Friday, 24 August 2012

Response to GS Misc 1033

In the nick of is my response to the consultation on the revision of Clause 5.1.c. 
(If that means nothing to you, don't read on!). 

Guiding Principles

1.    The purpose of the legislation is to open the episcopate to women on equal terms with men.

2.    A secondary purpose is to establish a Code of Practice to govern the implementation of this legislation, with particular reference to the fair treatment of those who dispute the validity of this as an appropriate theological development.

3.    Therefore, the legislation:
3.1  Must allow women bishops with no element of discrimination, against either them or male bishops who participate in their consecrations, or male clergy who are ordained or consecrated by them. In other words, there must be no no go areas for women bishops, as otherwise the primary purpose of the legislation has not been fulfilled.
3.2  Similarly, there must be no separate track for male clergy who have not associated with women bishops. This is important because otherwise it is possible to anticipate women bishops being effectively sidelined by male colleagues who wish to maintain the widest field of career options open to them. Such unintended discriminatory consequences are well known to occur in related fields such as maternity rights, and again would mean that the primary purpose of the legislation was not being fulfilled.
3.3  Must not give the impression, either deliberately or inadvertently, that there are two alternative views about the validity of womens ordination held simultaneously by the Church of England as a Church.  It will, however, of course recognise that individual members of the Church of England will continue to hold differing views about the validity of this development, in order to pursue its secondary purpose. But it must be clear that the Church of England as a church believes that womens ordination is valid.
3.4  Must not seek to protect or promote the theological view, as such, that womens ordination is unacceptable.
3.5  Must seek to assure all members and parishes of the Church of England that the Church is committed to their flourishing and to their growth, regardless of their views on this matter. It must do this without being seen to suggest that such growth is anticipated to come only through a change of heart on this matter.

4.    Whilst I understand the point being made in the documentation that saying this is not just about maleness is desirable to avoid the accusation of misogyny, I believe clarity is preferable to attempts at political correctness. If the opposition to women bishops is indeed not about gender, but about ecclesiology or orthodoxy, then the attempt to secure alternative bishops on that basis is little short of astonishing.
4.1 I can understand the logic though I deplore the premise of the argument that says that, if women cant be ordained, then they are just pretending to be clergy and so their sacramental acts are worthless. If you believe that, then I can understand why you would want an alternative male line. But if the argument is instead that you want a bishop who agrees with you, then this is a theological innovation far greater than women clergy (who existed in the early church), and one that has not been subject to anything like the same amount of debate and scrutiny.
4.2 Historically and theologically, it is a basic principle of episcopal churches that the bishop is the focus of unity. This does not, and has never, meant that everyone agrees with them. Similarly, it does not and has never meant that the sort of person chosen to be a bishop should be someone everyone can accept. Rather, what is has always meant is that accepting the validity of the bishop is the acceptable minimum required of any member of the church.
4.3 The Act of Synod introduced a dangerous and unprecedented innovation, therefore, when it allowed those opposed to womens ordination to choose alternative episcopal provision.
4.4 We seem to be in danger of assuming that, because the Act of Synod is extant, that is the status quo that this legislation should be protecting and extending. Nothing could be further from the truth.
4.5 Furthermore, this feels like a particular betrayal since the desirability or otherwise of the Act of Synod has not been debated in recent years precisely because we were told that this legislative process rendered such debate redundant. Diocesan synod motions calling for the rescinding of the Act of Synod have been parked for several years pending this legislative process. It is therefore not acceptable for it to be taken as the basis for this legislation, without at least substantial independent debate.

Analysis of the Options presented in GS Misc 1033

1.    I do not accept that keeping Clause 5.1.c is a viable way forward. I think it would be very unlikely to attain the necessary support in November, for all the reasons rehearsed in advance of the July Synod. In particular, I refer you to the WATCH Statement of Concerns, which comprehensively sets out the many serious reservations held about this clause.

2.    I would prefer to see Clause 5.1.c deleted. However, I accept that, given the history of the last few months, this too might make achieving a 2/3 majority difficult. I also accept that this would be politically difficult for the bishops involved.

