Posted in Church of England, women bishops

Reasons to be more cheerful (women bishops)

I can’t come up with quite as many reasons as Ian Dury did, but I think there are three really important reasons to be more cheerful and (for those of us in favour) more hopeful about the prospect of women being admitted to the episcopate in the Church of England.

The first, and most obvious, is the new proposed legislation and the package of provision around it. Having spent many hours helping to prepare proposals, comment on amendments, and engaging in general politicking around the previous proposed legislation, it is a huge relief to see that the steering committee have come up with such a comparatively simple system. There is an excellent summary on Miranda Threlfall-Holmes’ blog.  it’s not the substance of the proposals that I want to focus on, though. Equally important is the change of tone and atmosphere.  Throughout this process,  the church has found itself stuck between the desire to bring Christians together around the maximum possible unity, and the legislative processes which encourage not only debate but also division.  The General Synod of the Church of England is particularly prone to this schizophrenia. It finds it very difficult to work out whether it is a Synod or a Parliament. The desire of most members is to be a Synod, understood as a body which seeks the way forward together. But the rules and regulations of the Synod push it towards parliamentary practice.

It is that dilemma, as much as the differences of principle, which has in my view been at the root of our failure to move forward.  Some at least of those who have voted against the legislation have, I believe, been voting against the whole legalistic way in which Synod has worked.  the establishment of a revision committee including the whole range of theological perspectives has opened up the possibility that these proposals might be considered in a different spirit. The committee themselves suggest

Given the measure of progress made within our Committee we venture to express the hope, however, that this debate might be an occasion when the Synod might be prepared to focus more on how to nurture the degree of consensus that has started to emerge rather than having a series of detailed and possibly divisive debates on amendments. (para 84)

To reuse a phrase in a more positive direction than normal, this is not parliamentary language, but synodical.

The other two reasons to be cheerful are the responses put out by Forward in Faith and WATCH. Yes, both of them. Cautiously (as one might expect), their press releases hold open the possibility that the revision committee’s hopes might be fulfilled. It was equally encouraging to listen in to Fr Paul Benfield’s report to the FiF National Assembly, which similarly seemed (to me at least) to hold out the possibility of a genuine conversation around the proposals which have now been published.

The question is, can this delicate flower of Christian love hold out against the synodical machinery? I would like to end by suggesting to all members of General Synod that they re-acquaint themselves with the late Walter Wink’s suggestion that we can only understand any human institution if we understand the “angel” which expresses its true nature:

The angel of a church [is] the spirituality of a particular church. You can sense the “angel” when you worship at a church. But you also encounter the angel in the church’s committee meetings.

The angel of an institution is not just the sum total of all that institution is; it is also the bearer of that institution’s divine vocation. Corporations and governments [and synods] are “creatures” whose sole purpose is to serve the general welfare. And when they refuse to do so, their spirituality becomes diseased.

The Powers That Be, pages 4-5.

I don’t think the Church of England General Synod’s angel is diseased, still less “daemonic”, as Wink goes on to suggest may happen. But I think it is a confused angel, uncertain of its vocation. A different sort of debate about the ordination of women to the episcopate might also open the way for a different sort of Synod: one in which the desire of Synod members to seek the way forward for the Church in love is more important than the rules of process and political power plays.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

And now?

The day after…

Having just spent ten days in the Holy Land, I have been thinking a lot about irreconcilable conflict. What do you do when different groups have different base lines – when the starting point of each side’s aspiration crosses the bottom line of the other?

Israel/Palestine is a splendid example of how not to do it. Both sides became involved in a ‘might is right’ struggle, which Israel won conclusively. Having won the military battle, Israel has continued to work for the delivery of its political aims by quasi-military means – house demolitions, movement controls, land and resource seizures, and so forth.

What’s needed is a different sort of game, but as far as I can see the Palestinian leadership is trying to find a means of winning, if not militarily, then certainly by a variation on the ‘might is right’ strategy.

That’s a struggle which costs lives. I don’t think anyone has died over the ordination of women as bishops, but on its own scale the problem of irreconcilable bottom lines is just as acute. It is very depressing indeed to hear people talking as if there were a better solution just to hand, especially those who have been through all the negotiations of the last few years. Circles do not become squares. A solution acceptable to everyone is not going to emerge. Israel/Palestine shows us that.

So what is the other game? It’s the game that anyone’s played who was patched up a rift between friends; on a political level, it’s the game that was played in Northern Ireland. It’s a game that involves listening – something that many of those opposed to women bishops were claiming has not happened. I think they were probably confusing listening with agreeing.

Listening means speaking honestly. A starting point would be the recognition that there is no magic bullet, and an agreement to stop using the myth of a consensus on this issue as a rhetorical holy grail with which to criticise any actual concrete proposal.

Much as I would have wished that Bishop Justin didn’t have this on his plate, I pray that in the providence of God he may have been called to Canterbury to help the Church of England in this particular hour of need. I pray too that church business, however important, doesn’t prevent him from leading us in mission.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

The sun has gone down, and I am still angry.

