Monday, 26 November 2012

Reflections in the light of day

© National Geographic
The Church of God usually deals with a rather long time-frame. Last week the Church of England met the temporality of politics in which "a week is a long time", including a number of politicians pontificating (an activity usually reserved for popes) about its affairs and issuing thinly veiled threats against it in view of its recent inexplicable entry into madness, as its failure to agree about women bishops was regarded. Even the Prime Minister upbraided it to get "with the programme" - though I wonder whether he had actually read, let alone understood, the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure [item 501] - or if 99% of the MPs had for that matter. (I'm sure he'd have approved to the reference to civil partners in it, if he had.) It must be frustrating for governments, once they have devolved powers to a body, to find them being used in an uncongenial way. But, as the saying goes, as you make your bed, so you must lie on it.

However there you go. The media, including the blogosphere, have had a field day. Even my small last piece had an extraordinary circulation, which I am at a bit of a loss to account for. It seems it may have provided first aid for some of the women, not least priests, who were reeling from the blow that Tuesday had inflicted. It was, I must say, a long week for me, and though I longed to move on I kept chewing the matter and the debate over. This post might, I think, be an attempt to find some sort of resolution in my own mind, so that tomorrow I can back to business as normal.

I was surprised to find that my disappointment over the vote was not shared by everyone. I think at least one of our local clergy thought the measure was not sufficiently clearly defined, and therefore didn't offer enough protection for conscientious objectors. Perhaps if the Code of Practice which every diocesan bishop would have been required to draw up to “respect” the sincere requests of parishes and vicars who found themselves unable to accept the ministry of a woman bishop had been clarified beforehand (or at least the minimum requirements of a code) rather than the simple obligation to have a code, some of the fears might have been allayed. My listening to the debate, however, revealed that a lot of the argument was about the principle (or doctrine) of women in church leadership, which had already been agreed upon, rather than about the practicality of safeguarding the "traditionalists". I do understand that in fact producing specific safeguards is easier proposed than achieved. A previous attempt was felt to create second-class female bishops. 

Another of my reflections was regret that we would have been even further out of step with the most ancient churches, like the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox Churches, who of course have only male priests. One of the clearest demands Jesus made of his followers was that they should be "one", i.e. unified; and one of the scandalous results of either outcome would be to deepen divisions in what likes to be regarded as the Christian Church. Of course, it may be too that those who long for another Council to continue Vatican 2's work may in time be rewarded and the Catholic Church may change.

A friendly theologian came to lunch on Saturday and I blithely expected him to confirm my half-baked impressions. Sadly he was more cautious about my interpretations of the evidence! He pointed out that actually there's a lot about submitting in the New Testament, such as submitting to the authorities, children submitting to parents, wives to their husbands - "and each submitting to the other," I pointed out. "Indeed," he agreed urbanely! - and even the Son submitting to his Father. There was, he reckoned, a structure of authority within Creation, reflecting the Trinity. I may not have got it exactly right, as by now my carefully constructed universe was rocking! Reflecting on it later, it occurred to me that there's an essential difference between voluntary submission and institutionalised submission. There's a world of difference between saying, "Choose to submit yourselves..." and "You have to submit...". In fact, submission is of its very nature a voluntary attitude. And to be blunt, it seems to me to be a precarious business to argue from the nature of the Trinity, which to me at least it is an incomprehensible mystery. 

He also took me to task over the meaning of the word, head (kephalé), the part of the anatomy, when I argued that we overlay it with meanings of superiority, such as head honcho, head teacher, head man. The Bible, said I, places the will and the centre of motivation lower down the body than the head. "Hmm," he said sceptically. And Jane told me to smile and stop giving him indigestion!

Afterwards I reflected, "What has all that to do with leadership in the Church?" After all, doesn't the Church have a very different view of authority, although you might not think it with all the medieval paraphernalia of power, from chunky rings and princely robes to "enthronement"? How I long, by the way, for a bishop to say, "It shall not be so with me. I know it will at first be a shock to you, but I am not going to go in procession with my outriders"! Our model of authority is Christ, the slave on his knees serving, not lauding it. And don't we see women exercising the spiritual and natural gifts, including leadership, throughout the New Testament church, including apostleship and eldership? In fact, it seems to me we make these terms too technical and too restricted. After all, they are trying to describe functions in a new sort of body which has never existed before with the limited palette of the language of a patriarchal society. This is the new Temple. "This is what is happening, some hosting, some prophesying, some teaching, some leading, some healing etc etc." All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. And it may be, may it not, that he empowers a woman with oversight (episkopé)? 

