Like so many others, I am astonished, shattered and angry at what happened at Synod yesterday. Unlike some, I have no complaint at the process. I accept that in the Church of England we set the bar high for significant and radical changes. I shall leave it to others to decide if the standard is too exacting.
I am furious at the message that has been sent to all my female colleagues. In my own context as an NHS chaplain in a large team, all my female colleagues are Anglican priests. I have today written to them all expressing my distress and upset at the loss of what seems to me a piece of legislation that should have been passed years and years ago. Those who voted against have no sense, it seems to me, of the fundamental sense of rejection that the loss of this vote has for many priests who are women. In barring women from the highest office there is somehow communicated the message that women are simply not good enough. And, of course, for the opponents of the measure, that is precisely the message that their “theological convictions” about sacramental assurance or headship or whatever do convey, no matter how hard they try to dress their meanings up in high-faluting language.
But I want to reflect on two other areas of the whole business that are going to come back to haunt us, as, bruised and diminished in the eyes of the people of England, we try and get out of this mess. One is the position of the minorities, and the other the theological meaning of culture change.
The first is whole business of the position of the minorities – both conservative evangelical and anglo-catholic. The Bonds of Peace, the document produced by the House of Bishops after the passing of the vote in 1992, says this:
Paragraph 3: We now enter a process in which it is desirable that both those in favour and those opposed should be recognised as holding legitimate positions while the whole Church seeks to come to a common mind.
Much is made at present of the “promises” that were made in 1993. But this language is a great deal less clear than that. The whole measure foundered yesterday on the inadequacy of the legal provisions for those who cannot accept the ministry of women in the episcopate (and, mostly, the presbyterate). But read the reports of twenty years ago: they speak of provisionality, of pastoral care not of legal securities, of flexibility. They may have been naïve.
So the idea that promises have been made that must be kept in perpetuity is questionable at least. And how small does a minority have to get before it can no longer hold a gun to the head of the majority? The reception of women priests in the nation has been absolutely remarkable. Those who are opposed to them have no experience of this as they will have done all they can to keep away from these creatures. But the truth is that over a third of clergy are now women and while once the Vicar of Dibley was unusual enough to be the subject of comedy, nowadays women clergy are just normal.
If the position of those opposed, who deny either the possibility of women being priests or bishops or the biblical rightness of such ordinations, has been protected so that its legitimacy is recognised, and their right to carry on in parishes that feel that way has been protected with a Code of Conduct, then I think the spirit and the letter of 1993 have been honoured. They can’t reasonably ask for any more. In fact, I fear for them that the next time round they will be offered a good deal less.
One last point for them. John Hapgood, then Archbishop of York said this in November 1993:
“What we seek to provide are opportunities and safeguards, which we hope will be used in a pastoral rather than in a legalistic way, so that none of us is trapped in unnecessarily rigid divisions…”
Opportunities for what, I wonder? The divisions have in twenty years not simply become rigid they have fossilised. Those opposed want to be accorded an honoured place at the Church of England table, yet I know of very few who have made the effort to honour the women who have answered the call of God and been ordained. The minority went to the ghetto and there they have stayed – impairing their communion not only with the women they are so, what? Afraid of, appalled by, implacably opposed to? – but also with so many of their male colleagues. Yesterday’s inability to look beyond the walls of the ghetto of theological correctness, inability to exercise any imagination in mission and in the work our church has to do for the nation has to be the lowest point of a ghastly descent into separation, by two parties who have always been psychologically prone to doing this.
Among the torrent of media comment, Tim Stanley wrote this in the Daily Telegraph:
Expect much of the liberal establishment to be outraged. In many ways, they have a right to be. The Anglican Church has evolved into something like an unofficial branch of the welfare state, and there’s a general feeling that it has a duty to be as representative as the rest of our public sector. A vote against women bishops is certainly a pedantic vote against equality in a church that has already accepted women priests. If a woman can be a priest, why can she not make other priests priests? It seems spiteful and unfair.
This and other comments and commentators implicitly and sometimes explicitly hook the movement for equality for women in the church to the tide of secular equality legislation. The church is to be distinctive, say some of the minority, Jesus never sought the approval of society.
In her anxiety to be inclusive of her own minorities the church has sought and gained legal exemptions from equality legislation. Twenty years ago these did not seem that odd, but today, viewed from the outside in, they make the whole institution seem fundamentally unjust. The notion that no one should be discriminated against on the grounds of their gender or sexual orientation or because they are disabled or black or because of what they believe is now part of the law of the land, and has been accepted very widely in society.
So is this godlessness in action, as some rather carelessly assume it be? Or is there something more going on? We are not to call evil things that are good, and vice versa. If it is good not to discriminate then it really is good. We are called to love our neighbours as ourselves. If equality legislation makes us stop and think about how life is for people who are not like us and who suffer discrimination, then that really is good.
So if we get inside the experience of a formerly discriminated against group we may discover that their experience tells us that it is profoundly demeaning to be treated as different and somehow lesser than others. Should we recognise that this impulse towards inclusion, thought it may come from a different origin, is in fact, entirely consonant with the Christian gospel. Indeed, it fulfils a number of evangelical mandates. So we are not to call this societal development evil, if it is, in fact, good.
We are, in some respects, precisely because of this progressive legislation, being obliged to treat our neighbours as ourselves. And like other progressive legislation, we are discovering that our attitudes can be changed as we are pulled along. Look at the sea-change in attitudes to disability that the Disability Discrimination Act headed up. Our awareness was prompted by the requirements of the law, and it has now grown to such an extent that the Paralympics were as big a success as the Olympic Games. That sort of public support for a formerly discriminated against group does not happen overnight.
Which is to say that I think we should be reading the signs of these times in a much more confident and positive theological way. When we seek to know which way to go from the disaster of yesterday’s Synod vote, then I suggest that one of the things that the Spirit is trying to say to the churches is that to pay attention to the culture around us is not to lose faithful focus on gospel values. It is, on the contrary, to rediscover some of the ones we have lost sight of being worked out with some energy.
What this means for those charged with taking the process forward is less clear. But I dare to think that it certainly means looking far beyond a clamour for “honoured places”, to a wider view of what our church must represent and embody in its treatment of all people if it is to serve the nation.