Well, would you believe it? A whole day at the General Synod in York without bishops being on the agenda. (Don't worry, Monday's coming.)

The mission of the Church of England makes it essential for us to open the door to women bishops – although there now seems to be a greater determination in the Synod itself to get it right rather than to get it quick. Yet, today we debate matters that affect the lives of huge numbers of people in the communities our churches are called to serve and reach in the name of Christ: (a) safeguarding (following up the Chichester commissaries' reports), and (b) welfare reform and the church.

Naturally, our appetites will be whetted by worship in York Minster in the morning and some wonderful legislative material in the early afternoon: The Faculty Jurisdiction Rules 2013 and other stuff I am not even going to begin to describe. All important, but, in some way, opening the door to the heavy debates later.

The Church of England is determined to be transparent regarding safeguarding matters. There is determination in these papers to face the historic problem and make sure abuse or grooming cannot happen again. No complacency or illusions, but real determination. It has to be a good thing, surely, that more survivors of abuse are feeling able to come forward – even if this causes institutions like the church massive embarrassment, humiliation, reputational damage and loss of moral authority.

Indeed, when I spoke to a group of young leaders in Ilkley last week, one young woman put it to me that the church had forfeited any moral authority because of such scandals – a charge I took very seriously. I hope this will be the start of a conversation about 'moral authority' and what legitimises ethical comment and judgement.

Welfare reform is causing misery and devastation in many of our communities. I have written on this many times before now. Suspend your ideologies and political allegiances for one minute and it becomes possible to see the effects of the cuts (as, if you like, observable phenomena) aside from justifications or condemnations.

The numbers of people using food banks is growing by the day. These are not 'skivers' or 'scroungers' or people whose “chaotic lives (not shortage of cash) cause parents to send their children to school without breakfast” – as Education Secretary Michael Gove put it so generously last week. Meanwhile the misrepresentation by the powerful of poor people continues unabated.

The Synod will debate these matters not in order to boost its self-referential credibility or its self-justifying sense of righteousness. It will debate these matters on behalf of those whose voice is not heard and whose plight is too often ignored or misrepresented. And it will do so because of a biblical mandate to “open your mouth for the dumb” (Proverbs 31:8-9) and because Jesus said/did things that were good news for poor people and bad news for the cushioned rich.

The church can do no other than articulate what it sees and experiences every day. Synod brings together the stories and the analysis and places a magnifying glass over both. Not for the sake of the church – just for the sake of those whose life is tough.

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.

Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.

 

I had a bit of déjà-vu today. Meeting with an outside facilitator at the General Synod in small groups of around 20 reminded me of the indaba groups at the 2008 Lambeth Conference. And then, as now, people excluded from the conversations complained about 'secrecy' – clearly unable to distinguish between sinister scheming in the shadows and private conversations.

Sometimes people need to create the space in which to have a different sort of conversation than the ones normally conducted in public. When the General Synod comes to re-ignite the women bishops process, it clearly needs to begin in a different place from where it ended last November.

One of the problems for the Synod is that it is shaped by parliamentary models that are essentially adversarial, charging debates with a win-lose goal. This (a) means that parties establish and bolster their line before the debate and (b) leaves no room for individuals to change their mind on an issue in the course of an informed debate. It isn't a healthy way for the church to discern and shape its future.

The culture change requested by the Archbishop of Canterbury in his Presidential Address yesterday clearly needs to begin here.

So, today we met in groups and explored the experiences of the failed process of the last twelve years (and last November in particular), asking what might be learned for the process going forward. In my group we were honest, frank, respectful and, I think, courageous in facing reality. It has been an intense, but helpful day in general. And at least we weren't asked to do role-play…

Behind the emotive questions about experience and perceptions, however, there lurks a really hard question: can this circle actually be squared? Is it possible for the church to have bishops who are bishops who are bishops – rather than some bishops (female) who are, however politely expressed, less episcopal than other bishops? Is it possible to discriminate and not discriminate at the same time? Can a yes be simultaneously a no?

