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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Female Bishops: on not letting it go

This is the blog I did not want to write.  It is of course about the vote in Synod on women in the episcopate. 

Tuesday 20 November at 6.15pm is now one of those ‘you’ll always remember where you were when it happened’ moments. We had just come out of evensong.  At the service we had heard one of the finest of all psalms, 104: ‘O Lord how manifold are thy works: in wisdom hast thou made them all, the earth is full of thy riches’.  We had prayed for the Synod and its work.  Afterwards a group of us chatted amiably outside the Deanery gate in the dark, waiting for the result. When it came, it was a palpable shock.  We couldn’t believe it. I felt for all the female clergy and how devalued they must be feeling.  I felt for the whole church in throwing away a wonderful opportunity to enrich its ministry.
When I looked at the voting figures a few minutes later, I was baffled. The overall majority in favour was much bigger than I had dared to hope: nearly three quarters of those in the chamber. That, read against the fact that 42 out of 44 dioceses had supported it, meant that the resolution had achieved the convincing majority politicians would die for. It looked like a fair following wind (of the Spirit?) for women in the episcopate. It was only the Byzantine synodical rules of engagement that did for it.

Since then, I have had many conversations with people inside and outside the church. Inside, there is shame, anger, despair.  Outside there is incomprehension and the sense,  even among those who wish us well, that the Church of England has shot itself in the foot, lost its authority and put its role in the nation at risk.  As we can see from the quality press, it has stirred up a national debate about how fit the church is any more to fulfil that role. To quote Father Brown, it was never impossible that the vote could go down, but it would be incredible.  This is what our fellow-travellers are saying to us.  There is no answer to it.

In Tuesday’s backwash, there was an ominous symptom of attitude in the church that needs examining.  We were told that General Synod will not now meet in February but only in July 2013. This is extraordinary.  When the nation is in crisis, Parliament is summoned within days to consider it and guide those who have to make rapid decisions in life-threatening situations.  When the Church of England is in its gravest crisis for decades, the Synod postpones its next meeting and decides that it will be sufficient to meet in 8 months’ time.

This looks like a bad case of loss of nerve. It's as if we are in denial that the situation is as serious and urgent as it is.  This is how it’s being perceived in the nation. Most significant at a time of trial, it looks like a failure of governance. There is a big reputational risk here. Just when you want your governing body to be there and exercise its proper authority, it vanishes like the Cheshire Cat into the thicket not to be seen again till the sun comes out next summer. I urge the Synod to meet in the next few weeks to show both church and nation that it has noticed what is happening and is doing something about it.


‘Where are we now on women as bishops?’ I asked in a previous blog.  Actually, the same as where we were on Tuesday morning: poised to take this life-changing step with conviction, confident that theology, the nation’s zeitgeist and the will of the church are all behind us. The trouble is, the system for doing that is now discredited. It is time for reform.  Here are some of my thoughts about this.

1.  Voting by houses in the Synod should be abolished.  In an age of collaborative ministry, we are all one in the chamber.  There is no case for a system which, in an extreme example, could have a motion carried unanimously in the houses of clergy and laity but be lost by a single vote in the house of bishops.  The majority would be 95% in favour but it would still be lost in a vote by houses.

2.  W
e should overhaul the system by which laity are elected to the Synod.  Having deanery synods as the electoral college for each diocese is the weak link in the chain because not enough laity are convinced that serving on a deanery synod is a good use of their time.  This opens the way for parties and pressure-groups to exploit the system and get their adherents on to deanery synods to vote in partisan General Synod candidates.  I should like to see a universal franchise of all the laity on electoral rolls (who are already eligible under the rules to stand as candidates), just as the licensed clergy are already franchised.
3.  All candidates for election should be required to state where they currently stand on the likely big issues of their quinquennium so that the electoral colleges know what, as well as whom, they are voting in. Elected members are representatives not delegates, and they must be allowed to listen to arguments and change their minds.  But some preliminary indication is needed.

4.  The General Synod needs to be a lot more versatile and light-footed so that it can meet at short notice for a day to debate real emergencies. This is one of them. Arguments about spaces not being available are specious. Most of the nation’s cathedrals could easily accommodate such a meeting, and among them, half a dozen would be available quickly.  


Someone replied to one of my tweets: ‘just let it go; get over it’.  Well, here is why I am not letting it go, because the system that resulted in this fiasco is itself wrong.  Had a majority in the house voted against, that would have been a different matter.  I don’t have a problem with losing an argument and accepting that the organisation wants to go in a different direction – so long, that is, that the process for reaching that place is fair.  My issue today is that it isn’t.

