There is trouble brewing in the Church of England – shock, horror!It’s not just the women Bishop’s debate this weekend at General Synod. It’s not just the running sore which is the (lack of meaningful) debate on sexuality. It is something much deeper than that. It’s the increasing gap which is opening up between the House of Bishops and the rest of the Church.
There have been worrying signs over the last year or so.First it was the Anglican Covenant. Endorsed by the House of Bishops and sent by General Synod to the dioceses for ratification, it floundered as diocese after diocese voted against it – and even against their Bishops – in a rare act of defiance.
Then there are the frequent statements which try to keep pace with the very unchurch-like pace of change in social attitudes to same-sex partnerships. Without the opportunity for proper debate in the Church of England, the Bishops have resorted to well worn statements about incompatibility with scripture and tradition, saying nothing new, getting left behind by the nation and increasingly by the church as a whole.This has lead inexorably to the response which the Bishops (we assume it was the Bishops although even that has been left vague) made last month to Government plans for same-sex marriage – and the cry which went up from clergy, laity and even some less senior Bishops who have said, “Not in my name!” (The Petition on that can be found here)
But, most catastrophic of all, has been the overwhelming temptation to meddle with the Women Bishops legislation which is coming back to General Synod this weekend for its final vote. The proposed legislation has passed every hurdle asked of it short of this final ratification. Endorsed by General Synod – sent to Diocesan Synods – debated in Deanery Synods – this planned legislation was overwhelmingly supported by the Church as a whole, and yet the House of Bishops could not resist the urge to modify it yet again before final ratification. Consequence – catastrophe!The amendments, inserted by the House of Bishops in a paternalistic ‘daddy knows best’ approach to Church Government have enraged those like myself who long for women Bishops. Ironically, they have also failed to impress the traditionalists who were meant to feel reassured.
And in this ill advised action we see the heart of the problem. It is the outdated way the House of Bishops sees itself and its authority in the 21st Century Church.Gone are the days when Bishops were all powerful in Church and highly influential in State. Gone are the days when ordinary clergy and laity would instantly revere every word which came out of a Bishop’s mouth. Gone are the days when the sight of a mitre and crook would instil a sense of awe and wonder. And yet it would seem that the House of Bishops hasn’t noticed.
Authority in the church today does not lie in a kind of blind obedience to those ‘fathers in Christ’ who must know best. Increasingly the Church of England has been learning to think for itself. What impresses church members today is the strength of the argument, not the fact that a Bishop is saying it, and increasingly the arguments are seen to be lacking.As a result, Diocesan Synods have started to flex their muscles. Since the amendments to the Women Bishops legislation were announced, several have tabled emergency motions to ask for the amendments to be withdrawn or reconsidered. The new found authority placed in church democracy has begun to rebel against the old paternalistic guidance of the Bishop’s crook.
Nor is this a bad thing.There are those who say that the church is a theocracy, not a democracy – but that is to cheapen the issue. We all want to know the will of God – the issue is how we discern it. In times gone by, the Bishop’s word was final – today we all take part in the debate. We do this in our reactions (positive or negative) when another church statement or policy hits the news headlines. We do this when we face the increasing discrepancies which pull us apart, stretched between our day to day lives as part of society, and the interpretation of faith we are told to profess. We do this through the people we elect to Synods at every level.
This weekend, it is the House of Bishops who needs to listen, and pull back to the legislation which Dioceses have already voted on – and voted for in such overwhelming numbers.If you wish to sign the petition calling for this – you can find it by following this link.
As retired Bishop Laurie Green said, when signing the petition, “A male-only elite should not take it upon itself to gainsay the clear and overwhelming convictions made obvious in the votes in Diocesan Synods. I speak as a male CofE bishop who knows how lop-sided and strange the House of Bishops is!”As Bishop Laurie shows us, there are Bishops who know that the old way of doing things is over. They have recognized the unsustainability of the status quo and are starting to embrace a new way of going about the work of God. Some have already spoken out on issues like those above and have sometimes been called ‘rebels’ for their honesty and genuine leadership.
Yet the future of the House of Bishops is in their hands and in the hands of those women who will (at some point) enter this male only domain. Leadership which is disconnected from the voice of those it seeks to lead is doomed to failure – even in the house-hold of God.It is time for change.