In one sense, we live by paradoxes, and a way through this conundrum should be detectable. At the moment it is not clear where this way might be found. And some think it is now time to be clear and honest about what is possible, what is achievable, and what might be regrettably necessary. This is a debate between a vision of a clear church with clear lines and identities… and a fuzzy church that can live with inadequacy and mess.

The beauty of indaba and what we did today is simply that it offers the space in which honest conversation can happen and we don't have to be watching over our shoulders to see how what is ventured might be reported. I can't yet see how we can square the circles regarding women bishops; but, I do think November's shock and today's process have a chance of creating a refreshed culture in which the sensitive issues can be addressed with humility, generosity and greater clarity.

We will see in Monday's debate if any difference has been made. I hope so.

 

Does the Church of England need a revolution or, a somewhat slower process, reformation?

Last year the General Synod met under bad-tempered black clouds and constant heavy rain. This year we meet under blazing sun and constant complaints about the heat. Welcome to England.

The Synod began yesterday with mainly routine business interrupted only by the new Archbishop of Canterbury’s first Presidential Address. He looked the Synod – and its wider audience – in the eye and called for a revolution in what we preoccupy ourselves with, how we behave with one another, and what we prioritise under our ‘theologies’.

I wondered whether his repeated use of the word ‘revolution’ was a deliberate substitute for the more commonly referred-to ‘reformation’.

The church likes the idea of reformation. It takes generations. It also sounds nostalgic – taking us back to a time when things were simpler and the church more pure. Utter nonsense, of course.

In asking for a revolution, the Archbishop is stressing both urgency and realism. Not just in matters of sexuality does the church need to speed up, sharpen up and look up. He got huge applause yesterday – deserved for the boldness and clarity of his call. We will now see if his call has been heeded… or if it is business as usual with Synod parties demanding their own ‘rights’ over against those of others.

In my humble opinion, and as we go into small facilitated groups to address (again) the matter of how to allow for women bishops, we need a revolution in some things and reformation in others. Indeed, reformation might be the outcome of processes including the odd revolution.

We shall see.

Here goes. The General Synod has begun in York.

And it is hot. Not in terms of debate (yet), but in terms of sun.

The agenda will now run. Hours of Saturday in groups working on the women bishops matter. Monday is the big day: women bishops in the morning and the Diocese Commission Scheme to dissolve three West Yorkshire dioceses and create a single new one.

As always, the challenge to the Synod is to hold before it the wide vision of the Kingdom of God while attending to the detail of legislation and our closer (vested?) interests. I recall again the line from the Glaubensrepublik Deutschland book mentioned in previous posts:

Hope is the gift to hear amid the cacophanies of the present the music of the future.

This morning the Bradford Diocesan Synod – in a secret ballot – voted 90-4 in favour of the Dioceses Commission scheme to create a single new diocese for West Yorkshire and the Dales. We had an excellent debate in which people were visionary, responsible, realistic and prophetic: it was inspiring to listen to. The negatives were aired alongside the positives, but courageous vision is how I would describe the vote.

Ripon & Leeds voted in favour. Wakefield voted against. Now it goes to the Archbishop of York for a decision as to whether the wider needs of the Church of England should demand that the changes be put to the General Synod anyway. They should.

Here is the text of my (so-called) Presidential Address to the Synod this morning:

PRESIDENTIAL ADDRESS

One of the Old Testament pithy sayings I often quote is the line from Proverbs 29: “Without a vision the people perish”. The truth of the saying is not in doubt. Any group of people that has no vision toward which they live and work – and for which they might sacrifice much – will not survive for long. It is the common purpose – the commonly held sense of direction – that holds them faithful while all around them changes and threatens and wobbles.

No wonder, then, that a common vision is hard to hold on to and sometimes hard to identify in the first place. After all, a ‘vision’ can be made up of lots of fine-sounding words; but then more words have to be found – and agreed upon – that establish the strategy – the ‘how will we get there?’ stuff – for making the vision a reality. And there lies the real challenge. For any vision that can only be realized in the long term lies open to being thwarted by immediate or short-term realities that can easily distract from the agreed goal.

