I have completely lost count of the number of press and blog articles I’ve read on the women bishops vote since last Tuesday. It feels as if every angle and view has been thoroughly picked apart repeatedly and analysed to death now and yet they still keep coming. And now I’m going to lob in my own views in just to add to it all.
I’ve read some very thoughtful opinion pieces that have attempted to find a positive way forward and explain things without sensationalising the facts. On the other hand I’ve read some very biased and confrontational articles that have just stirred up animosity towards those with certain views. Articles describing the outcome as ‘suicide‘ for the Church of England and describing it as a national embarrassment haven’t been particularly helpful as well as being inaccurate.
The Church of England has faced plenty of struggles over the centuries. During the period of the Commonwealth from 1649-1660 following the English Civil War its bishops were abolished and its prayer book, the Book of Common Prayer, was banned. Now that’s what I call a real crisis. Certainly there are plenty of upset and annoyed people both inside and outside of the church who are extremely keen to see the current state of affairs rectified (as they might see it) and women allowed to become bishops ASAP.
As with any form of democracy, those who don’t get what they supported or voted for are going to be disappointed at the very least, but that doesn’t mean the system is inherently flawed. I’m not convinced that the C of E’s General Synod is needing to receive a complete overhaul as some commentators have suggested. Its systems might be painfully slow to move, but in time they usually produce the right result. Maybe there does need to be some time spent considering how members are voted on to it and whether the potential five-year wait until a women bishops motion comes before the Synod again is acceptable. General Synod isn’t parliament though and we shouldn’t expect it to run in the same way. If you want to understand more then Jon Marlow provides an excellent summary of how the Synod works and its underlying strengths.
If we want to identify where the failing lies, if there is one, we need to look back to the Synod elections of 2010 where it is recognised that the conservative and catholic wings of the C of E made a successful effort to increase their representation in the House of Laity. The Church Times reported this back in 2010 and their predictions of the numbers who would vote against women bishops two years later proved to be highly accurate. Those groups who support the acceptance of women bishops were comprehensively out-maneuvered. The next round of Synod elections takes place in 2015 and perhaps when that happens those who have felt let down need to take a proactive effort to do something about it if they don’t want to risk going through another painful experience when the next vote comes up.
All that I’ve written so far is an observation. I still believe if Synod is left to its own devices we’ll end up with women bishops in the near future. It’s just how long we will have to wait. What has actually concerned me though, is the response from Parliament to the result. David Cameron during prime Minister’s question time said that, “I am very clear that the time is right for women bishops; it was right many years ago. The church needs to get on with it and get with the programme.” What the ‘programme’ is, I assume, is the Church coming into line with equalities legislation. At least Cameron and Maria Miller, the Equalities minister have both said that it is the C of E’s job to sort itself out rather than having to resort to state interference. There have been some vocal MPs however who have disagreed with them.
Sir Tony Baldry, Second Church Estates Commissioner, who is responsible for taking questions in Parliament on Church matters and steering Church legislation through the Commons said on Thursday that, “If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation.” Labour’s Chris Bryant, himself a former C of E vicar, has called on the prime minister to refuse to allow the current 26 bishops in the House of Lords to take part in the house’s business until women can become bishops. Shadow Equalities minister, Yvette Cooper said on Question Time that if the C of E is unable to sort itself out the parliament should step in to make it happen. Perhaps most worrying of all is Frank Field’s tabled ‘Presentation Bill’ which will seek to remove from the statute book the exemptions from equality legislation that the C of E currently enjoys. Mr Field is well known in Parliament as a Christian and I have admired his work for some time, however this time he is potentially opening a huge can of worms.
As soon as MPs start to tell the Church how to run its business, we are in big trouble. As former Bishop of Durham, N.T. Wright wrote in the Times:
“The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.
“What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.”
The Church of England’s problem is that it is the established church of this nation. It is intrinsically tied to the state as it has been since 1689. On the whole both sides have managed to co-exist peacefully during this time. Until recently England could genuinely call itself a Christian country. Parliament and the C of E have on the whole worked towards the same goals basing their legislation on biblical principles. Where there have been differences such as divorce laws, the C of E has been allowed to follow its convictions for example by not being required to marry divorcees.
The church is most definitely not just another secular organisation. As N.T. Wright says, it should only follow what it believes to be God’s lead. Unfortunately as our parliament becomes increasingly illiterate when it comes to religious belief, this fact appears to be getting lost. If the calls for secular values to be imposed upon the church begin to seriously take hold amongst MPs then the Church of England, I believe for the first time, is going to need to start considering an exit strategy.
Until very recently I’ve been happy with the C of E being the established church, with all it contributes to the public life of the English nation. It hasn’t interfered with the way those who attend its churches worship, but I’m starting to doubt whether this will continue to be the case. If equalites legislation is forced on the Church not only will it have decisions such as the appointment of women bishops taken out of its hands, but also the issues of gay marriage and clergy. Potentially appointments to roles could not be made according to candidates’ beliefs (this has been explored in detail by Bob Morris at Law & Religion UK). It would most likely drive many people from the C of E who could not stomach such changes. State control of the church in other countries has not proved to be good for the Gospel and mission. The church is left impotent and legalistic. It’s the last thing I would want to see happen here. Much as I would hate to see it, disestablishment would be the only credible option.
Difficult days lie ahead. Those who voted down the women bishops legislation may have done so in good faith and I will not dismiss their convictions, but in doing so they may have increased the chances of the decision being taken out of their hands. I sincerely hope that those in positions of authority both in parliament and the Church of England will see the pitfalls of what potentially lies ahead and I pray that wisdom will win over knee-jerk reactions and legalism.
Perhaps God has chosen this time for the Church to be freed from the bonds of establishment in order to be a more effective and Kingdom centred church or perhaps this is just a wake-up call. Either way I trust God a lot more than politicians and his church needs to as well and act accordingly.