Well, today the General Synod finally voted to make it possible for women to be made bishops. Which means that before too long we should be able to stop talking about “women bishops” and just talk about “bishops”.

Not everyone will be welcoming this development tonight, even if they knew it had to happen. The debate in York lasted nearly five hours and only a few speeches were off the mark (or manipulative).

The bottom line is simply that the Church of England has practised what it preaches and taken the time (lots of it…) to make a decision that keeps people together despite disagreement. It offers a model of how there is an alternative to simply cutting and running when conflict occurs.

My post-vote statement reads as follows:

I’m delighted that the General Synod has today voted in favour of the legislation that will allow women to be consecrated as bishops.

It’s been a long time coming, but that’s because the Church of England has worked hard to hold together those of contrasting views, even when those opposed were in the minority. But the wrestling has paid off and we have upheld our commitment to being a broad church.

With the guiding principles the bishops have set out, we have a process that will both fully support women bishops while providing for the flourishing of those who are still opposed, and we can now move forward in a spirit of reconciliation and trust.

I believe women bishops will have a hugely positive impact on the Church of England, and I look forward to the first consecration.

Real credit goes to the Archbishop of Canterbury who brought in a radically new way of doing Synod business and working the relationships. I am not naive – this must have involved more wrangling and diplomacy than most of us have any idea about. But, he set a new course and made possible what looked utterly impossible only twelve months ago.

The other real credit goes to the Bishop of Rochester who chaired the group that had come up with this process and solution. He exudes calm, reasonable, gracious authority, and I wonder just how vital his personality and skill have been to getting us this far so quickly and effectively.

The Archbishop of York chaired the debate with great skill and lightness of touch.

So, now the hard work begins. We have to make this work. (And we have to be patient while the legalities are worked through until the winter when action might begin to be possible.)

But, for now we can sleep in peace, knowing that today the Church did something remarkable.

 

1. Why is my fantasy league team rubbish and getting worse?

2. Why did Education Minister Michael Gove recently accuse education in Bradford of having been appalling for decades when (a) education in Bradford had been run by a government agency for the last ten years, and (b) the failed Kings Academy in Bradford is a free school – independent of the local authority, set up by Gove and accountable only to him?

3. Why did the ECB cricket selectors still send Jonathan Trott to play the Ashes series in Australia when they knew he was suffering from 'stress-related' problems?

4. Did the ECB not learn anything from the Marcus Trescothick saga?

5. What qualifications does one need to chair the board of a bank?

6. Why are some commentators incapable of understanding the difference between (a) the Church of England “voting for women bishops” (which it did years ago) and (b) the General Synod of the Church of England voting on the form of legislation to actually make it happen?

7. When will the Daily Mail accuse Ed Miliband of being behind the enslavement of three Maoist women for thirty years in Brixton?

8. Why has George Osborne suddenly changed his mind on capping pay-day lenders?

9. Who is right about the deal with Iran on nuclear development?

10. Is there a better 'live' gig than Bob Dylan (in Blackpool… last Saturday?

 

One day in the life of the General Synod of the Church of England here in London.

  • Women bishops legislation in groups
  • The naming of dioceses
  • Presidential Address by the Archbishop of York
  • Church schools
  • Review of how the General Synod works

OK, there was also some other exciting stuff in between – legislative, mostly, but also lunch.

What holds all these seemingly disconnected agenda items together? Well, they fit into the mosaic of imaginative and prophetic life and work of the Church of England at every level.

Women bishops will come to be – we are simply trying to get the best legislative way of doing it, but are also learning to behave more maturely and Christianly as we do so. This matter brings in questions of justice, ethics, theology, ecclesiology, mission and order.

Until now an English diocese could only be named after a city. So, even though the new diocese in West Yorkshire & the Dales is based regionally, it has to be named after the Bishop's see: Leeds. In future it will be possible to name a diocese after its region – as it has been for ages in other parts of the Anglican Communion. So what? Well, the change (not welcomed by all) is permissive and demonstrates a concern to see from the outside what we are about on the inside. Not an enormous change, but perhaps significant.

The Archbishop of York delivered a powerful Presidential Address in which any hint of us being 'the Conservative Party at prayer' was declared dead and buried. The scandals of poverty, homelessness and the inequities between rich and poor were cited and statistically exposed – along with references to Jim Wallis, St Francis, Pope Francis and Gustavo Guttierez inter alia. As the Archbishop of Canterbury commented on Twitter, this was a “powerful address on shocking state of UK poverty. Statistically based, ethically clear, spiritually challenging”.

