By Rev Simon Taylor (updated 28.11.2012)
Don’t you lot know what you believe! It seems the the Church of England has failed in recent decades to communicate or impart depth in terms of doctrinal understanding. Whether people agree with the decisions to date or not; the issue is not only about church order; it is about doctrine. Doctrine cannot exist in an ivory-tower. It has real impact and real repercussions. If it did not then we would have no need for a doctrine of salvation, what happened on the Cross or the unique power of the Name of Jesus Christ. The project of the Church is too important to be left to sound-bites…hence the length of these two documents! Perhaps a wake up call to some Christians is to think through with greater clarity what faith means in active terms. It may be that one corrective from all this is that more Christians will read more of Scripture with greater hunger for its meaning and discuss their questions with greater openess.
The vote was a somehow ‘affected’. People may not comprehend how synodical governance of the Church of England works. To show just imprtant this is you have to know some history. Clergy and bishop counsels were held from the 800s AD. Synodical governance (a church version of a Parliament) in some form goes back to at least the 13thC in England. A counsel was where clergy gave advice to bishops compared to a convocation (which Synod is today) where clergy (and now laity) give consent to Bishops regarding decisions. Synod does not hold a disciplinary role: this is held by each bishop and the church ‘court’.
The bishops should impose their will or change how the voting works. Unlike other forms of govenment, a Synod is about not being a top-down church but about consent and advice. In the 1820s-1870s Parliament began passing so many church laws (an average of 25 a year) that people became concerned about the impression this gave regarding the Church of England and doctrinal decision-making. A concern developed that this was defining acceptable belief (called Erastianism: the political theory of State supremacy over Church). The role of Synod was explored and the idea of ‘via-media’, or the Anglican ‘middle-way’ of church and state was reinforced (compared to absolute-church papacy). In 1886 the non-ordained (Laity) began to be involved. In 1909 a new lay group was created for Synod: bishops, clergy, laity. It created three houses with counsel and consent roles. This was looked at again in 1919, 1969, 1970 and amended in 2003 through Acts of Parliament. A high bar of 2/3rd majority vote was set. The issues being discussed are more important than just changing the voting system.
Who is in the House of Laity; are they representative? People join the lay-house of Synod by being elected. Every diocese has people who are voted for locally based on an election-hustings. In Guilfdford Diocese the 2010 elections were closely contested. After appointment they are there to pray, discern and make decisions as they see best. Members are not meant to be one-trick ponies but Christians(!) and they may find themselves making decisions (such as recently?) which surprise even them. There are over 200 representatives from across England, plus 2 people from religious Orders, then 3 from the armed forces and 2 more from The Church Estate.
All voting is by single transferrable vote. STV is the method recommended in politics (and not used) by the Electoral Reform Society. To ‘fix’ the election, using STV, of over 1/3rd of members from across England in over 40 diocesan locations would be quite a feat. Those involved in Diocesan structures know that the Church of England is quite well versed in sometimes lack of joined up ability! ‘Fixing’ may be possible, but probable and Christian?
The laity didn’t do what we wanted and this is painful Who is ‘we’? Politicans? Women? Men? Clergy? Bishops? Those who voted for rmembers to Synod? It does seem a strange thing to say, but even though most people want women to be bishops, maybe there is something Protestant and Church of England about the laity saying to bishops ‘not yet; not without another look at the documentation’. Yes it is painful. It is a total mess. There are hurt people all over the place. We seem to have people implying that as women voted against the measure they have betrayed women. Conversely, there appears to be a sense of triumph from some quarters but this is profoundly ill-judged. Language of this nature seems to belong in other spheres of life rather than Christ’s Church.
Next time the legislation will give less to those who have concerns. There will be a next time and it will probably come quite quickly. 2015 at the latest. It might give less care for conservative evangelicals and anglo catholics but it may be that everyone sits down and works something else out. It may be that dominance gives way to complements. It might be everyone takes a deep breath and realises that a solution has got to be found. It may be that the three ‘groups’ listen with new ears.
Why couldn’t the legislation have given free-range to male bishops across diocesan boundaries? This is what people wanted. It depends, in part, on your view of Christian Justice. If Justice is equality then to have an hint of lack of possibility for women bishops would be an injustice of God. If God’s Justice is contained primarily in the redemptive action of Christ on the Cross then you have greater leeway in exploring what Justice may look like in practical situations. It also depends on your view of what are called parallel episcopates.
To allow a man to oversee ministry where a woman would otherwise have juristiction is an injustice to some, but an expression of justice to others. What seems to have been the sticking point though was the word ‘respect’. A female bishop was to be asked to respect the request of a parish for alternative oversight. It occurs in some form already and has been in the rules since 1992. Some people appear to have been concerned that ‘respect’ fell short of an undertaking and cited situations elsewhere as examples of concerns. They may have misunderstood that governance, the authority of bishops and other issues are different in England than some places. For others, asking a female bishop to respect co-authority would mean lack of apostolic authoity. It would create a second-class bishop and a completely different idea of something called epsicope (ministry of a bishop). This is a very short so slightly stereotyped precis of two complex issues but this is the essense of that being grappled with by those in Synod.
Now we have a men only group in Parliament (ie House of Lords) Perhaps it is time to look at the ideology of an institutional, established Church. That is a different issue but is is more complex than people may think. A Constitutional Established Church, Monarchy and Parliament which has evolved over many centuies is not unpickable but it is more complex than a decison made on a single moment. For Christians it means a question has to be asked whether a dis-established situation would also be a default to secular-humanism. It may be something of a pandora’s box of questions but one which will not doubt have its day in discussion. There are different views on the subject.
