Last week I agreed to provide the Times with a statement in response to questions about the future of the Church of England in the face of its current debates (plural). The intention was to offer a wider perspective from which to view where we have got to. It was intended for publication before the ‘women bishops’ debate, but was posted on Ruth Gledhill’s blog today. As agreed, she published it in full – and I am grateful. Had I written it today, I might have done it differently – in the light of what actually happened – so I will follow the quoted statement with further observations. Here is the statement:
The church does not need to be saved – other than in a theological sense. The current debates are happening because, rather than being indifferent, Anglicans take theology and church order seriously. Contrary to some opinions, this is not an unhealthy thing to do openly.
It is clear that the Church wants to be able to appoint women bishops. It is the duty of all bishops to seek the unity of the church and it is this attempt that is proving difficult. If the circle proves itself incapable of being squared, then the church will have to make painful decisions. However, it will then do so in the light of having explored every option – which is what pastoral leadership is all about.
The Church of England is unique in being reformed and catholic, and it is this ‘stretch’ that both gives it its unique breadth and greatest challenge. In a culture of fragmentation and selfishness, it also offers the possibility of modelling how, despite the real tensions, a community of difference can hold together. After all, Jesus called his disciples and didn’t give them a veto over who else could join them: their witness was in how they followed Jesus together, and not in their forced unanimity. Nothing has changed.
In this, as in other contentious matters, we will argue our cases, make our decisions and then move on. This generation is not unique in facing difficult judgements, so we should not get current debates out of proportion: no ‘crisis’ is ultimate. As with other issues, we engage with the realities of people’s lives and society’s challenges and changes; but the role of the church is not simply to ‘go with the flow’ of the wider world, but to question and challenge and, sometimes, appear stubborn. That will not change either – in relation to political issues, economic praxis or priorities, social movement or moral norms.
Fundamentally, the Church of England is rooted in a theology of resurrection. Endings are never the end. It is Christ’s church and we are called to remember this whenever we think it all depends on us. However, if things get even tougher, we will still wake up in the morning, take a breath and get on with the business from where we then find ourselves. This is not novel, but neither is it boring.
The confident leadership the church has had thus far – and will continue to need in the future – will be rooted in a perspective such as that cited above. Such leadership needs to know when to speak and when to be silent, when to act and when to remain still… but always to pray. There is no reason why the church should not grow in confidence in the years to come, but this makes sense because of my final point…
Look at (a) any General Synod agenda and (b) what ordinary Christians are doing in and through their parish churches and institutions and it becomes clear that the issues that dominate the media do not dominate every waking moment of ordinary Anglicans. On the contrary, links with parishes and dioceses abroad, social action at local and regional level, deep commitment to children and young people in education, imaginative and creative outreach and evangelism – all these things go on every day, with the most vulnerable people in our society cared for, spoken for and supported… without being trumpeted. Only two contentious issues hit the media headlines while 99% of our service, concern and activity does not. Life will carry on.
Where we are now is this. The House of Bishops, which had been asked to be clear about the status of women in the episcopate whilst making proper provision for those opposed, had attempted to do so – and ended up pleasing no one (apparently). However, their role in amending the Measure was what the church requires of its bishops – who were trying in good faith to square a circle that no one else has managed to square thus far. The response was anticipated by some, but not by most. The response itself demanded further attention be given to the matter. Adjourning the debate was clearly the best outcome, but it still leaves the original question unanswered: how are we to satisfy two conflicting demands in a single legal clause? Simply dropping the offending amendment will not of itself resolve the issue as it is highly likely that the unamended Measure would still be defeated in the House of Laity on the grounds that inadequate protection was being offered to those opposed to women bishops. (And it is worth noting that ten or a dozen dioceses that voted for the draft legislation also passed following motions to this effect.)
We need to draw breath, look at it again, receive advice on how others might see the circle being squared, then return to it in November as a synod. But, we should be cuatious about responses such as that in the Guardian which stated that the Synod had ‘thrown out the bishops’ amendment’. It hadn’t. And returning with the same amendment is one of several options if no better way can be found to resolve the matter. It is to be hoped, of course, that a better way (or wording) might be found in the coming weeks or months.
However, behind all this it is important to remember that painful as all this is – to everyone – its outcome does not change the resurrection or the vocation of the church to live in the light of the resurrection every day. And in that light I, personally, pray we will open the way for women in the episcopate as soon as possible.