Thursday, November 22, 2012

Angry Bishops

The Archbishop of Canterbury is obviously furious that Synod rejected the Women Bishops legislation. You could hear it in his voice yesterday morning. It certainly came across when, bidding farewell to Bishop Peter Price, he mentioned that Bishop Peter was one of “an uncertain future” having been trained at Oak Hill Theological College. It was a bad joke from the usually courteous archbishop at the expense of one of the speakers in Tuesday’s debate. The speaker (I’m sorry but I didn’t get her name) made reference to conservative Evangelical students who are obviously very fearful that their views – indeed they themselves – might not have a future in the Church of England. I suppose really the joke was at the expense of those students. It shows just how bad things have got.

The Archbishop’s anger is understandable. He genuinely wanted this because he thought it would send the right message about what the church believes about God. He also thought it would send the right message to the many women who have served the church as priests, deacons and deaconesses for generations – that they were valued and appreciated. A “No” vote at this final stage obviously sent the opposite signal to the world and to women in general and to those in ministry in particular.

Alarmingly, the bishops seem to have completely failed to grasp that they must take their share of the responsibility for all this. Whatever outsiders think, there is no one on the General Synod who wanted this outcome. All were hopeful that legislation allowing the ordination of women would have passed that final hurdle on Tuesday; yes, even the Catholic Group and Reform wanted that. The legislation failed not because anybody was trying to stop women bishops; it failed because it was poor legislation – at least in the eyes of those who voted against it.

I listened to nearly all the debate on Tuesday (isn’t the internet amazing?) and I was struck by how much it was a debate of the deaf. The number of times those against the legislation said that the provision for traditional Catholics and conservative Evangelicals was insufficient was matched (and probably exceeded) by the number of times bishops and senior clergy told them that the provision was quite sufficient.  Well, who is to say what is sufficient, those asking for provision or those supplying it? I have a picture in my head of someone going to an old fashioned petrol station, asking for enough petrol to get from London to Manchester  and being told that he could have enough to get him to Birmingham and that that would be sufficient.

The truth is the Bishops knew they were not offering what was asked for. Conservatives and traditionalists (how I hate those labels) have been fond of saying that they haven’t been listened to, but I don’t think that is really true. I think the Bishops knew that it wasn’t enough but hadn’t got the guts to tell the truth: this isn’t enough but we can’t give you anymore. To his credit, Archbishop Rowan got closest to such an admission.

So why had we got to this place? How was it that on the final day of a process that had taken twelve years – yes twelve years – the fundamental problem had not been resolved? Actually, it wasn’t just the fundamental question, it was the only question. Looked at from this point of view it seems fairly obvious to me that it is the Bishops who must take responsibility for what happened on Tuesday. I am astonished that, so far, not one of them has been prepared to admit that. Perhaps when their anger has died down they will have clearer insight.

I am not going to suggest a way forward - I haven’t got a clue - but I would like to offer one insight: Throughout this process the Bishops have been seen, indeed may even have seen themselves as honest brokers between the liberals, Catholics and Evangelicals. The trouble with this dynamic is that it has disguised the fact that the Bishops themselves have had strongly held views on the issue and they are quite unrepresentative – as Tuesday’s vote shows. There is, for example, not one conservative Evangelical amongst them.

The Bishop of Manchester’s closing speech on Tuesday evening was revealing. He said that the House of Bishops had, from the outset of the whole process refused to consider any proposal which would fundamentally change the structures of the Church of England. I suspect that by doing that they had turned their backs on the only way out of this impasse!

But what is clear is that the Bishops are not the mediators. Perhaps we have come to the point where only truly independent mediation will do.  

Monday, November 19, 2012

Women Bishops: A response to the Dean of Durham

In February this year Michael Sadgrove wrote a piece on his blog encouraging Synod to vote "Yes" for Women Bishops. His piece can be found here:

1975 and all that

Michael Sadgrove taught me when I was a young seminarian – and he a young teacher – at Salisbury and Wells. This is important for two reasons. I want him and you, the reader to know that I love Michael as a student will love his teacher. And this teaching was not just confined to his discipline within the College; he, as much as anyone has, taught me about priesthood, about Christianity, indeed, about being human. So whatever I write here, I write in response to a dearly loved teacher and brother.

The second reason why it is important that you know that he, Michael (ordained in 1975) was instrumental in my priestly formation (ordained in 1983) is to do with those dates. At the end of his piece he wrote:

Anyone ordained with me or after me knows that our church is committed to the journey of integrating women fully into all the orders of ministry.  No-one ordained after 1975 can say that the church has 'changed its mind'. 

Well, obviously, I was Ordained after Michael and I have to say that I am still happy to say that the Church (of England) has changed its mind.

Michael writes of his Bishop telling the young ordinand on the eve of his ordination that the Church of England’s stated position was that there was no theological objection to the ordination of women. The clear implication of what the Bishop was saying was that no one should be ordained into the ministry of the Church of England unless he agreed with that Synod resolution.

Now, I am sure that the Bishop thought so; I am equally sure that Michael believed him. But ten years before the final Synod decision to ordain women to the priesthood, I can assure you, dear reader, that I and many like me believed that Synod Resolution to be a mere theologoumenon which most certainly did not bind me. Whoever heard of General Synod claiming to be infallible in matters of faith? How could this Church, which claimed to have no other faith or ministry than that of the Church Universal, claim to believe something which the universal church did not. So, nine years after that Synod resolution of 1975, I was given Priestly Orders, firmly believing that women could not receive them. I did not and do not believe I was a disloyal Anglican on that account; nor do I remember any of my pastors or teachers suggesting that to me. 

