Our church’s General Synod is meeting this weekend at the University of York. It has some very large issues on the agenda, not least final approval for the legislation which will enable women to become bishops alongside men. It amazes those on the outside of the church that this is still not resolved, it amazes quite a few on the inside too, and the arguments against are incomprehensible to the majority of people. When I am asked to explain them I see the disbelief on their faces. They just don’t get it and see it as being one of the last vestiges of sexism. I do not pretend to be neutral on this, having campaigned for women as priests and then as bishops for several decades. I long for this to happen. I am part of the ‘new normality’, men and women clergy who were ordained alongside one another with no distinction or separation. This is how it has been for over 20 years.
Despite the incredible advances and changes in equality and opening up jobs and roles traditionally associated with one gender to the other, girls today still have to deal with belittling and sometimes subtle, and not so subtle, attitudes which do not treat them as equals. Trafficking and exploitation are very much a current vice and there are attitudes in hip-hop, rap and pop music, boardrooms, advertising hoardings and comedy which still betray sexist assumptions. There have been some hard-won battles in our society and each generation needs to be vigilant. Churches carry a spectrum of views and attitudes, some bolstered by particular readings of passages of the bible. Where we are is therefore by no means perfect or uncompromised. But I am much happier than I was two years ago. One of the things I like about Archbishop Justin is that he brings an honesty that doesn’t pretend it doesn’t think what it does and an approach which requires competing convictions to take one another seriously.
We therefore have five principles which the new legislation will embody. The first two are clear and decisive, the remaining three are more controversial but necessary for this to move forward. The first is that the Church of England is fully committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to men and women. The second that anyone who ministers within the Church of England has to be prepared to acknowledge that a clear decision has been reached. These are clear and unequivocal. Women made priests and bishops are priests and bishops and the decision has been made. Anyone who works in the church has to accept that this is the situation. One of the problems of the past 20 years is that it allowed people to pretend that was not the case, as if we weren’t quite sure.
There are many who would like the principles to end there. If there was 100% agreement, they would do so. If there was a desire for an ‘accept it or leave’ approach, where those who disagree are no longer part of the church, that is where they would end. But neither of those are the case and General Synod has repeatedly said it wants to find a way of holding those who dissent. It is also part of a world-wide communion where these matters are not resolved. So for the Church of England to say ‘accept it or go’ would be to cut itself adrift from other provinces where this is yet to be resolved. So the third principle is that the Church of England is set in a broader process of discernment within the Anglican Communion and the whole Church of God. Our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters have a debate going on too, but it is not resolved and there is no sign of a change of wind despite the other breezes blowing through it.
The fourth principle says that those who dissent are within the spectrum of teaching within Anglicanism so they remain part of us. Finally if everyone is to flourish then provision must be made for them, pastorally and sacramentally.
These final three are the harder to explain and accept. They are where the legislation is fragile. For those who are adamant that the Church of England should not ‘pander to prejudice’ and should not continue to ‘collude with sexism and discrimination’, these are an affront. Problematic here is that there are women who don’t agree with women priests and bishops too. So it’s not straightforward. For those who take a very hardline against this development the provisions are not enough. They want a separate church or a parallel structure which enables a completely separate strand. That extreme end is unrealistic to my mind because what they are asking for is essentially a different church and it has been rejected repeatedly. So it is not a way forward.
This is probably the last chance saloon for there being space for dissent. If these provisions are not approved then there will be nowhere to go in providing generous space for dissent. That will also cause a crisis because Parliament and the nation have run out of patience. This needs sorting tomorrow. And if it is we can expect the first woman bishop to be consecrated very soon, probably early next year. There are a number of vacancies and I expect there are women being considered for them – there is no reason why they shouldn’t be. There are very talented and inspirational women clergy with the required experience and qualities.
Our gospel reading was the parable of the sower (Matthew 13:1-9; 18-21). It is a story of depth, endurance and nurture. The conditions need to be right for the seed to flourish and that includes sufficient depth of growing soil for strong and healthy roots. Shallow faith does not survive long in the heat of ministry. It is hard and difficult. It requires an enormous amount of resilience and fortitude. It needs to be deeply grounded in hope in God and a longing for his Kingdom. Without that, just passion for the institution, is a recipe for derailment because no human institution should command that level of devotion. It is bad for it and it turns in on itself and becomes self-serving and destructive of all who come within it. Some of the institutional abuse stories this week, including in the church, have at their root organisations which have become self-serving and self-protecting, which have lost their compass. The compass for the church should always be the Gospel of Jesus Christ, for the glory of God alone and inspired by the Spirit. The glory of God is the umbrella under which we flourish, not become diminished. The Gospel brings life in abundance, peace and love. The Spirit leads us into all truth, challenging and freshening in the process.
I don’t suppose the legislation to be discussed tomorrow will be the last word on this subject. This is a fallen institution made up of fallible human beings, so everything in this life is provisional. But with hope and trust in God’s Kingdom, it is a marker on the road and has the potential to be the gateway to a new flourishing of the church as it serves the Gospel of Christ. There is no other reason for us existing and if we are to have credibility as we speak prophetically into a world that exploits, trafficks and commodifies, we need to make this change.
Sermon preached at Peterborough Parish Church, Sunday 13th July 2014