A thorny issue

IMG_1484 Brambles. And bishops. While Justin Welby was having his Election as Archbishop of Canterbury Confirmed, I was attacking the brambles in my garden for the first time this year. He’s going to need plenty of prayer, our new Archbishop. He’s got a very difficult job to do, and some thorny problems to solve. Or at least, some thorny problems that need to be not made worse.

I shall be discussing one of those problems. Our Diocesan Bishop has convened a meeting for women in ministry in the diocese to discuss the outcome of the vote at General Synod last November. Women bishops. Or, if you prefer, female bishops. Of course, the vote was not about whether or not there could be female bishops in the Church of England. That is already agreed. It was about the mechanics of how to have female bishops, whilst affording protection to those who believe that their ministry is invalid.

You’ve heard me on the topic before. I think and believe that disallowing someone from following God’s calling because of their chromosomes and gender identity is wrong. I think and believe that using proof texts from the Bible to try to prove things one way or the other is misguided, just as misguided as it would be to undertake the exercise for the Biblical arguments around slavery. Allowing one person to own another is abhorrent. Discriminating against someone because of their gender is abhorrent. By all means discern gifts, and calling. We are all different. By all means decide that I am not called in a particular way. But do so based on prayer, on my gifts, skill set and life experience, not because I am the proud occupier of a body without a penis. Discrimination is discrimination, whatever the basis of the attempted justification.

So what is the way forward? How do we stay together in a church which says my vocation is valid, but allows people to affirm that it isn’t? (You may find I am making this personal, but you see, ontologically, I am a priest. To say I am not is to deny me part of my identity. It feels very personal, which is why the debate becomes so polarised.) So somehow, I need to not feel undermined or threatened by those who say they need protection from my ministry. And somehow they need to be reassured that I won’t be trying to be priestly at them.

Evangelicals and Catholics manage to co-exist reasonably comfortably in the Church of England. No-one has protection from anyone, people vote with their feet. I see no reason why the same should not be true of women priests, indeed my experience at a local parish level is that people vote with their feet over that too, some actively avoiding parishes with women, some actively seeking them out, most unworried either way. Bishops are a slightly different kettle of fish. They carry authority over a wide geographic area. It’s a long way to go to vote with your feet. But in reality, how much do most folk in the pews see a bishop? One has visited one parish in our benefice twice during my curacy. The other two parishes haven’t seen a bishop since my Training Incumbent was licensed – a matter of some years now. To people in the pews, it makes very little difference in practice. It might be different for those priests who believe that a woman’s authority is invalid – but it would be more possible for them to vote with their feet, although they might have a few uncomfortable months when trying to move.

It doesn’t meet the “theological objections”. It ignores those in the laity. It’s not a great solution. But I believe that any “solution” is only transitional. I believe that the day will come when people finally realise that it doesn’t matter – that we should be concentrating on the Missio Dei.

And those brambles? I made it through to the compost bin, for the first time since we moved here. It turned out to be brand new and unused, so I have rescued it and put it next to the one we bought when we moved here, not realising that we already had one in the garden. It is, if you like, a treasure which I first saw far off. I thought when I reached it that it would be full of compost. Instead it means we can take a new clean compost bin when we move. An excellent result – but not what I thought. There’s a lesson in that.


14 responses to “A thorny issue

  1. Right…so every time an incumbent who does not want a female bishop gets one he should move diocese? Tricky I guess if your bishop changes as often as Durham recently? Also I assume you support whole dioceses which are no go areas for women or traditionalists? Johnny

    • No, I don’t, I think the solution I suggest is pretty rubbish – but it does underline how difficult it is to see a way through. It also depends on views of bishops – would Rev’d’ X be happy with a female Diocesan if Rev’d X always dealt with a male suffragan? Etc etc for all combinations. Pretty rubbish as I said – but I’m not happy about second class bishops, and don’t want to push those who dissent out of the Church, which is, after all, God’s, not ours.
      All constructive solutions welcomed (and not just by me).

    • At the risk of being accused of being non PC. Lets, for argument sake, say that an incumbent finds out that his/her Bishop is openly gay and disaproves. The answer is they get over themselves.

  2. Someone pointed out to me yesterday the difference between dissent and denial. No-one in the Church of England should be denying that the Church recognises men and women can be bishops, priests and deacons. That is a matter of fact.
    People may dissent from believing that to be correct, and still choose to remain in the Church of England – and as such should be just as welcome as anyone else. But everyone should be clear that it is dissent from the normative position of the Church of England.
    That isn’t a solution but it might be food for thought.

  3. And the user Johnny May apparently doesn’t exist, which is a shame, because although they obviously didn’t like what I said, they had the grace to engage.

    • Reports of my demise are exaggerated. I most certainly do exist and here I am. Do I seem to have lost some oIecause I am posting from my phone at present. I note that in the form above I was given some bizarre email address something to do with biomedia? It should be Virgin.

