There is a very real possibility that this will be a momentous few days for the Church of England as the next attempt to make women bishops a reality comes to ahead on Monday at General Synod. Even though nothing has changed as far as legislation goes since the last attempt ended in crushing failure twenty months ago, we are in a very different place. When the House of Laity voted against the proposals in November, according to the systems that govern these things, it should have been a seven-year wait to get to the point we are at this weekend. The fact that so much work has been done behind the scenes in so short a time, is by the Church of England’s glacial standards a miracle in itself. For all of the Church of England’s dioceses to have voted in favour of the current draft legislation is possibly an even bigger one.
The credit for this progress has to be given to Justin Welby. Last time round there was a great deal of anguish over whether the legislation would be effective and the tension between those for and against was palpable. Now in a short space of time thanks to Welby’s decision to bring in his director of reconciliation, Canon David Porter from Coventry cathedral to oversee the process, the result is a simpler and more workable solution. Porter’s experience of helping with the peace agreement in Northern Ireland has been put to good use considerably reducing factional hostilities. Of course, despite this progress, there is no guarantee that the new legislation will be passed, but the signs are certainly promising as we could hope for.
For the first time we have an Archbishop of Canterbury with extensive experience of the real world. Welby has turned his strategic thinking that made him successful in big business and applied it successfully to his new role. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams admits that Welby is in a different league to him in this area: “Justin is, frankly, immeasurably better than I ever was at prioritising. He clearly knows where he wants to put his primary energies, and I was always much too ready to say Yes to this and Yes to that.”
Justin Welby is also willing to take big risks for the sake of achieving his aims. As a peace negotiator in Nigeria he was regularly blindfolded and captured by militants at gunpoint. prior to that phase in his life, he had smuggled bibles into communist European countries in an adapted camper van with his wife, Caroline. Welby is far from being your typical Archbishop; he has completely broken the mould both in the way he rose to the position and in his leadership style.
Back in March of last year, Justin Welby’s enthronement took place within a few days of Pope Francis’. Leading up to these events I wrote this in a blog post:
There is one other thing about the way God’s Holy Spirit intervenes and elevates outsiders to positions they would not be expected to obtain normally; when this sort of thing happens it usually heralds change. With these biblical examples given above [King David and the apostle Paul] along with many more, God used them to do new things within their nation and beyond as well as within the community of God’s people. God was on the move and the consequences were huge. Without invoking any messianic pretensions upon Pope Francis and Justin Welby, it seems given the timing of their enthronements and the nature of their appointments, that the global church is potentially on the edge of something new. These two men through their roles have the skills and backgrounds to take the church in new directions and to break down many of the barriers between denominations and beyond that will allow the church to continue to be an effective witness to the world. Unity and working to heal division is something both men are known for.
The moves to see women bishops in the Church of England have resulted in a long and turbulent journey that left Rowan Williams demoralised and dejected in 2012. Justin Welby could have been overawed by what has been a complex and divisive issue, but instead has clamped rocket boosters to the process with the intention of resolving it quickly without alienating others by doing so. This is masterful leadership, which has been demonstrated in many other ways including his work on the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards and his serious attempts to take on Wonga and the payday loans sector. This week’s news that the Church of England has finally removed all investments relating to Wonga is another indication that Welby means business.
Pope Francis has also brought a fresh style of leadership that has grabbed the world’s attention. In a world that constantly desires more, he has broken all the rules by demanding less. His humble approach to life that sees simplicity and humility as a virtue has embodied so much of Jesus’ teachings. It would seem paradoxical that living so counter-culturally should gain so many plaudits, but it strikes at the heart of the malaise of the human condition and opens our eyes to what could be.
Praise has come from unexpected quarters. Elton John’s comments last week were just the latest example. Given that he has expressed highly critical views of organized religion before it shows the level of impact the Pope has had. “Francis is a miracle of humility in the era of vanity,” said John in an interview with Vanity Fair in 2013.
Both the Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Francis are not content to rest on their laurels. Their mission is to see both their respective churches and the world changed dramatically through the power of God’s love. They share much in common. They speak repeatedly about the work of the Holy Spirit in a charismatic way and they have huge hearts for evangelism. They both seek to address the failings of their churches, both past and present, taking tough decisions and building new teams around them to see them implemented. Reconciliation continues to be right at the top of their priorities, as it has been for both of them throughout their lives. It is little wonder that they have quickly developed a great deal of mutual respect for each other and a desire to work together as has been seen through their joint work on the Global Freedom Network launched to combat modern slavery. They have both spoken out on numerous occasions on the injustices of modern economics and politics, which traps too many of the poor in pits of poverty that they are unlikely to ever escape from.
Rest assured, both of these men have no intention of letting up. Their faith and confidence in the Gospel of Jesus and their personal relationships with God has given them the desire to see the kingdom of Heaven invade Earth.
These are exciting times. The global Church is far from being on its last legs. God is doing a new thing right now and is using these two men as vessels for his work and potent figureheads for the Church. There is much more to come.
I finished my blog post in 2013 in this way:
This is already a time of great expectancy within the Church. Pope Francis and Justin Welby now have the opportunity to play their part in forming history too. They undoubtedly need our prayers, but if God is leading his church in a new direction then all of us who follow Him must be aware that it is not down to a few leaders to make this happen. Each of us has a role to play as members of the body of Christ in ensuring that we do not hamper the work of His Spirit irrespective of where He may lead us.
It seems a fitting way to end this one too. God is on the move.
Infographic via OnlineChristianColleges.com