Tuesday 10 July 2012

Women Bishops - a Minority report ...

During Monday's Synod debate on women Bishops I witnessed an interesting spectacle.

It has long been accepted in the CofE that women Bishops are going to happen.  The only question which remains is how to accommodate the minority who still can’t accept the fact. 

Some of those are Anglo-Catholics who believe that a Bishop must (by definition) be male, but others are conservative Evangelicals who can’t accept the notion that a woman can have authority over a man (except the Queen of course, who is supreme governor of the CofE – I assume they think she is really a man!).

So the debate (which is still rumbling on) is about how to ensure that these minorities still feel welcome in the Church of England and what system should be put in place for providing Bishops to look after them.

And in the debate yesterday, we had 2 or 3 conservative Evangelical speakers pleading for a system that would mean that their minority could remain in the CofE after women Bishops become a reality.

“Will there still be a place for us?” asked one speaker, “Will we still be welcome?”

As I thought about this, the situation became more and more intriguing.  Here was a minority in the CofE, which acknowledged that they were a minority, pleading for special treatment because they were a minority.  There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  The Church should be a place where everyone is welcome, even those whose picture of God and the church is very different to the majority.  It should be a place where grace and acceptance is not dependant on having the same theological view.  Our unity should be found in following the Lord of grace who reached out and embraced the poor, the outcast and the sinner.

Yet at the same time this particular minority is the most vocal group in the fight against the acceptance of another minority in the Church – lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Christians.

When it comes to gay Christians, who (on this issue) understand the Bible differently, they vehemently deny the possibility of a special place in the Church.  They want lesbian and gay Christians to be barred from ministry unless they promise to deny themselves and bow to enforced celibacy.  They would like to see Bishops taking action against gay and lesbian ministers in relationships and Civil Partnerships instead of turning a blind eye.  They want enquiries made about their sexual conduct and public repentance for past errors as a condition of continuing in ministry.  They want to see the Church continue to deny same-sex couples who are seeking blessing or dedication for their loving commitment to each other.  And they certainly do not want to see openly gay Bishops – even if they are celibate.

Yet they plead for a ‘special place’ in the CofE with their own Bishops who will share their minority theology while at the same time seeking to exclude others.

I am sure that I was not the only one who shared the irony of the moment.

If the CofE does manage to square the circle and provide a framework which creates a space for them without undermining the authority of woman Bishops, then perhaps we ought to require of them a little grace and charity towards the minority which they have been trying to drive out. 

Perhaps a commitment should be required from them to show respect and acceptance to the minority of Christians who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, before we let them stay?  Perhaps we ought to ask them to publicly repent of their failure to love and to listen to their brothers and sisters, and in a particular, the 1500 LGB&T clergy in the Church of England?  Perhaps they need to be ready to accept that there is a place in the Church of England for gay Christians – in the pews – in the pulpit – and in the House of Bishops.

And perhaps the CofE should seek to cater for all its minorities instead of picking and choosing which ones to protect.

Sunday 8 July 2012

Another way of doing business...

We are half way through the Church of England’s General Synod in York, and it has been fascinating as usual.  Conversations with Synod members, Bishops and others reveal a huge amount about what happens behind the scenes in the Church of England – and helps make sense of the debates.

But there is one area which is still shrouded in mystery – the meetings of the House of Bishops.
Questions on voting records in House of Bishops meetings, and questions about the secrecy which surrounds the Bishops meetings were swept aside on Friday evening by the blanket phrase “that remains confidential to the House” and there are clearly no plans to change that.

Such is that the secrecy that I saw the BBC’s correspondent’s eyes light up in a passing conversation with a Bishop at the vaguest prospect of getting an inside story on the last meeting.
The House of Bishops – unlike General Synod as a whole meets in private.  No record is published of votes taken, or of the content of speeches made, or contributions to discussions.  We never know if a policy or statement has been overwhelmingly endorsed or just scraped through by the slimmest of margins.

When a decision is taken however, that becomes the policy of the House and a kind of Cabinet Collective Responsibility takes effect where everyone is expected to back the decision whether they voted for it or not.
But is there another way of doing things?

It was also fascinating to read Christina Beardsley’s blog on Changing Attitude this morning.  She was at a very different House of Bishop’s meeting yesterday in the USA as part of The Episcopal Church General Convention.
Their House of Bishops meeting was not held behind closed doors.  They met in ‘Open Session’ and observers could come, watch and listen.  Nor were they keeping it safe by only addressing uncontentious issues.  On the agenda were two resolutions relating to inclusion of Transgender people in the life of the church – including equal access to explore a vocation to ordination.  There were speeches made on both sides of the debate – some supporting the changes and some opposing them - before a vote was taken in public on the two resolutions.