      Anyway, thanks for engaging. A thorny/brambly issue indeed. I don’t think the dissent/denial divide works. Usually in the church when we identify things which are outside the teaching of the church we call it sin. We will
      tolerate it because if we chucked sinners out of
      he church, well we know where we’d all be. We tolerate it but try and teach it to change

      • Very glad to see you are alive and kicking.
        Note that ordaining women isn’t outside the teaching of the Church of England. It is well and truly inside the teaching.
        Chucking out all the sinners merely leads to no church (see you all outside – I wouldn’t be allowed in, not because of my gender, but because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.)
        So if I’m reading your response and its implication correctly, ordaining women in the CofE is a sin? Have I understood your belief correctly? And to extend, that presumably means I have sinned specifically by being ordained? Or have I misunderstood? Given that my ordination is within the teaching of the CofE, I’m struggling a bit to understand the logic.

  4. Claire, no I wasn’t suggesting any such thing- rather the opposite- my post (from my phone) got cut short- but I’m back in PC world now.

    I was simply saying that to “dissent” from the teaching of the church is usually regarded as sin- thus unless you want to cast all people who disapprove of female bishops as sinners a different category to “dissent” is required. Of course we keep all types of sinners including me in the church but we make clear that their dissent is disapproved of. For example I might want to say that infidelity is good- that is to dissent from the teaching of the church (andd it is in fact sinful) but the church wouldn’t necessarily throw me out.

    Of course what the church has hitherto to said is that both those for and against are loyal anglicans and hold there views with equal integrity and godliness. There are no “dissenters”, just two opinions. So to try and cast one side as “right” and the other as dissenting seems rather unfair does it not?

    Keep up the good work


  5. So by that definition neither faction “dissents”. I think the point about denial and dissention was slightly different. Those who do not agree with the ordination of women are, from my perspective, in denial (and I certainly dissent from their views). The thing about dissent is that it’s possible to discuss, debate, find common ground. It is far harder to engage with denial (“I am a validly ordained priest who consecrates bread and wine”///”Not in this parish you aren’t, your ordination is invalid and so are your so-called sacraments”). The trouble is that the Church of England fudged this for all sorts of reasons in the 1990’s, and is now living with the consequences. Your point about casting one side is right being unfair is all well and good – but since the CofE maintains that my orders are valid, why am I not in the right? The sickly fudge answer is of course that according to the CofE both sides are right, but this illogic just hurts everyone the longer it is indulged. More broadly, and more to the point, why should people not be permitted to follow their discerned, agreed calling?

  6. Claire, thanks for replying but…mmm, I think caution is required; “denial” is a loaded word- not least because it tends to be negative in psychology because it implies irrationality and moreover as it is most often associated with the holocaust. Those two things alone make it an unfortunate word to use in the ongoing discussions about the consecration of women (or most other issues).

    The stated position of the CofE is that neither side (you say “faction”) is “right” or “wrong/dissenting”. I think what you are suggesting is a change to that which means that overnight lots of people who were “loyal anglicans” including many women will become “disloyal” overnight. I find that intolerable.

    You say “The sickly fudge answer is of course that according to the CofE both sides are right, but this illogic just hurts everyone the longer it is indulged”. I’m not sure that is true- people have learned to live with it- no one thinks it is perfect but that is the nature of compromise. But even if it is right- how is hurt alleviated by simply rejecting one “faction”- that alleviates the hurt of some at the expense of increasing the hurt of the other.

    I have been debating this on another blog and have come to the conclusion that the only solution to the “women bishops” issue is a solution I have come to learn to call “structural” ie some form of third province, non-geographical diocese, epicopal visitors ets because the circle cannot be squared in any other way.

    As to your “calling” point, I’m afraid that is rather circular- some people genuinely believe your call to the ministry you are in and some don’t and some don’t know- and round and round we go.

    Have a good day and God bless you,


  7. I’m using the word “denial” because that’s how I see what it happening. I’m sure that my ideal is intolerable to you – just as your solution is intolerable to me, because it perpetuates denial of people in the image of God, called to serve God in so many different ways. There is nothing circular about that call, and the those who don’t recognise calling are denying it. Drawing out the lack of resolution causes a very real and present pain to many of us, as I have discussed elsewhere on this blog.
    Thank you for engaging openly and clearly, appreciated.
    You’ve mentioned the holocaust, which means this thread is now closed.

  8. The Church of England collectively needs to pull its socks up.
    The debate about women priests/bishops/popes could go round eternally with neither “side” I use the term loosely as they are or should be on the same side (rolls eyes heavenwards) and the only losers are in fact the church itself. The general public/non church goers/church goers/flock/congregation and all will accept a unified edict. All this back biting and infighting means folk don’t know what to think….
    I do. Obviously! lol.
    The church needs to stop being so last century and live up to modern needs. We need proper women priest/bishops in our modern civilised and equal society. (ok it’s not there yet, but getting better) If that means ostracising a few feeble/narrow minded/misogynist’s along the way then tough, because at the moment it looks like the church is the misogynists last bolt hole…….. with the exception of the masons… now there’s a whole new can of worms………
    Just out of interest has a study or any research been done to ascertain just what percentage of people are actually bothered what sex a priest/bishop is? The last time I looked we lived in something resembling a democracy!! Well on the outside anyway.

  9. Twenty five years ago, my father bought me two gifts. A tea towel which declared: “a woman’s place is in the house…of bishops” and a t-shirt with the logo “God is an equal opportunities employer…pity about the church”. I loved them both and despair that they are as relevant today as they were then.

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