So, although we might all agree with the fine-sounding line from Proverbs, we then find ourselves in some difficulty trying to formulate precisely which vision and strategy should be adopted. In one sense, we need to be grasped by a vision – having our imagination and will captivated by it – rather than us simply trying to dredge one up.

This is pertinent when we look at the matters before us on our agenda today. What sometimes looks obvious and clear from a distance becomes more complex and demanding the closer we get to actually making a decision. But, let’s put the more ‘domestic’ matters in perspective before getting into the substance of the options before us.

A month ago I travelled to Sudan for my first visit to our link dioceses there. Linda and I spent just over a week meeting people and being introduced to the place, the people, the church, the history and the politics of the country. I posted eight blogs from Sudan while we were there, but tried to be careful about what I wrote and how I wrote it. As I learned from my decade-long links with Zimbabwe, it is all too easy to salve my western conscience by ‘speaking out’ about what is going on there, whilst thereby only making life even more difficult for those people who pay the price for my ‘prophetic’ utterances. Since returning, I have been clear that any response from me and us must be guided by those who will live with the consequences. Accordingly, I am in contact with Ezekiel, Bishop of Khartoum, about the daily realities, checking our perceptions with him, and being guided about what to do at this end. (And there was a debate in the House of Lords on Wednesday this week, sponsored by Baroness Cox, into which our experience and analysis was fed via the Bishop of Exeter.)

What is increasingly apparent is that President Bashir’s government is engaged in ethnic cleansing of Africans. It is further clear that they want a single nation (Sudan) of a single race (Arabs) with a single language (Arabic) caught up in a single religion (Islam). Although complex, the direction – the ‘vision’, if you like – is clear; and it is not good for Africans – Muslim or Christian. We need to bear this in mind daily as we pray for our brothers and sisters in Sudan, as we interpret the news we hear, as we consider how to respond, and as we continue to give of our wealth to house and feed those who have nothing.

Such support also comes form strange sources. I was speaking at an ecumenical conference in Hannover, Germany, a couple of weeks ago and agreed to stay on and preach at an international service on the Sunday morning. The organisers pressed me about where to direct the offering, which normally amounts to around €150 and in the end I suggested our Kadugli Appeal, which so far has raised around £100,000. The offering came to just short of €600 and will arrive in our accounts soon.

I tell you this partly to assure you that when I am on business away from Bradford, I am also working for Bradford and telling our story beyond our borders. The conference in Hannover was established by both Roman Catholics and Protestants in the Hannover-Hildesheim region and attracted 1300 delegates to look seriously at how the church in Germany must change if it is to grow and reach a new generation. Fresh Expressions is something they have latched on to and they are keen to learn from the Church of England about our successes, our failures and our vision. Of course, listening through German ears compels me to examine the perspectives I have in England and in Bradford – which is never entirely comfortable, but does inform priorities and action.

(I will be in Germany again in May, along with some clergy and lay people form the Diocese of Bradford. The Kirchentag attracts around 120,000 ‘full-timers’ and a total of around 300,000 people over the four days. I will be doing various things, but my principle responsibility will be to preach at the outdoor closing service to a congregation of between 100-120,000 people. This will also be televised nationally on German TV. This is a privilege for an Englishman, great for the Church of England, and a shameless propagation of Bradford in Europe. Pray for me… and for those who have to decipher my German.)

I have been accompanying and observing the German Church’s reform process since 2007 when I was invited to the launch of the process in Wittenberg, birthplace of the Reformation in 1517. Although the cultures are different in many respects, watching the management of change in the EKD has been informative at a time when we are looking at significant change in the Church of England. I will refer here to two matters.

