Dear Kings Hill, Offham and West Malling,
I am so very, very sorry. I’m not going to pretend that this is the first time that the Church of England has let anybody down; I’m sure we’ve done it before and I am sure we’ll do it again. Ultimately, like anyone else, we are fragile, flawed human beings – that’s basically what the Christian faith is all about: the rescue of fragile, flawed human beings.
But on this one, it feels like we’ve particularly failed very badly.
On Tuesday evening, our General Synod failed to muster enough support to finally authorise the legislation that would have paved the way for women to become Bishops.
I appreciate that the theological niceties of their debates are lost on most people. Some of them are lost on me. Our wider society has long recognised the equality of men and women and, indeed, many people in the Church see things the same way.
The vast majority of us actually think and believe that Jesus was a radically inclusive teacher and leader for his time. He welcomed women into his following, they were the first witnesses at the resurrection, and some of them are named in the New Testament as deacons and apostles. Jesus enabled them to lead in a way which was unheard of at the time. In that sense, this legislation was trying to put things back the way they were when the Church first began.
Given that the legislation failed, you might assume that the Church is basically anti-women. The press certainly think so – all the headlines were about the Church ‘rejecting women bishops’ but that’s not really what happened.
74% of the people in General Synod voted in favour of women bishops. 95% of the geographical Dioceses voted in favour, including the Diocese we are in – the Diocese of Rochester. Please don’t let the media’s spin make those statistics disappear. If they had applied that level of interest and majority vote to the recent Police and Crime Commissioner elections, we’d have a landslide!
But then that makes me doubly sorry and you must be doubly confused.
I’m sorry that we didn’t get the legislation to enable women to become Bishops, but I’m also sorry that our system is such that even with such a high proportion of the vote in favour, we still couldn’t get it done.
The reason we couldn’t get it done was because our Bishops, our Clergy and our Congregations all had to vote in favour by at least two thirds. The Bishops and the Clergy did so in overwhelming numbers. Our Laity, the representatives of ordinary congregations, voted in favour too but their vote was 64% and we needed 66%. We needed two percent more… or just six people to vote differently. And so the legislation failed.
In one sense, there’s a positive side to the fact we set such a high bar to our voting. You ought to be able to hold your Church to a higher standard. We tend to hold ourselves to a higher standard and so it’s a good thing that such a high majority have to approve any major changes that we make.
The irony of this situation is that one ‘higher standard’ has actually meant we’ve failed to reach the more important ‘higher standard’ – that of seeing women and men able to serve equally with no barriers to senior leadership for either gender.
I want to reassure you that this isn’t the end of the matter. Synod actually said, some years ago, that there was no theological objection to women becoming Bishops and that statement still stands. It means that we just need to find a form of legislation that (at least) 66% of General Synod can agree with (Bishops, Clergy, and Laity) and that work has already started.
The main reason that the legislation failed is that there is another perspective within the Church that women ought not to be Bishops. You may well agree with that view and some do still struggle with the idea. I understand that.
Like the view that women ought to be Bishops, the view that they should not be Bishops can be reasoned from Scripture and is a position that is held not because such people are misogynists or bigoted, as our press and politicians like to suggest, but because they sincerely believe that is what God’s Word teaches.
I love the fact that the Church of England is a broad church. We have everyone from very high Anglo-Catholics through to very low Evangelicals. Because we are a national Church that tries to minister to the whole of England, we try to keep everyone on board. But that means that this legislation needed to find a way for those conscientious objectors to be able to find their place.
Again, in one sense, there’s a positive side to that. I would hope that you would want a Church that spoke out for minority voices and didn’t cast people out simply because they didn’t agree with the majority line. We’ve all seen what happens in history when societies, cultures, political systems and even religions start to get exclusive and intolerant of those who disagree.
So, we have a lot of work to do. We need to find that form of legislation that is going to enable women to be Bishops and for those who conscientiously object to continue to have their place and practice their particular spirituality within the Church of England and the Christian faith.
We also need to think about our system. While a higher standard is an excellent thing to be held to, it does all seem a bit daft that with 74% of the vote, the legislation still didn’t pass.