What struck me in reading Christina’s report, was how constructive and open the whole process was.  Strong and moving statements were made on both sides, including a bishop opposing the resolutions who said that this would be “an idol that will break us” but the description of the open session was breath-taking for its maturity in handling areas of disagreement in public.
This American model is a world away from the workings of the House of Bishops in England but it showed me that there is another way of doing things.  There is another way for Bishops to model leadership in the Church. There is another way to make decisions which does not require Bishops to keep secret their discussions, or to bury their own convictions beneath the pretence of Cabinet Collective Responsibility.  It is more open, more honest and infinitely more transparent.

Perhaps there is another way…

Saturday 7 July 2012

Questions & Answers (& more Questions)

Every session of General Synod contains an Agenda item called “Questions” in which ordinary members of Synod can table questions.  These Questions are a little like Parliamentary Questions which MP’s can table in the House of Commons.  In parliament, the relevant Government Minister must stand up and answer the question.  In General Synod, it is the relevant Bishop, Archbishop or Chair of the relevant committee.

And last night the Archbishops of Canterbury and York had their work cut out as question after question was tabled about the recent Church of England response on same-sex Marriage.
'Who was the author?  Synod members wanted to know.  Who saw it?  What was the membership of the group who finalised it?  Who voted on it and by what authority was it submitted as “the view of the Church of England”?  Who can truly claim to speak for the ‘Church of England’ on an area where there is such diversity of opinion?  Why was Synod not consulted?  Why are the votes of the House of Bishops not recorded and published?

To be fair, the Archbishop of Canterbury took it on the chin.  He tried to be helpful, and took the final responsibility with the Archbishop of York for signing off the response before it went to the Government.
As a result of the Archbishop's answers, we now know that the response was drafted by ‘staff’ at Church House in Westminster and presented to the Archbishops Council and House of Bishops in May.  The basis for the response was Canon B30 which says:

 The Church of England affirms, according to our Lord’s teaching, that marriage is in its nature a union permanent and lifelong, for better or worse, till death do us part, of one man with one woman, to the exclusion of all others on either side, for the procreation and nurture of children, for the hallowing and right direction of the natural instincts and affections, and for the mutual society, help and comfort which one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and adversity.  

Suggestions were made and the House of Bishops “agreed the general shape of the response, considered a number of detailed suggestions … and invited the Archbishops to finalise the draft.”
But the answers only raised more questions…

A key question is who were the mysterious and anonymous ‘staff’ who drafted the response?  This is significant because we know of staff at Church of House who are sympathetic to the aspirations of same-sex couples, and we know of staff who are definitely not!  Without knowing which members of staff were tasked to write the response, we cannot know if it the group or individual was balanced, neutral or partisan.
Other questions followed from members of Synod…

If Canon B30 was the basis for opposing same-sex marriage, how is it that the Church of England can embrace the many church members (and indeed members of Synod) who have not lived up to its rigorous ideals of life-long union to the exclusion of all others?  Many marriages are not permanent and lifelong, but the Church does not exclude or oppose 2nd, 3rd or further marriages after divorce. 
If marriage is for the procreation of children, what about couples who cannot or do not want to have children?  The Archbishops answer appeared to stretch Conon B30 to breaking point when he responded that “The Church of England has never regarded the validity or value of marriage as dependent on the possibility or intention of having children.”

What consideration was given to the pastoral impact of issuing such an unequivocal rejection of the possibility of same-sex marriage, as many same-sex couples (including many Church members) woke up on the 11th June to find their hopes and aspirations crushed?  The response was non-committal.
Were there any plans to revisit and review Canon B30?  “No” was the clear and definite answer.

Is the House of Bishops aware of the level of dismay and discontent the response had produced among faithful Anglicans?  “One cannot be anything but aware of this” the Archbishop said in response.
Last night was very revealing as Synod members probed the response which had been made in their name, but as often happens, the answers raised more questions than they answered.  At the end of the day, 4 key questions remain:

1.      Who were the ‘staff’ authors of the draft response and what personal perspectives did they bring to the task before them?

2.      If the Church is able and willing to recognise divorce and participate in remarriage without contravening Canon B30 insistence that the  nature” of marriage is “permanent and lifelong”, why is the church not also able to consider recognising and (perhaps one day) participating in marriage of same-sex couples?

3.      If “the Church of England has never regarded the value or validity of marriage to be dependent on the possibility or intention of having children”, how is it that opponents of same-sex marriage can hold up the issue of procreation as a reason why gay people can’t get married?

4.      Given the coach and horses which these answers drive through the Church’s definition of marriage, why are there no plans to revisit and review Canon B30?

This is an issue which won’t just go away…

Wednesday 4 July 2012

Trouble at the Top...

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.