So the House of Bishops has responded to the response to their response to the process that the Church of England has been under going for the last 12 – 25 – 2000 years [delete as appropriate] concerning Women Bishops. I have been hanging about on the edge of this debate for a while and have supported WATCH in their campaign and efforts to have a women’s voice heard in it. Now that the House of Bishops have clarified their position, which turns out to be different compared to what they said in May, I am sure that most Diocesan Bishops will be issuing letters to elaborate their support or not and influence the voting of those who sit on Synod. Such letters will also go some way to either heal or stir the wounds of many women and women priests in particular. Since I am in the Oxford Diocese then it is Bishop John’s letter that I have just received [+John who's who, wiki]. This letter is available to download from the Oxford Website and as a pdf to download here. It’s very short, you might like to read that before continuing.
There is a place for discussion over the wording of the clause, but not here, see the WATCH response here [link to come once it is available on the WATCH website]. [Church times noting new wording comes from Revd Janet Appleby here.]
For me the letter raises concerns over the objectification of the issue ,and so women. After the first 4 paragraphs, which are introductions and outlining the announcement, three characters stand out in paragraphs 5 and 6: the Church of England, the country and women. Despite my appreciation for +John and his leadership in the Diocese, the way he uses these characters worries me a great deal.
+John urges Synod members in Oxford Diocese and elsewhere to vote in a way that is “best for the Church of England”. I find this quite hard to hear. Vote in a way that is in tune with the Spirit of God, that is best for those seeking to follow Jesus and love the world as God does, that captures the image of God that we are made in yes, but vote in a way that is best for the institution of the Church of England? Surely the institution of the Church of England should be voting in a way that is best for its members, or even better, the people of the parishes that it has committed itself to serving. Or even that the institution should be voting for the best of those members who have served in its name in congregations and parishes as attendees, deacons and priests, members who happen to be women. To ask that synod members should vote in a way that is best for the Church of England sadly shows a little ignorance of the pain that many feel over the way women have been treated in the process of recognising them as equals vocationally.
The second character that emerges is the country. There is little doubt that the Church of England, and by implication God, has lost credibility in the UK; many surveys and much anecdotal evidence suggests as much. There is also much to suggest that if women were to take up positions as bishops that it would have a positive effect on that credibility. I agree with this wider context, but let us not vote for women bishops, consecrating them into national spiritual leadership and giving them pastoral responsibility for the clergy of a diocese and cure of souls of those who live there because it is a strategic necessity to increase the likeability of the Church. As if we had a good credit rating amongst those under 35 would mean that we could once again put off recognising that the image of God is both male and female. As if there were alternative strategic options, that would enable us to engage with the real life of those at the cutting edge of our contemporary culture, we would choose that instead. As if voting for women to be allowed to be consecrated as bishops is somehow a big clever strategic move that will turn the tide of decline and irrelevance amongst a generation that is dismayed that such a debate was needed in the first place. Gender is not an issue for macro-strategy.
The final character to stand out in +John’s letter is women. For so long in this debate women in general and ordained women in particular, have been the subject of the conversation. They have suffered an objectification that is captured by the phase “Does she take sugar?”, a phase that we are sadly familiar with in talk about the disabled [Paralympic lessons learnt aside for one moment]. This was typified by the House of Bishops statement in May, which talked about the problem of women without a hint of acknowledgement that they are human let alone being thankful for their patience while the House of Male Bishops got their heads around the changing landscape. The talk about the gift of women in leadership is a seductive vocabulary; it has the intention of raising the profile of women, acknowledging who they are and being grateful for that. However, a gift is something given from one to another. From and to. Acknowledging a gap that is between. Women do not offer themselves as a gift to what is a male owned and run organisation [which of course it is]. Women are not outside offering to serve those inside. Women are as much as men are. Why should we celebrate women’s ministry? Yes there is a place to recognise those who serve in the face of gender persecution, but I am not sure that those who feel that persecution feel like they are offering themselves and what they do as a gift.
We, as a church, or at least some on behalf of the church, have spent too long worrying about the language of measures and clauses and codes. Language that in the final offering is still a poor compromise. Language that will bind us unhelpfully to a painful past. Language, as it is immortalised in canon law, that will bear witness to the poverty of our spirit. Official, legal, formal language. We have spent far too little time considering our ‘ordinary language’, the language we use in our everyday exchanges and correspondances, language that bears witness to lack of theological reflection on the situation we find ourselves in. This language, I fear, betrays what is hidden behind the compromise of the Clause: too many in the House of Male Bishops just don’t get it.