Thursday, 22 November 2012

Rediscovering the Church - honesty, integrity and charity

Sometimes you know that anything you say or write about a particular subject or situation is going to be quite inadequate. The picture above is Bishop Alan Wilson's response to Tuesday's General Synod vote on women bishops. No further words were needed to express what so many have felt.

It's a terrible way for Rowan Williams to end his time as Archbishop of Canterbury. A man who is so deeply holy, wise and concerned for all people - within and without the Church - who has been so unjustly derided for actions and leadership which have been sacrificial in their costliness - is rewarded with a final defeat for all his efforts. And our Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, takes on a role in a Church which is characterised by intransigence on the part of a minority and numbness on the part of those who dared to hope we might move forward - and whose hopes are dashed.

Knee-jerk responses are unwise. But what needs to be said first is that the Church as a whole has not voted to defeat the consecration of women as bishops. 42 out of 44 dioceses of the Church of England voted in favour of this move. Within General Synod itself the House of Bishops voted almost unanimously for the motion, the House of Clergy overwhelmingly so. And the House of Laity voted by a large majority in favour of the legislation to ordain women to the epsicopate. The legislation was defeated simply because every "House" within General Synod must vote in its own right by a two-thirds majority in favour of of the motion - and the House of Laity's majority failed to attain this proportion by six votes. So disregarding the clearly-expressed recorded majorities of thousands of Anglicans in a process of several years leading to the final vote, a total of only six lay members made all the difference and defeated the resolution.

At the time of the vote I was with a group of Durham clergy in dialogue with clergy from the Diocese of London - just a few miles from Church House. We were led by Canon Stephen Cherry who has identified a basic problem in the notion of a House of Laity existing as an entity separate from Bishops and Clergy. The Laity are not in fact "non-clergy." The true understanding of the laos is that it consists of the entire body which is the holy people of God - lay and ordained. The question must be raised, just who are the House of Laity representing.

Stephen argues the case for "a single Synod." I'm not sure... There is something to be said for a system with checks and balances. But it is also obvious that these checks and balances have developed into a system for creating blockages and the thwarting of true discernment.

The answer is not - as some are saying - to ask Parliament to legislate for the Church nor to remove the Church's exemption from Equality Legislation (would they apply this to the RomanCatholic Church at the same time?). The Church must find its own way. But it needs to do so honestly and with integrity. There has been so much concern to produce legislation that would "protect" those who cannot accept the ordained ministry of women. And the end result of this process is that those who sought this legislation have voted against it anyway. Surely it is inconceivable that a process involving so much hedging-about can be envisaged for the future.

How else can there be further progress unless there is simple recognition that women - just like men - are created in the image of God? A single clause resolution that it shall be lawful to ordain a woman to the office and work of a bishop in the Church of God is all that is necessary. And then stop talking about our different genders and look to our common humanity. There will be those who are unhappy about this, but they haven't been persuaded from intransigence by legislated protection. Instead as a Church we need to resolve simply to treat each other with a charity which has so far been terribly denied.

Meanwhile as Sam Wells points out, for those who feel like giving up on the Church, then try the Kingdom: "Throw yourself into life among the least, the last, and the lost and rediscover the church there."

And lest we feel that the sinking ship picture betrays a jaded resignation by Archbishop Rowan, here's a link to his remarkable response to the outcome of the Synod vote.