A final thought.  I firmly believe that we shall have female bishops in our church one day, perhaps soon.  It’s not a question of whether but of when. I have a hunch that when it comes back for decision, it will be in a sharper, more convincing, more unafraid form than it did this time.  That will be a much better outcome for the future.  Tuesday’s will turn out to have been a Pyrrhic victory for those whom history will inevitably pass by. We have seen this all before, in relation to slavery, contraception and remarriage after divorce.  The church usually gets it in the end by God’s grace.  I simply want to see us get it in my lifetime. 
I pray for that, and have not lost heart.  

Saturday, 10 November 2012

An Open Letter to the next Archbishop of Canterbury

Dear Justin

So it’s official.  After weeks of speculation, and helped by Ladbrokes, we now know that you’re to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury. As your dean and colleague in Durham, I want to offer heartfelt congratulations and to promise my prayers as you begin this great journey.

I have fond memories of Coventry days when I was precentor at the Cathedral and oversaw your ordination.  You and I got to know each other a little then.  I thought at the time that you were someone with a remarkable story and rather special gifts.  You talked about your experience in the oil industry – but not much: you were too focused on being a deacon and then a priest, and too excited by the ministry that was opening up before you.

When you came to Durham last year, this was still true of you. It was moving to install you in the great bishop’s throne in our cathedral.  I almost wanted to say that I hoped its height and grandeur wouldn’t go to your head.  But I knew I had no need to tell you that. Your genuine modesty, your lack of self-importance, your wry take on the world and most of all your deep spirituality would take care of you. You were more interested in washing feet than living like a grandee as a successor of Durham’s prince-bishops. You were completely committed to being a bishop who would put God and people first.

Who would have thought that a year later you would be leaving us? I won’t deny that I feel a personal sense of loss. You have begun to be a real champion of this part of England that feels remote from the centre of things, already a very needy place before it was hit hard hit by the financial crisis. In the statement of needs that I helped write for the diocese before your appointment, we said we wanted a bishop whose heart would be in the North East (we also said we hoped the next bishop – you – would stay for several years!). Well, your heart has been with us, even when you have been in London doing the business of church and state, or overseas pursuing reconciliation in divided societies like Nigeria. It is not your fault that you have been taken from us now.

The whole world will be giving you advice as you contemplate what kind of archbishop God wants you to be.  I’m not going to add much to that: it’s not words you need right now but the knowledge that you will have wise and caring people around you to help you discern the shape of this great and awful vocation, this siege perilous.

But I can’t resist saying just this. I hope you will take with you the memory of our northern saints as you learn what it means to inhabit this office. In Durham, you are the direct successor of Aidan, founder of our diocese, and of Cuthbert in whose shrine in the Cathedral you have often prayed. In a blog earlier this year I compared Rowan Williams with Cuthbert as ‘off-beat’ bishops.  I wanted to say that a Christian leader needs to be a bit elusive, not always saying or doing the expected thing, not afraid of being surprising and keeping people guessing.
Already the public wants to pigeon-hole you: evangelical rather than catholic, pro this and against that.  You are bigger than that, as anyone who knows you will confirm.  You know that it needs great self-awareness to resist these easy either-ors. It also takes resilience and courage to be your own man in leadership.  It depends on keeping the spiritual garden watered by long and regular spells of solitariness, meditation and prayer. I know how important this is to you, to go to the heart of faith and keep it alive and fresh. I hope the pressures of high office drive you more and more in the contemplative direction which is the source of wisdom. I believe they will because your personal authenticity is so important to you. And I believe that you will surprise, inspire and delight us too.

When Donald Coggan was installed as archbishop, his secretary mis-typed ‘enthronement as ‘enthornment’.  That gave him food for thought.  The role was daunting enough then. How much more complex and demanding it is today. Who knows what the next few years will bring for our world, for our church and for you personally.  To be a bishop or an archbishop feels to me like a kind of crucifixion.  Yet Jesus wore his crown of thorns not only with dignity but also with hope for the joy that was set before him. I pray that joy and hope will be yours at the spring equinox when you come to be seated on the throne of Augustine.

So take the cup that is given you in Canterbury, and as you wonder how on earth you find yourself there, smile a little at God’s strange work, be thankful, and discover in the doing of his work that all shall be well.  

And thank you.

With affection and prayers,