Women bishops: a view, an analysis and a reflection

Yesterday evening at about 6.20 I was poised outside Kennington tube station. I was on my way out for the evening and furiously refreshed twitter to bring me the results of General Synod’s vote on allowing women bishops. As soon as I saw the numbers my heart sank. I knew 134 was not twice 74, down to six votes in the House of Laity the measure fell and it was decided women would not become bishops in the Church of England any time soon.

All evening I kept half an eye on twitter and getting in past midnight started reading through the comments, blogs, news articles and more posts on facebook expressing distress bordering on outrage at the decision. And here’s what I have, firstly a view I kept out of Monday’s post, followed by an analysis of what the vote means, and finally a reflection.

A VIEW

I wanted the General Synod to support the measure to allow women bishops. Part of the reason I kept quiet was because it is not my church and I do not want to tell another church how to do their business. I was also aware of friends in the Church of England who do not agree with women in positions of church authority.

As I descended underground and out of twitter’s reach a sadness dwelt in me deeper and more profound than I had expected. This was not a technical decision or an abstract theological debate. This was a choice to marginalise the ministry of many. I also cannot agree that this was a vote in favour of unity over division: around 7 per cent of parishes would opt out of the episcopal authority of a woman, this decision helped those groupings stay within the church, but it alienated a far larger number who saw the settled will of the Church of England as supporting women bishops. Unity is not maintained by changing nothing. A small blocking minority cannot be the guarantors of unity.

One final view point, I utterly reject the labels being placed on the Church of England by commentators in the press and politicians in parliament. They are seeking to hoist the church onto a petard they devise through a litany of pejorative labels. It is not the role of the church to succumb to every popular pressure, and were it the right thing to do, I would completely support a measure that saw the church become more unpopular in the eyes of the world. However, this is not such a move.

AN ANALYSIS

Ultimately I think those opposed to women bishops, the Anglo-Catholics and those labelled as conservative evangelical (a label I will not use because it suggests such a view is a necessary feature of conservative evangelicalism), will lose out because of yesterday’s decision. They won the vote yesterday and some of their glee at protecting their protectionism was deeply unedifying, but if they think this has solved their problems I suspect they will need a strong cup of coffee.

Those making this point in the Synod debate sounded a little threatening but once I stood back and analysed the likely trajectory of this issue I was inclined to agree. The way and margin by which they won, as well as the overwhelming support for women bishops from the leadership of the Church of England, means the result will cause a large amount of resentment for the way a tiny, and I think it is fair to describe 7 per cent of parishes as tiny, part of the church has blocked a decision which in principle has been agreed. What is most distressing from an external perspective, and which makes me most likely to see the governing structures as not fit for purpose, is that a view taken and agreed by the church cannot be implemented.

After the introduction of women priests, and because of the direct impact it had on them, those who opposed women as either priests or bishops, and wanted assurance their theological convictions would be respected got organised and ran for synod, in 2010 it was reported they had a blocking minority in the House of Laity. Perhaps because of the wider view of the church and the general public this was not given serious consideration, but it was evidenced last night as true. This present vote will galvanise supporters of women bishops, and I suspect especially those from evangelical churches who have largely ignored the structures of the central church because they have been busy doing local parish ministry.

We will likely not reach the point we were at yesterday for about five years, in 2015 when the next elections for synod take place I expect a vibrant campaign in favour of women bishops, and then an expedited process to bring the matter to a final vote once again. And here is where I think those celebrating today should take careful stock of the situation. For many supporters of women bishops the delegated authority which a woman bishop would have to provide was a slight on her status and an indication that she was a second class bishop. There is no guarantee that a future measure would have the same strength of protection, or the same good will among the church to accommodate, those opposing women bishops.

It may be that item 501 was the high point for the provision of those unable to accept women in church authority.

A REFLECTION

But step back for a moment from the politics of the decision, try if you can to soothe the sores caused by rejection.