It struck me that he was quite Elizabethan in his emphasis on the importance of hierarchical stability  - but then so was my revered Shakespeare. The enormity of Macbeth's crime is that he has murdered the King. 
"Confusion now hath made his masterpiece!
Most sacrilegious murder hath broke ope
The Lord's anointed temple, and stole thence
The life o' the building!" It is a return to chaos (confusion) or anarchy. And that is most to be feared. Yet it also occurs to me that the great conservative evangelical of the 17th century, another of my great Englishmen, who uttered one of my all-time favourite sayings, "I beseech you in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken", was not afraid to contemplate the unthinkable for the sake of justice. We may think history proved him mistaken, but actually parliamentary democracy owes Oliver Cromwell a great deal.

St Mary Magdalene Church, Bruges
To give him his due, I’ve painted our divergence in rather starker terms than he would recognise. I don’t think he’d be troubled by women bishops…. But I think he didn’t want me to write off those with different views from mine too dismissively. It’s possible that he (or I) may be mistaken – but, of course, I'm still sure I’m right! I return to the radical nature of Jesus' mission. In Tom Wright's words, "The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going. Unlike the ambiguous 'progress' of the Enlightenment, it is full of promise — especially the promise of transformed gender roles.... The promise of new creation, symbolised by the role of Mary Magdalene in the Easter stories, is the reality." 

So then I went to church on Sunday morning and, I assume, joined with tens of thousands of others in confessing, 
“Most merciful God,
Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,
we confess that we have sinned in thought, word and deed.
We have not loved you with our whole heart.
We have not loved our neighbours as ourselves.
In your mercy, forgive what we have been,
help us to amend what we are, and direct what we shall be;
that we may do justly, love mercy,
and walk humbly with you, our God,”
which seemed very apt in the light of the previous week's emotions.

There was time before lunch to watch BBC's The Big Questions with Nicky Campbell - which I confess to not having watched right through before. It happened to be on... Women Bishops. (How grateful the BBC must have been to have a home news story which took the spotlight off itself!) I'm not sure how many of the participants in the debate were in a state of grace at the beginning, but it didn't take a minute for the gloves to come off in one corner at least. 

My friend Sally Hitchiner was in one of the front rows and was admirably restrained, even when invited to speak. Like me she was very disappointed by the vote, and she was hurt by some of the other participants' doubting of her priesthood. I have to say in terms of graciousness the antis (i.e. anti the measure) won the debate. I understand how hurt the pros were. But, as Sally demonstrated, you didn't need to be full of bile and insult to make your point. You didn't, Rev Pitcher, have to go red and wag your finger at those who disagreed with you. It wasn't necessary to tell the rather nice, articulate Zoe Ham that she was a misogynist. She clearly wasn't. As for the Speaker's Chaplain slagging off the other side as Biblically illiterate, that was simply rude and untrue. If I'd been a disinterested spectator, the fury of the pro-women troika on that side of the studio would have had two effects: one, to make me doubt the validity of their argument; and two, to put me off the Christian message of love. It was Marshall McLuhan who said, "The medium is the message." If you appear to hate your fellow-Christians who differ from you, what's your good news mean? It will, I thought, take a more skilled mediator than Peter Hitchens to bring this issue to a satisfactory resolution. Fortunately, in Justin Welby we have just such a man, perhaps with Sally Hitchiner to advise him!

It will too take all his leadership skills to repair the damage, not to the Church's image - because that doesn't matter -, but to its witness to both the love and the justice of God. It would be worse than sad if Parliament took it into its muddled head to tell the Church - or any other faith group - how to organise its affairs. It is equally sad that, as it stands, the Church's prophetic voice has been compromised by not having its own house in order.

I trust and pray that the issue will be visited again soon and an arrangement which accommodates all consciences is arrived at. I hope we will stop labelling each other and be one. Maybe something better will emerge from all this travail. Impossible? Well, it won't be long before we hear again the familiar story of ultimate encouragement, which starts with a faithful unassuming woman and includes the statement, "For nothing will be impossible with God," and includes Mary's great song of faith and freedom, the Magnificat, 
BBC The Nativity

"And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty."

Amen – or do I mean Ah... men :-( ? Sisters, don't lose hope.


  1. Great post, Michael. I share so many of your views. It worries me that the servant nature of leadership seems to get lost in the debate. I'm sure we'll come back to this and it will go through eventually, but like you, I want to take our dissidents with us. They are just as passionate in their convictions as the 'yes' lobby. And don't you hate that word 'lobby' in the Christian body - it should be a tautology!

  2. I agree about 'lobby', Gill. Sounds like a totally dysfunctional family. Our family is confusingly diverse, and yet we LOVE being together, and actually rather enjoy the differences. One old wise friend said to me as a young vicar worried about tensions in our church, "At least it shows it's alive!"