First, the matter of admitting women bishops to the episcopate. I don’t intend to rehearse here the events of July or November in the General Synod. Suffice it to say that anyone who comes up with a simple rationale for the failure of the legislation in the House of Laity has almost certainly got it wrong. The reasons for the failure are many and they are complicated – especially when you realize that it failed (in terms of votes) because enough people who want women bishops didn’t want them in the manner prescribed by that form of legislation. Vision and means again.

Since November facilitated conversations have been going on between different parties and the House of Bishops discussed these developments at our meeting in early February. Several options emerged and these will be worked on to see if there might be sufficient support for a form of legislation to be recommended by the House of Bishops in May for initial debate at the General Synod in York in July.

It is less clear to me than it is to others that this will happen. The current mantra is ‘simplicity with security’, which, it seems to me, ignores the fact that the search for ‘security’ militates against ‘simplicity’ – which is how we got to where we were in November in the first place. Anyway, an enormous amount of work is going on in order to see if a way forward can be found informally that will subsequently bear the weight of any legislation that might follow. Watch this space.

But, if agreeing on how to have women bishops is tough, we in West Yorkshire and the Dales face a challenge much closer to home. I hope to speak to this in the debate later, but will only do so if the points I wish to make have not already been made by others.

The challenge before us looks simple: we all agree we need to change, but what that change should look like – and how it should be brought about – is not obvious to everyone. The Dioceses Commission did not dream up their proposals because they had nothing better to do with their time or imagination. Look at the numbers for the three dioceses and, whatever the rhetoric from some quarters, they are, broadly speaking, heading south. If the proposals for a single diocese with an area system do not offer better mission and growth potential, then it should be obvious that current arrangements do not offer an alternative. One way or another there has to be change in the way we organize, ‘do church’ and reach out in this part of the world.

The problem comes, of course, when we ask what that change should look like. That will be the matter debated later. The Bishop’s Council has agreed that we vote in a secret ballot in order to ensure that everyone is free to make their own mind up. The method for doing so will be outlined immediately prior to the debate. Please note that our vote today is in principle – and although a considerable amount of coordinated work has gone on within and between the three dioceses already in order to flesh out realities and potentials, costs and benefits, making any changed arrangement a reality will depend solely on the will, determination, imagination and vision of those involved.

So, if you vote for this scheme, you commit to taking responsibility for making change work; if, however, you vote against, you need to ask yourself what you are, in fact, now voting for. No structure, old or new, will of itself deliver anything. Today is a challenge to our vision for the good news of Jesus Christ in West Yorkshire and the Dales, our courage in facing change, our faith in God and one another, and our realism about the challenge before us.

The writer of the proverb I cited earlier got it right: without a vision the people perish. (Although ‘perishing’ can take many forms…) But, to confound Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, not ‘any dream will do’. Our vision must be faithful and bold, realistic and achievable, godly and honourable. However we vote – and you do not need to be reminded here of my support for the scheme, especially as I am probably one of the few to have worked an effective area scheme (Southwark/Croydon) – we need to do so prayerfully, with confidence and with a clear recognition that the status quo is not an option, that we will direct change or it will drive us.

As Joshua heard before entering new and unknown territory: “Be bold, be strong, for the Lord your God is with you.”

The latest moves by the Church of England in the long-running drive to open the episcopate to women as well as men will, I hope, be encouraging. The process is vital and cannot be rushed; but, this is being progressed as swiftly as possible.

The statement following yesterday's meeting of the House of Bishops as Lambeth Palace is here.

The consultation document published today is here.

 

One week on from the General Synod's vote on women bishops and the story has fallen off the radar of most of the media. The sound and fury has moved on – for the time being, at least – to the next batch of 'stories'.

Here in Vienna I have been asked by people from all faiths and from all over the globe about what happened. I have been rather surprised by the sympathy offered! It has also offered an opportunity to try to explain how the Church of England works – not easy in any language. But, even here it was a matter of curiosity rather than concern or passion. (Although two people from two different countries asked what credibility our politicians have when they couldn't manage to reform the House of Lords – i.e. themselves – and have questionable electoral democratic legitimacy… which I thought was interesting.)