3.    I propose, therefore, that Clause 5.1.c. is replaced with alternative wording. However, I do not support any of the alternatives suggested, though I accept that several represent minor improvements on the original wording. Nevertheless, they all continue to focus on the issue of acceptable maleness in a way which, given the guiding principles with which I began, I cannot regard as helpful.

A positive proposal for a replacement Clause 5.1.c

1.    Ideally, we want to find wording that brings joy and trust back into the process for all parties.
2.    With that in mind, what are the main fears around? Conversations in synod on Monday afternoon, and of course speeches, suggest the main fear for both evangelical and catholic opponents of womens ordination is of becoming marginalised and being expected to wither away. For evangelicals, the qualification of maleness is not really an issue (except in so far as this issue is being conflated with sexuality), but they appreciated the amendment somewhat because it gave some assurance of their viewpoint being regarded with some respect in the future. For catholics the qualification of maleness was more important, but the main underlying fear is the same - that they are being deliberately pushed out or will be marginalised.
3.    From a personal point of view, I need to confess that there is some truth in this. I would indeed like their view to wither away. Interestingly, though, when I really think, our underlying fear is exactly the same - that women (not just ordained women) will continue to be marginalised and oppressed by the legitimated continuation of a permanent question mark over the validity of our orders.
4.    Since fundamentally, therefore, we all fear the same thing, it seems possible that we could all be made joyful by wording that commits us all to the alleviation of that fear. That would mean all of us being prepared to give up our hope that the other would eventually be eliminated.
5.    Since this is about theology, though, we need to get away from speaking in the legislation of the rightness of the different views. They can't all be right, and it is nonsensical to protect in legislation views directly contradictory to those the legislation is enacting.
6.    However, we could shift the focus to the people concerned. Not in a patronising way promising to protect minorities: those who feel themselves to be the minority (which sometimes seems to be everyone in this debate!) would then rightly continue to feel afraid that the safe space demarcated for them might shrink in the future. But what if we turned this round, and committed ourselves to helping each other flourish and to co-operating? That is what everyone in the debate has been saying they want to achieve (well, mainly!), so why not address it head on? This might be the one thing that could put the joy back in the process for everyone - and potentially enjoy not just a 2/3 majority, but near- unanimity.
7.    Pragmatically, too, the key votes needed are not those of people who are convinced that women should not be ordained at any price, but those in the middle who believe women should be ordained but don't want to upset anyone. I think their greatest fear is of the guilt they would feel if they thought they had not behaved kindly to all. This could address that head on, too.
8.    On a more detailed note, I think point 6 above could be addressed by not trying to describe theological convictions (one of the problems with the proposed 5.1.c was the prospect of legal challenges of definition, on whether the specific grounds were being catered for sufficiently, and even the potential for the invention of new, spurious grounds in order to get the bishop desired!). If instead we speak simply of parishes whose PCCs have or have not signed letters of request then the legal question of definition is much simpler - there is just a matter of fact, not of opinion - and the issue of whether the views behind the letters are being legitimated is removed.

9.    With all that in mind, I propose that Clause 5.1.c be replaced with wording along the lines of that the Code must include arrangements:

'To promote the flourishing of, and foster co-operation between, parishes whose PCCs have, and have not, signed Letters of Request under clause 3 of this Measure'.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

A minor point...

Whilst contemplatively painting a wall in my new vicarage this evening, I found myself musing on the women bishops malarkey over the last few months. The reaction I and others got from several bishops when we said the last minute amendments weren't OK, was along the lines of 'Trust us, we're the bishops - don't worry your pretty little head over it - you haven't understood'. But over all was a sense that really, we should just accept what the bishops come up with because - well, because they are the bishops.

What has only just occurred to me clearly is: why aren't they saying that to those who oppose women's ordination? Why aren't the bishops saying to Forward in Faith, or to Reform, 'look, we're the bishops, live with the decision we make'? Why are women told to stop causing trouble with their strong opinions, while the bishops bend over backwards to placate and accommodate men with strong opinions?

Just asking....