Church schools are contentious and often misrepresented. They are not faith schools. They aim to serve the communities in which they are set and they need to regain confidence in their ethos and remit. This debate was not about 'schools for the sake of the church', but, rather, about 'church for the sake of schools'. There were some impressively informed and wise contributions regarding education per se and the impact good education can have on the ground. In other words, theology provided the context for consideration of the common good, good education for all and the broader development of society for which good education is vital.

Anyone with experience of the General Synod knows that business could be done differently and, probably, better. But, the aim of this is not simply to order the mechanics of our business better (as an end in itself), but to enable us to get our business out there (as an end which is better enabled if the mechanics are clearer). In other words, this isn't about internal plumbing and yet more introspective navel-gazing; it is about enabling the church to be better focused on its real mission.

So, the agenda looks a bit bitty. But, it has to do with creating a mosaic of church life and witness that works at the levels of individual commitment, congregational focus, parochial service, diocesan priority, national prophetic speech. It is held together by the vocation of the church to be grasped by a prophetic imagination – being drawn by a vision of God's character and the vocation of God's people to live for the sake of the world in which we are put. It is prophetic because it dares to engage with uncomfortable truth and the messy unclarity of human life and society whilst demanding imagination of a world that does not yet exist.

 

Yesterday morning the General Synod of the Church of England determined to agree a way of opening the episcopate to women. Then, in the afternoon debate on reorganising the three West Yorkshire dioceses, the Synod showed vision and renewed confidence in agreeing to proposals to dissolve the Dioceses of Bradford, Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds and create a new Diocese of Leeds (also to be known as West Yorkshire and the Dales).

I am not sure that the Synod quite realises what it has done.

In the morning we opened – after much hard work over the last few months – a will to find a different way of doing business in our attempt to hold together while making it possible for women to be bishops. This is really difficult. We have to find a way to allow the church to have women bishops while making provision for those who cannot agree to this (mainly for reasons of order rather than mysogeny). From the outside this looks like a no-brainer, but it is tortuously difficult in a church that bucks the cultural norm by trying to hold together rather than dividing in the interests of partisan purity. It is not easy, it it feels like we might just get there.

But, the vote to reorganise West Yorkshire and the Dales was a bit of a shock. There were some strong speeches, but in the end only six people voted against the motion. This is overwhelming – both shocking and hugely encouraging. The Synod caught the vision: the church must have the vision to change radically and take responsibility for changing itself in order better to fulfil its mission in the world. This vote has made it clear that we are up for big change and big challenge.

However, the Diocesan Synod had voted against this move. The Bishop of Wakefield spoke eloquently against it. Subsequent speeches – in which the objections were articulated and Wakefield's concerns clearly heard – led to an overwhelming vote for change.

Wakefield's concerns have been noted. They have also been articulated during the process by the other two dioceses. But, we are now in a new world. Maturity, Christian commitment and realism will compel us all to work together in order to make this transition a reality. I have no doubt that, despite positions held during the difficult last couple of years of uncertainty, the three dioceses will work together to make this new diocese come into being with the best possible chance of succeeding. We are mature Christians who put the interests of the wider world ahead of our own sentiments,

The future will be hard and complex. But, it also looks to be bright. Tonight the Church of England took change seriously.

The bishops in the General Synod have to go on a duty rota in order to make sure that the House of Bishops is always quorate. There are usually far more bishops in the chamber than the rota requires, but you do feel obliged to be there when rota'd, however 'interesting' the debate might be.

On Sunday I sat through lots of important legislation. Then we came in the late afternoon to the debate on safeguarding. Like many others here, I went into it committed to making the church a safer place – something I have tried to prioritise in the Diocese of Bradford. I thought what we were proposing was good, and certainly an improvement on the past and in the light of research and review.

But, when the Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham stood up to speak, instead of reading his proposing speech, he read first a statement by abuse survivors who were sitting in the gallery. It shone a whole new light on what we were about to do. And it was very uncomfortable to hear.

They felt that the church was acting again without letting survivors speak – which reinforced the fact that survivors are the last to be drawn in instead of the first. It was painful because it put the good things the Synod was about to do into a different perspective.

Reading the statement would not have had the same impact. Seeing the survivors sitting in the gallery while someone else spoke on their behalf turned words into drama. I was caught off-guard, as were many others. Just when we think we know what we are doing we get to see from a different angle – and we feel judged by our own blindness.

Tomorrow we get back to women bishops. I wonder if the same experience might be had – one of being surprised by looking differently at what we thought we had flogged to death.

A similar challenge will emerge in the afternoon when the Synod will vote on the proposal to dissolve three West Yorkshire dioceses and create a new one. It needs to go through – demonstrating that the church can 'do' vision, creativity, risk and change. However, if it does go through, I will face a personal challenge to all my own rhetoric: my post will go early in 2014 (probably) and we will have to work out what happens thereafter.

As I often say, it's never boring.

 

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.