the Church with all sorts of unintended results.
In one sense I suppose it is very touching that our church leaders have such a confident view of human nature and church processes, as to suppose that we never get a bishop who is a bit heavy-handed, or overworked and pressed and not really thinking, or a little bit too convinced they’re right to listen, or, sadly, just plain on an ego trip. And in another sense it is frustrating, because in such a complex and confusing situation very few people do find the same things obvious, and even allowing the pure, complete goodwill of every single person involved, difference of expectations would still cause problems.
When things aren’t written down they drift. It may be obvious to our current bishops at the current moment that they should consult the laity on this point or that point whether it is written down or not. And they may all take it for granted that they will conscientiously do so even without a legal safeguard. But will it be obvious in twenty years’ time to a different set of bishops when a disagreement arises? Or will they pick up the document from synod, and say “it doesn’t say I have to consult the laity, therefore I’m not supposed to, and I won’t”?
It is worth drawing up legislation that actually says what we intend to happen. Not because people are of ill-will. But because it is the best safeguard of good-will, the best way of ensuring all is rightly understood, the best way to make sure what was intended is in as far as possible what happens.
*The name given to several councils in the Church of England which are responsible for making certain decisions.