In this diocese, Rochester passed the legislation overwhelmingly at diocesan level. But then three out of our five lay representatives on General Synod voted against. To my mind, there’s something deeply wrong there. It also means that, amongst the Church, I will be saying that we must take Synod elections very seriously and elect people who we believe will represent our best interests. I’m not sure we’ve always given it our enthusiasm and priority in the past… to our great shame now.
I’m honestly not quite sure how we’re going to get to where we need to go and the vote on Monday has made it a lot more complicated because Parliament has now become deeply involved in this debate. For the first time in history on Thursday the Speaker allowed an emergency question to the Second Estates Commissioner. 24 MP’s spoke. Not one had a good word to say about the decision taken by the General Synod. We need to remember that as the Established Church, any legal provisions in the Measure will have to pass through Parliament and so what they think does matter.
To quote Bishop Steven Croft, the Bishop of Sheffield, I believe that this next period will continue to be an extremely difficult one for those opposed to women as priests and bishops. The alliance between conservative evangelicals opposed to women’s headship and anglo-catholics opposed to the ordination of women from a sacramental perspective will be subject to significant scrutiny. I expect these two very different theological positions will attract increased attention and criticism. Before Tuesday’s vote, these two positions had not been much examined and tested in public debate. They were simply respected as minority views held in good conscience. However they now, sadly, have much greater importance and will be subject to much closer scrutiny from our wider society.
However sincere the convictions of those who voted against the Measure, it is my honest view that the standing of the Church of England in our nation has been damaged by all this. On the Alan Carr TV show on Friday night, he mentioned the vote and the Church of England was roundly booed by the audience. That grieved me deeply that our nation would think of us so.
I hope and pray it is temporary. This decision has already made it more difficult for me to proclaim the gospel with joy and confidence in our communities, and yet that is my calling and responsibility before God, as indeed it is yours also. All we can do is love people, I think, and show by our actions that we are not what they think we are.
We have been in difficult places before. We are a Church who believes in hope and resurrection and that God is at work in every situation. However, on any understanding, these are serious matters.
Please also be reassured in the knowledge that a vast number of Bishops and Clergy, including myself, who are deeply disappointed by the fact that the legislation did not pass into law. I’ve met a number of Clergy in the last week at a Diocesan function at which the Bishop of Rochester spoke and it’s clear we’re all hurting too, many of us very deeply – many women Priests (for very obvious reasons) but many of the men also. I’ve cried often this week.
Please be gentle with us if you decide to accost us in the street and give us a piece of your mind about the whole thing – the chances are that we agree with you. I certainly do.
The Bishop of Rochester has publicly said he has no desire to stay in a House of Bishops until his retirement if it remains all men. If I’m honest, I won’t be part of the Church of England in the long-term either if our power structures can’t find a way to make this important step a reality.
But I’m not quitting yet. The everyday business of being a Vicar continues. It remains a privilege to stand with you in worship, enable you to mark significant moments in life with special occasions and services, work hard at making the church a place of welcome, play an active role in our local communities and seek all that’s good in life with you and for you.
I also believe that the Church of England will get there. I appreciate it may be frustrating and hard for you to see. We live in a fairly fast-moving and instant world and often the Church isn’t much like that. Please bear with us. We’re two thousand years old and we tend to think in a different timeframe.
I continue to believe that we can be renewed and transformed and able to speak to our society, and I continue to believe that the good Lord has me here to be a small part of that process. So I’m here and moving forward and conscious that more than ever, a good dose of humility and a loving attitude towards those I serve may go a long way to getting us further down that road.
This Sunday we reach the end of the Christian year with readings that remind us that Christ is the King. His kingdom is not of this world but he sits at the right hand of God the Father and one day, he will return for his church. On a day like today and in a week like this one, that knowledge gives me great comfort and confidence. Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father. One day his bride, the Church, will be purified and made right and we pray and long and hope and yearn for that day to come.
But until then, I’ll be here working and praying and seeking the Kingdom of God alongside you all. I hope you can forgive us and bear with us while, together, we all try to put this right and make Jesus’ Bride, God’s church, a little more of what she ought to be.
With my love and best wishes
Your Priest-in-Charge, David.