The big story occupying the media mind now is the publication of the Leveson report on Thursday. As with the announcement of the name of the next Archbishop of Canterbury, and with the General Synod's vote on women bishops, we can't imply wait for a fact to be revealed; no, we fill our time and energy with speculation, pre-judgement and attempts to head off outcomes that might just make us feel a bit wobbly. Patience is not a virtue valued by a 24 hour media monster hungry for any sort of feeding.

Well, I couldn't find any mention (in my cursory digital search of the UK media) of the good news that last night saw leading Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus from across the globe sitting together at the launch of a new International Centre for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue in Vienna. Religion is frequently portrayed as the source of a host of problems in the world; images of genuinely warm relations between religious leaders clearly isn't news. It doesn't fit the 'conflict narrative'.

Yet, last night was genuinely remarkable – even to veterans of the international interfaith circus. At the Hofburg we listened to sharp speeches by (among others) the Foreign Ministers of Saudi Arabia, Spain and Austria; the Chief Rabbi of Moscow, the head of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue at the Vatican, the President of the Muslim World League, the Ecumenical Patriarch, and the Secretary General of the United Nations. They didn't duck the challenges and they mostly said something worth listening to.

It is easy to take for granted a warm handshake between a Saudi minister, a Chief Rabbi and a Cardinal, but just a few years ago such an image would have been unthinkable.

Now it isn't even worthy of a mention in the news.

I am not moaning about this – just pointing it out as a phenomenon. If anything, I guess I think we just ought to be a little more media literate – just as some of us wish the media were a little more religion literate. So, when Leveson reports on Thursday we should be a little cautious about the special pleading of the press when they find their integrity questioned and their trustworthiness doubted. The preemptive strikes are almost embarrassing – best satirised in Roy Greenslade's Guardian column today.

An intelligent debate about press freedom (and associated matters) would be really welcome. But, I am not holding my breath. Too much self-interest, too much self-protection, too much special pleading – not unique to the press, but powerful factors nonetheless.

Oh well. I'll just get back to good news stories about religious harmony and cooperation. This morning I had breakfast with a Jewish academic, a Muslim statesman and a Shinto priest. How weird is that?

Back to Blighty tomorrow.

 

I only did a brief and rather disconnected speech in the debate on women bishops at the Church of England's General Synod last Tuesday. In it I reminded Synod that when we think of the ecumenical impact of our decision we needed to consider not only the Roman Catholic Church, but also the other churches (particularly) in Europe. I didn't have time to expand, but would like to have done.

However, I did ask the Synod to get real when making silly statements about the Church of England “not having the authority” to do what we were doing. (a) If the Synod and Church has no authority, what are they doing sitting on the Synod in the first place? (b) if I really believed this, I couldn't be an Anglican in the first place. Despite all the fantasy special pleading, our orders are not recognised by Rome and our 'church' is a mere 'ecclesial community'. That's the inescapable bottom line. (c) If those who say they truly believe in 'headship' actually do so, then why didn't they do what the male heads of the Church were leading them to do?

OK, not exactly knock-down arguments for the consecration of women as bishops, but they open up arguments that were not properly aired during the debate itself. Sometimes we are just too polite.

This morning, having spent yesterday doing what the Church of England does every day – in parishes, in local communities, in meetings that don't lose focus on what we are here for – I returned to a quick scan of the media.

Naturally, politicians are shouting loudly about how to sort the Church of England out. Apparently, we shouldn't be listened to any longer on moral issues because of this. And we should be disestablished.

Well, there are good arguments to be had about both those matters, but the sheer illogicality of some of the stuff would, in any other context, be screamingly funny. For a start, we have politicians elected (in some cases) by a fraction of the electorate indignantly telling the Church off for only managing to muster 90%+ of the bishops, nearly 80% of the clergy, 64% of the laity, and 42 out of 44 dioceses behind the cause of women bishops.

