Dear Brother/Sister in Christ
So, General Synod has voted to send the draft legislation on women bishops to the dioceses. Any debating chamber anywhere would have been proud of the consistently high level of debate over two long, hot days (and discussions that went on well into the night). I was bobbing up and down all one morning trying to get called to speak! Some of the votes were very close; some were very definite. For example, the vote on the Archbishops’ amendment was only lost in the House of Clergy, and that by just 5 votes, but the final vote on clause 2 which laid a duty on diocesan bishops to make arrangements for the care of those opposed to the legislation, was a decisive 373 to 13.
The outcome is that General Synod is now inviting the dioceses to join them in discerning God’s will for the consecration of women as bishops and the care of those who cannot accept their episcopal ministry. We are therefore another step along the way but the process goes on. To those who are delighted with this decision, I want to say: ‘I share your pleasure; the gifts of women to every order of the Church are a step closer to being recognised’. To those who are deeply disturbed by this development, I want to say: ‘Please don’t panic – there’s still a process going on and we still want you.’
For the record, I voted for the draft Measure and against the Archbishops’ amendment. +Rowan specifically said they did not want their amendment to be a test of loyalty (although I suspect that many people probably saw it that way). I voted against it for a variety of theological reasons: I believed it would entrench two sorts of bishop in the Church’s life; I saw it as creating an even stronger variety of ‘flying bishop’; it seemed to be ‘transfer of jurisdiction’ by any other name, ‘when is a bishop not a bishop?’ and so on. I also want to affirm in the strongest possible terms the quality of ministry that women priests are offering to the Church, particularly in this diocese. But I recognise that the vote at this point was ambiguous and that if the voting had not been by Houses, the amendment would have been passed. It’s clear therefore that many people were looking for a way through which both affirmed women in the episcopate but also made space for traditional catholics and conservative evangelicals which went beyond the Code of Practice. Given that voting, I have to think therefore in terms not just of what is desirable but also of what is possible. I want to be pragmatic as well as idealistic in what we do now.
Sue Booys used a vivid image. She said that the conscience of those in favour allowed them to get to a certain point, and the conscience of those opposed to the legislation enabled them to get to another point – and these lines are only ten yards apart, but the chasm between them is very deep and full of sharks. The task therefore is to see if we can yet close that gap. To develop the image, we might not attempt to leap over a ten yard gap, but we might be prepared to try three. Perhaps we should try to get behind the rhetoric and focus entirely on what makes up those ten yards and what might close that gap. It might be impossible; the gap may be too deep and the sharks too hungry, but it might just be achievable, and that’s why we need to look in a number of directions.
Firstly, we need to look to the Code of Practice which the House of Bishops has now to start drawing up. Although a Code can only be approved by General Synod after the Measure has been passed, it will still be important that the dioceses know what kind of opportunities and constraints the Code might contain in order to judge whether the whole package seems fair. The Code will need to be robust and imaginative and the House will get on with it in September.
Secondly, we need to trust the wisdom of the wider Church, speaking through deanery and diocesan synods. They will have before them the draft Measure from General Synod (together with headings for the Code of Practice), and they will simply be asked to vote on that legislation. However, dioceses can come up with ‘following motions’ to go through to General Synod and those might have some very helpful thinking in them.
Thirdly, it isn’t over until the fat lady sings, and the archbishops may yet do more work on their thinking. Their amendment had not been seen before Synod by either the Revision Committee or the House of Bishops and they might now want to develop it differently.
It’s inevitable that the coming elections for a new General Synod will have this important issue as a major backdrop. I very much hope, however, that they will not be ‘single issue’ elections. We need the most thoughtful, Christ-centred people standing for election in order to tackle the whole range of issues facing the Church in our time. Please consider standing if you are in a position to do so and feel you have something to contribute, and encourage others to do the same.
What I very much recognise, however, is that the Body of Christ is both rejoicing and hurting. It’s very important that women priests should not feel any blame over this. It was Synod that made this decision. In any case, women priests have borne their cross of ambivalence and prejudice very graciously for a long time. But other parts of the Body are hurting now and that has to be recognised with sorrow as well. Many in the Body are wounded. As Archbishop Rowan said, ‘It’s that kind of Body.’ He also asked us to see the way ahead as an opportunity to serve one another. Mutual recrimination is not a helpful way of being Christian. Supporting and serving one another as we examine that ten yard gap is a much better way. We need to remember that conscience matters deeply to people on both/all ‘sides’.
I and other members of the Bishop’s Staff are available at any time to discuss these things, so do keep in touch.
Brothers and sisters, pray on. And think.
With warm good wishes in Christ,