We don’t live for a kingdom defined by titles and preference. We don’t serve a king elected by popular mandate or blocked by a dissenting highly organised minority. As a contributor said yesterday in the debate, we don’t serve a God who went for bronze, silver or gold, we serve a God who went for wood and nails. I don’t know who @batesjen26 is, but saw this tweeted this morning:

The life of the church will go on. As a non-conformist that might be an easy thing for me to say. There will be worship to God that inspires and encourages, there will be teaching that uplifts and educates. There will be service that humbles and cares, and leadership that stoops low to avoid being cut down. And it will be done by women in the same way as men.

The value that we give to people should not be defined by the labels they wear or the office they hold. I believe that today more than any other we must remember those who serve without ever seeking promotion. This is less about the delayed ordering of female purple clerical vestments, and far more about what it says to women and girls, as well as men and boys, about the value we endow each other with. It also cannot be easy for those committed to a church that seems incapable to carrying out a decision it long ago determined as the right course to take. But while the governance of the church may be in crisis the work it is doing in cities, towns and villages across the country continues to thrive.

Today we pray. Today and tomorrow we love one another and seek to love more those for whom it comes hardest.

50 shades of purple – should women be bishops?

Sometime conflict is essential. Sometimes it is even healthy. It can lead to better solutions, and in the debate and discussion it can occasionally bring people together. I blogged last week about the conflict in Gaza, as well as the way it was reflected on twitter. Hot on the heels of this conflagration comes another, this time a little closer to home and thankfully without violence.

Tomorrow the Church of England General Synod decides whether women can become bishops. I wasn’t going to get drawn into the conversation, I didn’t want to be just another voice either calling for one thing or another, or join the chorus of drowned out pleas for peace and good will.

I’ve been a part of churches where women are encouraged to be full part of every area of ministry. And I’ve been in others where certain roles are considered to be the preserve of men alone. I’ve also been in churches which said one thing in theory and the practice looked very different. And to top all that one of the most revolutionary moments in the life of the church I grew up in as a child was the decision that women didn’t have to cover their heads in meetings. That was over twenty years ago.

I’m also not a part of the Church of England, for just under a year I was part of a Church of England church, but I never settled and the bits I liked least about it were the few times it adhered to it’s more Anglican aspects.

The combination of this background, an aversion to arguments, and the fact I work for an organisation that represents churches on both sides of the debate helped me keep my thoughts to myself.

This isn’t really about the question of whether women should become bishops, and the debate tomorrow isn’t either – although if you chose to tune in you will certainly here their proponents vocally making the case. There is a strong majority within the Church of England backing the move so the question at the heart of the measure to be decided is how to allow women to the episcopate while ensuring that those who have theological objections to women holding positions of church authority are able to continue with good conscience in the church.

The problem is both groups think they are right.

And that’s where arguments and discussion, and the most delicate of negotiations fall down. Because those who want women to be bishops see this as an issue of justice, of fairness, of faithfulness to scripture, and those who don’t cite the biblical arguments with equal abandon. It does little for the way the world looks at the church, and more importantly, little for the words we say for the authority, clarity and perspicuity of scripture.

There are two arguments put forward, one for equality and one for difference between the genders. Those two don’t have to contradict, in fact I would fully subscribe to both. They are therefore canards in this debate. Both claim that they are right, and moreover that they have divine backing for their views. This is a route that gets dangerous pretty quickly.

The challenge facing the Church of England is whether they are prepared to work to sustain a broad church with bishops, clergy and congregations who hold significantly different understandings not only of the role of women but their understanding of scripture. Because while this is the presenting issue it is not the only division within the church. Nor is it that those opposing the change are the only ones that take scripture seriously, many backers of women bishops would argue that it is their opponents who misuse the texts they quote to support their backing of the status quo.

If the unity of the Church of England is vital then it is important for all those who disagree to give ground and accept that for a solution to be found that succeeds in maintaining unity no one is going to get everything they want. But that’s life. It really is. If you bring any group of people together to work at a common cause there is a need for compromise and negotiation. The difficulty in the church is that for so long it has been a recluse of unity from a world of divergence. It has clustered closer and closer around what it agrees on and lost sight of the many differences that are conveniently ignored.

I pray that the church would be as one. And be as one so that world would believe. I pray that the Church of England, and the wider church, will make it through their deliberations and the fallout, however it may fall, with a commitment to work together for the sake of the gospel. And to be honest, you could have skipped the rest of this post because that is all that really matters.