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, 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

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

Why bother with General Synod?

I sometimes suspect that this question regularly crosses the mind of those charged with the day-to-day leadership of the Church of England. Most members of General Synod have relatively little to do with the church’s national life until they appear for meetings of the Synod. Then, who knows what havoc they may wreak? Like, this last week, the House of Laity refusing to co-opt the person who was wanted to chair the Dioceses Commission, but had unfortunately neglected to stand for election. From the outside it did seem to indicate a certain disdain for the relatively newly elected lay members, that none of them were judged adequate to chair the Commission.

That sort of dysfunction stems I think from a deeper confusion at the heart of General Synod. On the one hand its constitution is modelled on a parliamentary structure, with similar procedures for debating and passing legislation. But along with that sort of process comes the assumption of opposition. A motion that is to be debated has to be constructed around some being for, others against. So when there’s something genuinely divisive, debate has to polarise: there is no real process for seeking compromise or consensus. When an item of business is non-controversial, the pretence of debate is faintly farcical.

But a Synod is not a parliament: members are not elected as representatives of one party or another (though you might not know it from the way groups form in Synod). More significantly, Synod should not be a parliament: its aim should be to find a way forward together, not to enforce the will of the majority.

And that’s why we should bother with General Synod: because we really need a place which brings together all members of the Church across the various diversities: those who represent the life of the parishes along with those who spend their days in the national institutions; bishops clergy and laity all having a voice and a vote; those from the whole rainbow of church tradition. We should bother with Synod because of the ways in which it fails to live up to that purpose, as well as the ways in which it does.

The last thing anyone should wish (though it might make things more ‘efficient’) would be to take the decision making powers away from Synod. The pressures and irritations that everyone feels, from different perspectives, should be the agenda for reform.