“Get with the project” A leading politician from one party (but similar quotes could be taken from other parties on Question Time) appears to have suggested that there is ‘a project’. It is an attractive and inviting statement but it may miss one point. The Church of England will probably have women bishops in a short space of time but for an organisation with continuity from Christ (depending on your view of Catholic links) short-time frames may be out of step with political expediency. The Church of England is not a political party but one expression of the visible and invisible eternal communion of the saints. It is about election to eternity rather than political election.
You Christians can sort nothing out. Though not necessarily reported as such; the debates and vote were conducted with grace toward people. In my view it was a model of living Christian witness. If nations and other groups could work like this the World would be a better place. Christ was in the midst of the Synod.
Quick fix. Society expects quick fixes yet Christianity holds to a view called ‘Reception’. Reception is about how a significant theological view is tested, viewed and brought into the life of God’s Church. Reception does not allow for anything which is contrary to Scripture. It means things have to be shared and prayed through. Reception in Christianity is not about a single vote or even a decade. God’s timing is often longer than anything we can imagine. We are to offer a corrective to people who put ‘myself, my rights, my interests, my timing’ first and point to God’s perspective.
Irrelevant church. One of the things being talked about in the media is the cultural relevance of the church. Relevance is not the reason for doing anything in a church. Yes, it is good to connect and be relevant but if relevance is the benchmark then we will simply be imitators of cultural patterns. Christianity has a history of confronting and societal norms from slavery through to lack of care for the sick to absence of education.
Rejected women? The Church of England has not rejected women bishops. The first person I saw interviewed after the vote was the leader of the Anglo-Catholic group. I paraphrase, but he essentially said: Right, so now we sit down with everyone and work out how we do get this through.
Only a few people (6 to be precise) blocked everyone else having their way. No. This is misuse of numbers. Six fewer than were required in one of the voting groups thought things were right to move forward with at this time. Others voted the same across all three voting groups but in the non-ordained group this was significant enough to make the difference.
This is not democratic. Why should a few people have the deciding vote against? It is more democratic than other places. The Church of England has deliberately decided that a 2/3rds majority is needed across the board so that only things that everyone is satisfied with move forward. There is a fascinating article on this at www.anglican-mainstream.net/2012/11/22/mr-speaker-guides-labour-mps-on-church-of-england-equality/
The Church of England has laid itself open to equality laws. Some might be shocked that religion is exempt but let us turn this on its head: it leads to a government defining religious belief; that which is acceptable and the bits that do not fit.
There will not be women bishops. This is a misunderstanding of the vote. It is inevitable there will be bishops who are female because there are clergy who are female. This was addressed in the 1970s and 1990s. There is no theological reason for having female priests who are not then to be bishops. The vote was really about how the Church of England accepts the historic, respected, widely accepted perspectives outlined earlier. Enough people did not think that we as Christians were giving enough care for brothers and sisters in Christ that they were saying ‘no’ to it.
Why doesn’t the CofE just say ‘goodbye’ to ‘those’ people? Well, some of them will be in Busbridge and Hambledon church. It is not the Christian way: this is how non-Christians may behave by segregating but we are called to live together in harmony. It isn’t a theory. It is a Christian command. Another reason we have not said ‘goodbye’ is because this is not what is called a ‘first order’ issue. First order issues are those that affect whether we are sinless and redeemed people. Second order issues tend to be about church governance and ‘order’. It is more towards a first order issue for those of the Anglo-Catholic view because they would tend to say that in Communion there are special things going on regarding our forgiveness. It is a second order issue for everyone else.
What if the government legislates? It may do. What a message that would send. It would be strange to see such a situation in the same year that Christians have had reassurance after reassurance that the Church will never have to conduct same sex ‘marriages’.
Where next? There will be female bishops. This will be a welcome development for some but for other Christians with deeply held conviction based on Scripture this will be difficult.
The Bible is irrelevant or subjective then? No. It shows how important accurate, right reading of Scripture is. There is a world of difference between looking into the Bible to discern God’s overarching pattern and distancing one-self from Scripture because it is a difficult read.
Women lost. Men won. This would be use the language of supremacy, winners, losers, the adversarial… if you listen to the wise people of the Church you will hear them talking about ‘healing, pain, sadness, hope’. There were no winners or losers. If there were it would be a contest or a political environment.
Where does Simon stand on this? Men and women are different. The difference is primarily for mutuality within the marriage relationship and an expression of the completeness of God. There is nothing in Scripture which prevents women exercising leading roles. The issue of women in leadership is a second order one. It does not impinge on holiness or sin. The issue at hand has nothing to do with the validity or integrity of Scripture. Accepting women as bishops is not a pathway to reducing the importance of the Bible so that other issues may creep in.
What concerns me is a notion that we really must have women bishops to be culturally relevant and that this will somehow connect church with society. Relevance to me is about closeness to the Lord: how relevant am I to God’s design on my life and my soul? If we live and walk this form of relevance then others will say ‘how did you work that one out as a church?’ We are a church of reconciliation and welcome – and this is a prime example of a time to live it.
Watching the media and political response; I am interested to see if we are entering a new phase where government begins to dictate into the situation and that assurances given about other issues hold validity.