The sun has gone down, and I am still angry. Not angry with those who voted against the legislation (how can I be angry with someone else’s conscience?), but angry that there are women called to episcopal ministry who will never get the chance. Angry at the damage that will be done to the church and its mission both because of the absence of those gifts, and also because of our inability to welcome the gift God is offering to us. Angry at being stuck here, when I can feel the Spirit beckoning us forward.

Now is not a time for ‘what next’? It’s a time to recognise our feelings for what they are, and let them be. In a little while, maybe, those of us who tonight are angry, or depressed, or despairing can return to ourselves and find the gift of God which will enable us to do whatever it is we are called to next. But not tonight.

Posted in Church of England, Jerusalem, women bishops

Holy and Ramshackle

Today I visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for the first time in my life. It was of course chaos – a chaos of people of varying churches and none, a chaos of architecture and church furnishings, a chaos of liturgies. A bit like the whole Christian church, then. A warring, ramshackle, mutually uncomprehending bunch of pilgrims held together only by our faith in Jesus, and drawn to this place despite everything because of what that faith means.

I write this post during the debate on General Synod on the legislation on women bishops – and before the vote. So it is in ignorance of the outcome that I hope we will remain in the Church of England a ramshackle witness to the faith of Jesus, living under one roof. Even if, as is the case with Holy Sepulchre, we can’t even agree how to keep it in good repair.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

Women Bishops: a sense of hope

Having returned earlier today from the College of Bishops, leaving the House to decide what might happen to the amendment which caused so much trouble earlier in the year. I was hoping, and praying, that the outcome would be what has in fact occurred. To quote from the press release

“The final text proposed by the House of Bishops is:

“Substitute for the words in clause 5(1)(c):” the selection of male bishops and male priests in a manner which respects the grounds on which parochial church councils issue Letters of Request under section 3″

Simple words – words which fill me with a sense of hope – at two levels.

I really really hope this will enable the legislation to pass. If there was one thing all of the bishops had in common was a realisation of the disaster it would be for the church if we fail to pass legislation in November. We really have to move on – and I really hope we will. To those who fear that they will be excluded from the church when we have women bishops, I hope this will provide reassurance that they will not be. To those who fear that the legislation will pay too great a price, I hope it will also say – yes, we do want to make provision for those who are opposed, but we are doing so within a church which is unashamed of ordaining women bishops as absolute equals with men.

And the second level of hope is that we might just start to work together a little more. If we do ‘respect’ in the legal term, maybe we can build on the many individual respectful relationships between those of different opinions, and build a greater culture of respecting our differences in the whole church. God cannot be completely understood by any person or system: respecting those who differ from us within the faith is a recognition of the mystery of the God who is beyond knowing.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

Pleading the second amendment

I rather suspect that the House of Bishops’ amendments to the legislation on women bishops have had a ‘last straw’ effect. I don’t think it’s the content (see below), but the fact that, yet again, ordained women are seen as the problem, and the solution is to try to find yet another way of placating those who are opposed. There’s only so long that that can go on for before it all gets too much. That’s by way of saying that I can see why emotions are running so high – and I don’t expect many thanks for trying to get all rational about it.

Miranda Threlfall-Holmes – who I count as a friend, and I hope she will continue to think so of me, says of the second amendment ‘This says that the bishops and priests to be selected to minister in parishes that won’t accept a woman (or a man who ordains women) must be people who will exercise their ministry in accordance with the theological convictions about women of the parish concerned.’ Now, I think the Measure and Draft Code of Practice do say some of that (though not all), but I don’t think this amendment does. The additional clause in the Measure adds nothing, except reassurance to conservatives – and alarm and despondency to the rest. The problem is that the wording has been read as declarative (this shall happen) when in fact it is setting out a process.

As Church Mouse points out, the draft Code of Practice already placed an obligation on each diocesan bishop to take theological convictions into account when appointing alternative bishops – that’s a bit different from doing whatever petitioning parishes ask. The amendment places into the Measure a requirement that there be guidance in the Code as to how alternative bishops be selected, consistently with the theological convictions of parishes petitioning. So diocesan bishops will now have guidance in the Code as to how to do something they were going to have to do anyway. The amendment doesn’t state what that guidance should be – that’s all still to play for.

Miranda thinks the amendment says ‘whatever your particular views about women, however offensive, the hierarchy will support you in the consequent discrimination’ But the amendment can’t do that – it only directs that there should be guidance in the Code. If the Code of Practice were to say that, I would certainly not support it. But a) I don’t think that’s likely to be proposed and b) if it were, Synod would not approve it. It’s a separate process. The Church’s view as to what is consistent and reasonable is not a hostage to every extremist viewpoint.

In sum – if we were content with the draft legislation as it was, I think we should still be now. And that’s the problem: lots of people weren’t really content, but were putting up with it. Patience has been exhausted. So in the fallout, I think we might end up with the irony of members of WATCH voting against the legislation because they believe Forward in Faith’s propaganda, while members of FiF vote against because they don’t.