You might, dear reader, suspect that my memory is flawed. You might believe that in the early eighties all were warning that no young man should be ordained if he held onto such out of date ideas. But subsequent history suggests that this is not the case. When eventually General Synod passed legislation allowing women to be ordained as priests, it also passed an Act of Synod which would ensure that those who did not believe that women could receive Holy Orders (a gift to the whole Church, not just to the C of E) might still continue to have an “honoured and respected” place in the Church. To that end the Act of Synod allowed the consecration of Bishops (the Provincial Episcopal Visitors, for example) who would continue in that tradition. From then until now the PEVs and other Bishops have continued to ordain men who did not themselves believe that women could be priests. This fact does not match Michael’s telling of the story.

Whatever his Bishop might have thought on the eve of Michael’s ordination, that was not the view of the entire Church of England in 1975, in 1983 or even on the day the first Women were ordained priest in 1994. Only subsequently have some come to believe that there is no place for “traditionalists” in the future Church of England.

His and Hers

Michael loves images, poetry, metaphor and he treats us to an image here, the image of a line on a Cathedral floor. 

Michael tells us that the line drawn on the floor of Durham Cathedral marks the point beyond which women could not go in the medieval monastery.

This line had no more significance than those symbols on public lavatories which require us to check whether we are wearing skirts or trousers. It acknowledges that there is a difference between the sexes and it is not always appropriate for them to mix. However much we have  changed our ideas on this subject, recent  public demand that men and women are not housed in the same hospital ward remind us that, perhaps, we have not changed that much.

In Michael’s fertile imagination this line becomes the symbol of male oppression of women. He invites pilgrims to the Cathedral to

Think about the walls of partition that still exist in our world: divisions due to religious difference, ethnicity, privilege, gender, sexual orientation.  And I invite them to think too about the differences that still exist in our church.

But, I have to say, the symbol does not work. The line does not prevent women having access to the Holy. It merely refuses them access to the monks. Far from being the line on a battle field, it is like the “SILENCE” notice in a library. We need rules for things to work properly: monasteries and libraries alike. Rules are not always oppressive. The line on the Cathedral floor is not like a “Blacks only” sign; it is simply a “Please do not distract the monks” sign.

Women in the Church

I know well that some women feel that the church is an oppressive institution. They feel that an all male episcopacy is a symbol of that oppression. So when Michael compares this issue to the defining issue of the early Church: whether and how Gentiles be made welcome, one cannot but be moved. This, I think is the heart of his argument:

In the early church, circumcision was not a but the defining issue.  Breaking down this wall of partition was the most fundamental issue the church faced.  It posed the questions: what kind of church are we? Who is welcome here?  What kind of gospel do we proclaim? What kind of God do we worship?

So, on to the question of whether women may be admitted to the Epicopacy:

I believe that we must do this not just for the sake of our mission to our society; nor just for the sake of our women priests, to whose ministry we all owe so much. We need to demonstrate to ourselves that we believe what we believe, and that our vision of the gospel is not less universal and generous than the New Testament’s, and that our theological vision and the courage of our convictions are equal to St Paul’s.  

Powerful stuff! 

I do not agree, of course. I do not believe that the line which does not allow women to receive Priestly or Episcopal Orders is the same as allowing gentiles into the Church or blacks on a bus, but given that Michael – and many others – do, I can understand that this has become a first order question. I never want to underestimate the seriousness of that cry.
But yet! But yet, I do still have huge problems with all this. If this is the first order issue that Michael and others believe it to be, this is a question for the Universal Church. At the moment, by far the biggest part of that Church does not believe (and has not ever believed) that it is possible for women to receive Holy Orders. Whatever that resolution of 1975 may have said, it is still, even now, at best, a mere theologoumenon; a matter of opinion. And however strongly that opinion is held, it cannot be said to be the mind of the Church.
And yet! And yet, I have come to the view that this is something worth running with. Yes, “Let’s do it!” It is worth testing this out. Let’s find out whether this is of God; but let us be clear! The Church of England has no ministry which is not the ministry of the Universal Church and until the mind of the Universal Church is clear, this cannot be seen to be anything other than an important experiment.


One thing that completely puzzles me is the attitude to “provision”. It seems to me that both the present legislation and Michael’s piece want to enshrine misogyny into law.
I am not a misogynist. I actually prefer to have a woman GP (they listen better). The best Archdeacon I ever had was a woman. I am happy for a woman to cut my hair! I do not dislike women and certainly I do not object to women caring for me! Please believe this; it is really important! I do NOT want to be “looked after” by a man rather than by a woman; not in church, not in hospital, not in the barbers. 

The present legislation seems to offer care for misogynists. That is so utterly wrong.

(I’m getting cross now – can you tell?)

What it does not offer, and what traditional Anglicans want, is sacramental assurance. You see – and I thought Michael would get this – what is needed is not a man but a validly ordained priest and validly ordained bishops. Until the Universal Church accepts this new understanding of its Ministry, it remains provisional. 

If the entire ministry of the Church of England is to have this provisionality about it – that is to say, if we do not build into its future ministry guarantees that we will continue to find there the historic three-fold ministry as the Church of England has received it – I am not at all sure that that church can seriously claim to be a part of the whole Church at all.

The 1975 Synod was NOT the Council of Jerusalem. The 1992 Synod wasn’t either and nor will this week’s Synod be. Until that “Council moment” comes, Anglican Churches really need to be quite humble about this hopeful experiment.

It is, as they say, an Ecumenical matter!