The Church and women bishops: ex or schism?
Last Sunday was ordination day, and as I drove to Sleaford for the ceremony full of an almost childlike excitement, like when you couldn’t sleep on the night before you went on holiday, I contemplated how I could pass on some of the joy and expectation that being a deacon, then a priest and now a bishop, has meant for me. I needn’t have been too concerned, for the job was done by our guest preacher for the day, my good friend Ian Corbett, who after a lengthy and exciting ministry which has taken him to all corners of the globe has just returned from ten years serving the native American Navajo people in Utah. But still I reflected: ‘what kind of Church were these bright things coming into? What might they expect from giving their life to it and what will be expected of them?’ In truth, the Church I was ordained into 34 years ago was nothing like the one we have today. I could rehearse the profound changes that have taken place over the years, but let’s just say that the ordination of women to the priesthood is a symbol of those changes. However, the reality is that the Church I ordained them in is a ‘work in progress’ and the change will continue inexorably in the lifetime of their ministries so that they too will look back in years to come and marvel at how different it all looks. We should rejoice in this, for there is only One who is changeless and it is our change and our ability to change that marks us out as humanity: God’s creation.
‘Why then? you may ask ‘does the average churchgoer resist change so much, and that right vehemently?’ It is not difficult to make a case out against the Church: its involvement in religious violence and justified wars throughout the centuries; its misuse by its leaders for gaining temporal power; the manifest inability of its adherents to live lives that are in any way like the ones the Jesus called us to and its compromised position in relation to political power, financial backing and the cynical manipulation of the marginalised and deprived. And, of course, we can all make a ‘tit for tat’ response to this and say that for every Borgia there is a Mother Theresa and for every Orangeman there is a Martin Luther King, but at the end the arguments are unsettling and unsatisfying and we know that the Church is not as it should be and is not as Jesus willed it. I make no excuse,as an apologist for the Church-and certainly as an upholder of a life of faith-in saying that I can understand why the young do not come to Church as it struggles to understand what its place now is in a world mistrustful of the trappings of power and privilege and of half-baked and badly presented truths. Somehow we have to cut through the choking clouds of incense obscurity, the sermonising and the like-minded, cosy, ghettoisation of the Church that we have and re-encounter the Jesus of the Mount beckoning us into the new future. This is a Church that excites me, and I think excites those we ordain nowadays too. But how long will it take before they become ‘All Gas and Gaiters’ rather than the ‘Vicar of Dibley’?
These thoughts present themselves to me as I listen to, and read, the dismal reportage of the, so-called, ‘Women Bishops’ debate in General Synod. A firm supporter of the idea, but also desirous of trying to maintain within our fold those who cannot, in conscience, accept the move, I wonder whether we are missing the point? For you see we do not ordain people so that they may wield power, have equal status to others or have their ‘rights’ catered for, and we certainly don’t ordain them to maintain the status quo: the ‘Conservative Party at prayer’ image. We ordain them so that they may hold out to a beleaguered World the possibility of a new way of doing things and of being in this life: we ordain them so that they can help us, our communities and ultimately our World, to change. We ordain them so they can help us look from the gutter to the stars. If this new horizon was held out to all those who now wish to be bishops or ministers of any kind in the Church, might it not be more exciting than what may be on offer at present and might it not be more acceptable to those who simply cannot see or understand the reasons for change? But, how long will it be before dull conformity takes over the newly ordained-will we allow it to, or indeed actively encourage it to?