How about, before we listen to another politician, we couple – in any political discussion – potential disestablishment of the Church of England with a demand that every MP can only sit in Parliament if positively elected by 50% (I am feeling generous) of the electorate in his other constituency. Electoral legitimacy in a democracy also needs attention paid to it.

The point is basically this: the Church of England has not rejected women bishops – the House of Laity of the General Synod has. The Church of England has massively and overwhelmingly approved not only the principle, but the process. The only question now is how to find the right wording to make law that makes this a reality.

We failed this time, but I hope those who are bitterly disappointed and disillusioned will (a) aim at the right target, (b) turn disappointment (and, in some cases, exhaustion) into determination, and (c) be clear and boringly repetitive, especially with other politicians and journalists/commentators, that the Church has not rejected women bishops.

After all, it isn't just the Church that needs to get real.

(On the good news front, the General Synod looks positively coherent in comparison with Chelsea FC who yesterday hired a Liverpool reject as their latest messiah. Ahem…)

Well, yesterday's General Synod debate on women bishops ended with the Measure failing in the House of Laity. It all came down to six votes. The Bishops and Clergy voted strongly for it and so did 62% of the House of Laity. Three quarters of the Synod voted in the same direction as the diocesan synods. Those who – for whatever reason – voted against will now have to account for this back in their diocese. The mind of the Church of England has not been reflected by the General Synod. Shock and outrage are being expressed widely.

During the debate we heard a lot about the need to talk – as if no talking had been done during the last twelve years. 'Not being agreed with' got translated into 'not been listened to'. There was fantasy about some simple magic bullet just awaiting us around the next corner. The reality is a shambles in which a small minority swung a key decision away from the majority view of the Synod and the wider church.

What this means, I guess, is that generous compromise will be harder to achieve when this comes back – as it surely will. And, as the Archbishop of Canterbury said in his statement to the Synod this morning, this whole business has raised questions about synodical processes as well as posing enormous challenges to the church in trying to explain what we have just done and why we did it.

Similar questions would apply even if the vote had gone the other way.

But, let's get real. This is not the end of the world and we need to confidently (!) get on with what the church does in its 16,000 parishes while not being debilitated by the vote yesterday. The story continues…

Here is my script from this morning’s Chris Evans Show on BBC Radio 2. I met Michael Buble in the studio – which was nice – and then did my stuff as follows. But, I had to drop the second line of the song quote, so will add it at the end!

I’ve been on the road recently and you know what it’s like when you spend hours on trains – you can only read so much and then your mind begins to wander. Randomly sometimes. Well, I was coming back from Germany last Sunday and was reading a pile of stuff, all of which sort of suggested that the world was about to end. And then, somewhere in the murky depths of my memory, the line of a song poked up:

The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun…*

It was the Beautiful South some years ago in a snarly little song called ‘One God’. But, you can understand the sentiment – the world’s turned plastic!

At some point every generation thinks it might be the last. Relatively minor issues take on ultimate importance and we can’t conceive of life continuing differently. Well, maybe it’s time for a bit of perspective. For example, when I was younger, and getting very excited about some issues, I learned to ask myself this question: in the context of the entire history of the entire universe, does this matter? Clearly, not everything did. When I was a vicar in Leicestershire I used to baptise in a Norman font – which had been used for a thousand years – and we would drink Communion wine from a chalice that had been used for nearly 500 years. Through wars and Reformation and disasters and all the stuff of the world and so on.

And guess what? Life carried on.

I am in London because the General Synod votes today on whether or not to allow women to be bishops. Some are saying that it will be a disaster if we do… and a disaster if we don’t. But, whichever way it goes, it won’t be the end of the world – whatever people say as they raise the emotional stakes. Wednesday will surely come; the sun will rise; we will still be here; life will carry on; and, hopefully, one day, the Beautiful South will cheer up and re-form to prove it.

[*”The world won’t end in darkness, it’ll end in family fun / with Coca Cola clouds behind a Big Mac sun.”]