And – the damage to the church’s mission if the measure fails – for whatever reason – would immense. If the Measure fails, even if it’s voted down by those in favour of women’s ministry,

a) the message will be ‘the church rejects women’ – that’s what the public will hear. No number of press releases explaining that people voted against because they wanted more inclusion will (I predict) interrupt the convenient ‘misogynist church rejects women’ narrative,

and b) we will continue to fight over the issue, as the Southwark motion to rescind the Act of Synod comes up for discussion, and so on for years to come.

Posted in Church of England, women bishops

Sitting resolutely on the fence

The London Diocesan Synod met tonight, to discuss and vote on the legislation on making women bishops – and also on other motions asking the General Synod of the Church of England to try (again!) to find a solution which would somehow satisfy both opponents and supporters. We were urged to make a clear statement to the rest of the Church – mostly by those who were hoping we would clearly state our opposition to the present proposals.

So – we rejected all the options. The proposed legislation was defeated by two votes in the house of clergy, though a majority of synod members overall were in favour. We then discussed two motions suggesting other options – and defeated those too. So the resounding message from the diocese of London? Collectively, we don’t know how to get ourselves out of the dilemma we’re in.

I suppose if we do have a message for the rest of the Church, it’s a cry for help.

Posted in Affirming Catholicism, women bishops

Women bishops are traditional

Having begun to look at Newman’s categories, I realised that all of them for me boil down to one fundamental question, which flows most clearly from his first. Preservation of Type – this is Newman’s first, quasi-genetic criterion for distinguishing proper development of doctrine. Is this still the same sort of body, the same Church, regardless of the changes in its outward form? Newman says:

‘[I]deas may remain, when the expression of them is indefinitely varied; and we cannot determine whether a professed development is truly such or not, without some further knowledge than an experience of the mere fact of this variation. Nor will our instinctive feelings serve as a criterion. It must have been an extreme shock to St. Peter to be told he must slay and eat beasts, unclean as well as clean, though such a command was implied already in that faith which he held and taught; a shock, which a single effort, or a short period, or the force of reason would not suffice to overcome. Nay, it may happen that a representation which varies from its original may be felt as more true and faithful than one which has more pretensions to be exact.’

What is fascinating, though, is the evidence he uses for asserting that the Roman Catholic church of his day is the true example of the ‘type’ of the early church. He takes every example of criticism that the early church’s most inveterate adversaries held against it, and argues that the Roman Catholic Church is still criticised for the same things, and therefore is the true inheritor of the early church. It is a vision of the true church as only appearing when beset by enemies. But for me it omits the one and only question i would ask when trying to discern the ‘true type’ of the Christian Church: does it reflect the ministry of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels?

It’s impossible to answer the question now, but it’s the one we have to keep on asking: does this development enable the Church more coherently to represent to the world the good news of Jesus? The problem in asking this question is that it pushes us back behind even New Testament proof texts relating to church order, and we have to deduce what we can from the stories of Jesus which were never written down to answer this sort of question.

I would argue, though, that the sort of evidence we need is not, either that all Jesus’ disciples were male, nor yet that Mary Magdalene was ‘apostle to the apostles’. Those sort of tangible proofs are not only not conclusive, they are also scarcely relevant. The question goes back – as ‘traditionalists’ have pointed out – to Christian anthropology. That is, what relationship is there between human beings, and their two genders, and the nature of God. Is it true, as Forward in Faith argued in Consecrated Women?, ‘that the most fundamental of all the symbols of the Judaeo-Christian narrative is that of the redemptive sacrifice of a male’? If it is, then maleness is written into the warp and weft of God’s work in the world. As they say, ‘we believe the Bible story to be unimaginable without normative use of male language’. The Fatherhood of God is an essential safeguard against pantheism; the maleness of the Son is an essential part of his reflection of God’s likeness: and if priests and bishops are, as Catholics hold, given the task of representing the divine, they can therefore only be male. The rest of the argument is window dressing by comparison.

But on the other hand: if the predominance of male language for God reflects both the (proper) desire to indicate that God is truly personal, and the (misguided) assumption that males were superior to females, and therefore female language would demean God’s glory – then the fundamental point on which all agree, that God is beyond human gender, becomes much more significant. If it was only because of human ingrained patriarchy that God was revealed through predominantly male language and persons, then our calling as God’s people is to grow out of that limitaiton towards the full riches of God’s nature. In which case a priesthood and episcopate which includes both men and women will be a greater reflection of the God who is beyond all our gender distinctions.

If you believe that gendered language represents something about God which we can only point towards through that way – that the analogy of maleness is essential – then it follows from a Catholic perspective that only men can be called to the ordained ministry. It is because I believe the opposite that I think women bishops are traditional: that is, they help us to understand more deeply the very roots of the Tradition by brgining us closer to God. Women’s ordained ministry overturns a tradition as long as the Jewish food laws, which were overturned for Peter in his vision at the house of Cornelius. Something which seemed of the essence of faithful practice was revealed to be only a stage along the way, something that was now preventing rather than enabling faith.

But as Newman also points out, ‘by their fruits you shall know them’. None of us can say with absolute certainty that we know God’s will: we can only follow faithfully in what we understand.