Wednesday, November 21, 2012

On Women Bishops and Yesterday's Synod Vote

It's worth saying right from the start – I'm not on Synod. Had I been able to vote yesterday, I would probably have voted “yes”. But I grew up in the conservative evangelical camp, and I know a good proportion of the 44 clergy who voted “no” yesterday.

I think it's important to debunk a few myths.

First, this isn't about equality. I know to outsiders it looks like it is, but it isn't. It's actually about identicality, and there's an important difference. Everyone (I hope) on synod agrees that men and women are equal in status and in the sight of God. Everyone agrees that men and women are not identical on a purely biological level. The question is to what extent men and women's differences work out as differences in the roles they play within church.

Secondly, this isn't about rights. No-one has the right to become a bishop. It isn't a “promotion”. It's a horrible job where you can't be part of a normal church fellowship and work far too many hours with far too many people who expect you to have all the answers. Jemima Thackray wrote a great piece in the Telegraph this morning where she argues that the real question should be whether women can have the opportunity to serve in this job. In some ways the even more important question is “Is God calling women to serve in this way?”. Women who say they should have the right to become bishop shouldn't have it, because they don't understand what they say they want.

Third, this isn't about traditionalists in the house of laity spoiling everyone's party. Yes, this time it was voted down because people thought it didn't cater well enough for those who would rather not have a woman bishop. Personally, I'd have voted for the motion because I think it does cater well enough for conservative evangelicals, even though conservative evangelical friends say it doesn't. But last time, 2 years ago, the archbishops proposed a motion which would have catered well enough for them. It was overwhelmingly passed in the houses of clergy and laity, but voted down by modernists in the house of clergy. If those clergy had passed it then, we'd have women bishops by now.

So what is this actually about? It's about how we handle profound disagreements. The Church of England as a whole has been rightly trying to keep people on board, and be as accommodating as possible to those who have good reasons for disagreeing with women bishops, while still trying to move ahead with them. The problem is that the Church's structures are somewhat Byzantine, and sometimes working at counter-purposes and it therefore moves very slowly indeed.

What we haven't done enough of, I think, is actually discussing the reasons for disagreement rather than stating them. For example, a lot of the opposition hinges around one paragraph in Paul's first letter to Timothy. I have listened to a fair bit of the debate, and I've only heard that paragraph discussed by those against women bishops. Now I can see several ways to argue that the paragraph doesn't apply to women bishops today, but I don't really see that argument being engaged with at a national level. Of course, all that discussion should have happened decades ago, but as far as I can tell it just hasn't been done.

The C of E will get there in the end, but in the meantime we need to be patient, we need to be loving, and we need to keep listening to each other, and not just letting it wash over us, but engaging with what the other person is saying. Then, maybe, we'll be able to move on from this and work together for God's glory.


Unknown said...

Thanks for your musings on this John, I've been giving this week some thought and it seems apt that I'm preaching on Rom.14 on Sunday

Wondering if we should see this as a disputable matter as in Rom14. It's clearly "disputed" by both sides, both of whom love the Lord and seek to obey his word - & I believe Scripture is not unequivocal on the matter.

Possibly Rom.14 lays pastoral and pragmatic principles to navigate through. If the traditionalists are the weaker in faith brother that needs accommodating, then does it follow that the "rights" of the women to episcopacy ought to be set aside for the sake of the
weaker brother who is offended??? or at least the traditionalists safeguarded. Interesting angle ?

John said...

I think you're right. Romans 14 is one of the reasons that a single clause measure just isn't Christian.

Actually, both sides should probably see it as a Rom 14 situation. The "traditionalists" give up their freedom to be in a church with no women bishops, and the "modernists" give up their freedom to have identical women bishops, each for the sake of the others' conscience.