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.