The forecast was awful, but the reality turned out nice. The weather in York, that is. Yesterday's torrential rain gave way this morning to blue skies and a big yellow thing in the sky. If yesterday reflected the mood of people arriving for the General Synod, today shines a different light into our concerns… despite all the shouty 'noises off'.
I spoke with a journalist recently who suggested that we arrive at Synod, keep behind our battle lines, then start arguing about sex and women. The reality is a little less dramatic, hugely less violent, and considerably more interesting. This morning, for example, we met in 40 groups of a dozen people for worship, Bible study, discussion and thinking. The conversation in my group led my thinking towards the 'debate-everyone-is-waiting-for-and-shouting-about': women bishops. What follows isn't a dig or a pretence at a solution, just a suggestive reflection derived from the reading we were looking at.
In John 18 Jesus has prayed for the unity of his 'body'. (Presumably, he included Judas the betrayer, Peter the denier, and Thomas the doubter in this.) He then waits with his feckless friends in the garden of olive trees – olives being destined for crushing if the life is to flow from them for the nurture of others. What is remarkable is that Jesus, having taken considerable time to pray and think, now waits for the moment of truth (literally). Three things struck me about him in John's description of this most agonising moment:
- Jesus was in control of himself. In modern psychospeak he was 'centred'. Judas, the religious authorities and the Roman soldiers might think they are in control of him, but they don't see that they have no power over him. He knows, he owns what is to happen, he chooses to be here and nowhere else. They can kill him, but that's all.
- He didn't play the victim. Contentious church debates too often revolve around emotive language and hierarchies of victimhood. This gets us nowhere. If some circles cannot be squared, someone is going to be 'hurt'. Someone is always going to be hurt when decisions are made about anything of any import. But the decisions need to be made without accusations rooted in perceptions of victimhood. We then move on and take responsibility for what we do in the light of those decisions.
- He didn't blame anyone else. He didn't start throwing olive stones at the guards. He took responsibility upon himself and refused to blame others for the situation in which he found himself or the decisions he was now bound to take.
This applies today because too much talk is about perceived (even if not intended) threat. The synod needs to take stock, make its decisions and then see where we go from there. There will be both positive and negative consequences whatever we decide in relation to the women bishops legislation. But we need to eschew the language of blame, of victimhood and of threat, if we want to connect this morning's Bible study with Monday's synodical debate.
Anyway, today has also involved a good debate about engagement with the wider church in the world and how to encourage even more links with other provinces, dioceses, parishes and sister churches. Among the many fringe lunches, I went to hear more about the Near Neighbours scheme at work in several of our cities. The afternoon was taken up with legal matters relating to money, Europe and the Church Commissioners. I had a good hour with the excellent German ecumenical guest before dinner with the Children's Society and an evening on the ecclesiology of Fresh Expressions.
In other words, most of what we are doing here is not about women bishops or sex and there is little conflict about. Contrary to popular reportage or assumption, the church is facing outwards and looking at its engagement with the many worlds that make up the world. Monday will come – with all its immense challenges – but so will Tuesday. And Wednesday. Life will carry on, new challenges and opportunities will present themselves, new conflicts will emerge and new alliances be forged. And God will still be God, the church will still be Christ's, and our Christian vocation will not have changed.