Saturday, 17 July 2010

'Don't panic...' (+Oxon)

Some years ago, at Lee Abbey someone asked me over lunch, 'Would you serve under a woman bishop?' What did I answer? I suppose the question was posed at the time when the subject first came up at the Church of England's General Synod. Deceptively simple, it is of course a highly complex question. It's much more than, 'Are you a male chauvinist?' It's more about the nature of 'authority' in the church. What a bishop is. Where do the Church's ideas come from? What finally matters in the Church's life?
Well, now it's come up again in a rather messy episode of synodical government. It so happens that this week we've been reading about ancient Israel's demand for a king. "Now appoint for us a king to judge us like all the nations," they demand of Samuel, who's not overimpressed. In his view God is already their king and this is tantamount to rejecting Him. God seems to take it in His stride, but tells Samuel to warn them what it'll be like having a king. And Samuel spares no details, as he paints an unprepossessing picture. "No!" they say, "but there shall be a king over us, that we also may be like all the nations...."

What struck me about this incident was not so much the desire to have a king, but to 'be like all the nations'. It's long seemed to me a dubious principle that the Church should be 'like everyone else', more specifically that its power-structures should be modelled on other institutions. In fact I thought Jesus said the opposite: 'It shall not be so among you.' But the Church has almost throughout its history imitated the power structures of the world. Bishops sit on 'thrones' (cathedra - hence cathedrals), archbishops are enthroned; bishops wear robes scarcely less fabulous than the Queen; they march in processions - all trappings of sovereignty. With the 20th century and universal suffrage, the C of E comes up with a pale imitation of Parliamentary democracy, with synodical government and its precursors. And I find myself wondering whether this is not the Church of Christ yearning to be 'like everyone else', and barking up entirely the wrong tree. Because of course it's not only the church I grew up and served in that models itself on secular patterns. Churches are run by committees and men or women in suits - or jeans and pink shirts; or like family-run firms; or multi-national corporations; or celebrity fan-clubs.... 

'It shall not be so among you.' A priest swears 'canonical obedience' to his or her bishop - wow! That sounds positively feudal. (Thankfully there's an additional conscience clause: 'in all things lawful'.) Votes in Synod determine doctrine and practice - thoroughly democratic.

I don't know about the rights and wrongs of women bishops. But I was very sad to hear the news that the Archbishops' proposal to put legal safeguards in place to protect those who in conscience cannot accept the validity or authority of women bishops was rejected in synod by a margin of 5 among the clergy (although accepted by the majority of bishops and lay people). I don't know what the archbishops' view of women bishops is, but I don't imagine they're opposed. But here was a proposal of pastoral grace put forward by two godly and wise leaders, and it was rejected. It felt like the ancient Jewish elders saying to Samuel, the wise old prophet, 'No, but we will be like all the nations. We will have it all our own way.' It was interesting that afterwards those who defended the decision talked in terms of rights, and equality, and glass ceilings - the language so often heard in political debate.

My disquiet over the outcome of that vote, the triumph of legalism over grace, was mitigated by the commentary on the Samuel incident in our Closer to God notes, such as: 'When we put ourselves under God's sovereignty..., he will  show his goodness even as a result of our worst choices' (Tuesday); 'Those that seek authority eagerly are often not the right ones to hold it' (Wednesday); 'There are times when we, too, will feel uncertain about the decisions that other Christians have made. The challenge for us, as for Samuel, will be to pray and to encourage, rather than to condemn' (Friday, Andrew Marsden).  

So why did I answer, 'No,' to my Lee Abbey interrogator? As the soap cliché has it, 'Well, it's complicated'! But it's always seemed to me that the power of the Christian faith has derived from the Bible, plainly understood. Tyndale wanted to translate the Bible into English so that "If God spare my life, before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!" and was martyred for his pains. It's the plain meaning, not the abstruse meaning accessible only to those in the know, with which the Spirit convicts and converts people. It's the plain meaning which provides a reliable foundation for ethics. That's not to say an unintelligent cherry-picking of proof texts is to be our guide, but we have to beware of ignoring the Bible's unfolding teaching. It is clear to me that the Bible doesn't relegate women to a second-class status. From the beginning men and women are equally valued and both are in the image of God. Jesus includes women among his disciples and friends. Paul is clear that there are no distinctions of gender, class or race in God's kingdom.

So what's my problem? Well, it seems that there remains complementarity of roles in the Church family just as in human families. There aren't first- and second-class members of a family. There are certainly different giftings, and different roles, and different characters - but there's a normative structure. And that seems to me the source of its stability. There are different roles with differing responsibilities. Sometimes a mother may have to take over a father's responsibilities - as is beginning with Jane and me - and sometimes a father will have to take on a mother's role - as Jozanne has painfully discovered while watching Dave struggle with Nicole's pony-tails! But hard cases never make good laws. Exceptions don't turn into rules. 'Headship' is a role, not a position of superiority.

Much of our difficulty, it seems to me, comes from our feudal model of church, where bishops are Lords - as indeed they should officially be addressed ("My Lord Bishop"). It must not be so with you.... whoever wants to be great among must become a servant. That is so impossibly radical that it's hard to get our head round. But it rings true. I suspect you see more of God's kingdom in the faithfully praying 80-year old and in the clear-sighted curate than anywhere else in the church. Our problem is that we think the 'top job' is the best paid and most important. Jesus said the opposite.

I'm wondering whether the dear old C of E is a hopeless case. I don't mean individual churches; I mean the hierarchical institution. The Bishop of Oxford tells those of us who may be thinking of leaving 'not to panic'. Well, my Lord, I'm not panicing - just thinking. Just looking....


  1. Dangerous questions young man. Have you read what happened to Neil Cole when he asked a dangerous question? See

    Mary W

  2. Thanks for the young! But steady on, Mary... What's a church? Where Jesus is present. That's a tough one.

  3. PS Mary, we're going to New Wine again. RU?

  4. As Gamaliel would say, "Watch this space." :)

  5. Touché, Anita. Though the fact that something happens doesn't of itself make it right, does it?

  6. Reply 1. Hmm.Does His presence alone make church? After all 'where can I flee from His presence...if I make my bed in hell he is there'.He is building His church. What is He building?
    Reply 2. No NW for us this year. But I hope it's a great time for you.


  7. I'm tempted to say that explains it then to Reply 1! It's certainly reassuring. I think he's building a family.
    Sorry we shan't see you.

  8. Hello Michael,
    To reply to your comment of yesterday "Though the fact that something happens doesn't of itself make it right, does it?" yes, of course. Gamaliel's comment was Gamaliel's, not an authorial, inspired comment. Church history is full of things that succeeded, which shouldn't have, and to resist which would have been of God.
    Of course, if I had been an Anglican clergywoman, I would probably have dozens of ideas on how I could run my diocese better (probably all highly presumptuous ones!) and would be so sad to think I could never be a bishop because of my gender. But I am not an Anglican clergywoman, so am observing this battle with no emotional investment.
    On another note, Roy and I loved your blog, and have got hold of your book. I have read most of it today, and was so impressed with your fortitude, humour, and faith.
    It is a beautiful and inspiring book.