Women Bishops: Something of a Response

Only a hermit would not have seen the sad news that the General Synod of the Church of England narrowly failed this past Tuesday to get the required two-thirds majority across all of its constituent houses (bishops, clergy, and laity) to pass the legislation allowing women to be consecrated as bishops.  Sometimes I wish I was a hermit.

But what of the aftermath and what do we make of the various and often vitriolic responses, both from within and from outside the institutional church?  If I am honest, while I wholeheartedly empathise with the very real sense of hurt and shame, I am as embarrassed by the responses coming particularly from within those within the church as I am by the failed majority.  This is partly to do with a lack of Christian charity but more crucially with the almost complete absence of theological reflection.  Here are a few illustrative points:

1.  'God weeps'.  I heard one immediate response by one former member of General Synod that the rain immediately outside of the Church House should have reflected tears of joy but turned out to be tears of sorrow from heaven.  The failed majority clearly causes immense pain, both to men and women in favour of the motion.  Yet, to imagine that a successful majority would have only proved an occasion for joy is myopic and misleading.  Whatever the result, men and women would have experienced hurt, rejection, and pain.  More importantly, whoever they would have been, they would have been our Christian brothers and sisters.  The Church certainly has its fair and often acrimonious share of political manouvering; it has always been so.  To imagine, however, that the Church is simply about one faction gaining power or ascendancy, with one absolute right and one absolute wrong, is to ignore Paul's idea that we are all drawn as members of the Body of Christ.  We cannot say 'you are not wanted or needed', just as the eye cannot say to the hand 'I have no need of you'.

2. 'The vote is a suicide note'.  I have heard several members of General Synod and news commentators now repeat this refrain.  As terribly sad as the events turned out, this simply is a falsehood.  The Church is not simply one managerial public body amongst others trying to gain respectability and general favour.  With talk of lost credibility and being out of touch with popular opinion, we betray an absolute lack of trust in the Holy Spirit as well as one another in all of our quotidian acts of love and service in our communities.  The vote embarrasses, and does in certain regards and circles damage credibility.  Yet, the One who calls is faithful and continues His call to service and communion.

3.  'The Church is misogynist'.  On one level, this is horribly true, especially historically.  Among other groups, women have been and still are in some instances faced with terrible prejudice.  On another level, however, it is also patently false.  St Paul biblically reflects this ambivalence: in one context, he forbids women from teaching, but in others proclaims the eternal truth that, in Christ, there is no male or female as all are equal in Christ.  We are faced with an unsustainable anomaly in the Church of England: women serve faithfully as lay members, deacons, and priests, and are celebrated by many because they reflect Christ.  The Church depends upon, and is enriched by, the ministry of women, as it always has been.  The failed vote reflects perhaps a degree of misogyny in a minority, more often theological reservations about the language of equal rights when we should rather talk about vocations as unwarranted gifts from God (whether you are a man or a woman), and even more often concerns about how to keep the unity to which Christ calls us before His death.  While misogyny must be rooted out of our common life, no-one has a right to any vocation: the Church is not a business and the episcopacy is not a boardroom.  We also must see as seriously as the call of women to ordained ministry Christ's very clear command to be one as He and the Father are one.

4.  'The House of Laity is unrepresentative and unfit for service.  Those who voted against should be held accountable in public'  I have a great deal of sympathy here: undoubtedly, certain interest groups lobbied hard and supported the election of men and women who would vote against the motion.  Yet, we have to take seriously two things: first, that these people were elected, and so did represent those people who cared enough to participate in the process of General Synod (so here, I blame apathetic liberals like myself for the failure on Tuesday more than those who bothered to caucus and turn up); second, that the vote of the House of Laity clearly shows that the conservative and active lay constituency are far from clear or persuaded (for whatever sets of reasons) that women can or should become bishops.  The latter is a hard reality to hear: the Church of England, as an Established Church, has to take seriously both wider society but also the faithful communicants, and there probably is a dichotomy between these two kinds of voices.  Finally, the idea that those who voted against should be named (as they will be) and shamed (as some will undoubtedly try) remains a vile and nasty idea akin to a witch-hunt.  Such a culture does not reflect the generosity I grew up with, and it does not reflect the repeated but unheeded call to take each other seriously and listen to one another, both godly calls.

5.  'I am thinking long and hard about leaving ministry and the Church.'  We are called in baptism to the service of God not to an idyllic or perfect community, but to broken places and in our broken selves to ring out the Good News.  Be faithful as the One who calls is faithful.  Have faith, have trust, and have hope.  Not easy, not always pleasant, but we all share this calling.  Let's walk together on the broken road and find that narrow way to God.

I have no idea what the way forward is, but Christ guides us on that way.  May the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, heal and guard our hearts and minds.