Sunday, 5 August 2012

Sacramental Assurance and Risk Taking

One of the recurring themes of the opposition to women's ordination is the element of doubt versus assurance. The arguments vary, but a common theme is that it is unclear whether women should (or can) really be ordained, and so it is unclear whether, when an ordained woman is functioning as a priest or bishop, anything is actually happening. So the elements at Holy Communion might not really become Christ's body and blood if the service is presided over by a woman. A priest might not be really ordained if the ordination is done by a woman. God has promised the church that he will work through the sacraments, and our confidence in our salvation is rooted in that promise. So why mess about with it? The point is not that women definitely can't be ordained, but that it is uncertain. And why would we introduce an unnecessary element of uncertainty?  

Proponents of women's ordination, myself included, have usually responded to this sort of argument by simply ridiculing the idea that women can't be ordained. My own response has been mainly along the lines that I don't think there is a fundamental distinction between men and women in relation to God, and so a false category distinction is being imposed (male and female he created them, Galatians,etc: see previous blog posts!).

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder whether an equally fundamental issue is with the very concept of assurance itself.

A second recurring theme I've been hearing recently is one of risk taking, 'ministerial entrepreneurship' in one inelegant phrase. The parish profile for my new job asked, among other things, for 'a prayerful risk taker'. My unscientific sampling of various job adverts and parish profiles suggests that this sort of language is becoming much more common in the church.  Certainly in Durham diocese, one of the things that is impressing us and exciting us about our new bishop is his risk taking vision. He impresses on us that failure is OK, because the only real failure is not to try at all. It is better than to try and fail, and try again, than to simply stagnate. The parable of the talents comes to mind (though I would have loved Jesus to have included an example of someone who invested 7 talents but lost them all due to changed market conditions, or bad weather...).

This strikes a chord with me. My father was a maths teacher, and one of the things I remember very strongly from my childhood was him impressing on me that mistakes were good. Making mistakes is how mathematicians learn. The better a mathematician you are, the more mistakes you will make, because the more things you will try - and that's how you will make new discoveries. Every mistake is a learning opportunity. The same is true of safety in industry; not that accidents or near-misses are good, but that they are opportunities to learn and make things safer.

But if risk taking is good - if risk taking is Godly, as the parable would seem to imply - then is sacramental assurance something to be desired and supported? How Godly is a desire for certainty?

Synod papers discussing the women bishops legislation repeatedly use the phrase 'necessary but not sufficient'. We are told that for some, the maleness of their priest or bishop is  necessary but not sufficient - to really feel safe, they might need a man who has been ordained by a man, or even by a man who has never participated in or supported women's ordination. This is to give 'sacramental assurance' - the feeling of certainty that the sacraments they are getting are real sacraments. Women's ordination, because it introduces an element of uncertainty, is seen as something that it is valid to want to avoid, since certainty is a good thing.

But I wonder if in fact we should embrace women's ordination precisely because it might involve an additional element of uncertainty?

This would give us the opportunity to demonstrate that we trust in God, and in his promises, without feeling that their efficacy depends on us getting it right.

The closest parallel I can think of historically is with infant baptism. In the Reformation period the practice of baptising babies was hotly contested by some radical reformers. This was because the biblical evidence for the practice is limited at best, and because it was felt that baptising babies risked endorsing the Roman Catholic economy of salvation, in which church ceremonies were necessary for salvation, not merely personal faith.

However, the mainstream reformers consistently resisted this argument. For Luther, Calvin and others, infant baptism was crucial. This was partly because it fitted into their city-state view of Christendom, that the membership of the church was the same as the membership of the community. But it was also - and this is particularly clear in Luther - because baptising babies symbolised very clearly that faith itself was a gift of God, entirely undeserved, not something we work to achieve.

The sacraments are not a magical incantation that need to be done by the right person in the right way to 'work'. Instead, they are God's free gift to humanity, and always depend on God's grace. It is indeed reassuring to think that God has promised to work through them; but that reassurance shouldn't tempt us into thinking that the church and church tradition has tamed and controlled Gods grace and power, and now has a monopoly on it. One recent letter to the Times used the image of electricity to describe the charism of ordination, and claimed that inserting a woman into the chain was like inserting an insulator into an electric circuit; the electricity simply couldn't flow through her. How sad, and how dangerously limiting, to think of God's saving grace as being constrained to only flow in certain pre-approved channels! If ordaining women challenges such a heresy, then all the more reason to do it.

No, we might not be sure it will 'work'. That's faith for you.