Saturday, 29 December 2012

A New Year Calling?

This is my sermon for Christmas 1C.
The readings are 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26, and Luke 2:41-52.

Last week, we heard about Jesus being born. This week we hear in our reading how his destiny begins to unfold.

It's rather like flipping through the family album. On page one - ahhh! Baby Jesus in the manger, surrounded by shepherds, Mary and Joseph and the shepherds all beaming at the camera. Do you remember how that donkey kept us awake all night with its eeyore? And the smell of that goat!

On page two - oh my goodness, that takes me back! Do you remember when that one was taken? Jesus just twelve years old and we thought we had lost him- you thought he was with your mum and dad, I thought he was with Mrs Nextdoor and her kids, and then those awful three days of panic before we finally found him in the temple. Look how cross he was at being dragged off home!

We are working with lots of different calendars today. On one timescale, Jesus was born just a few days ago. He is now five days old, perhaps just beginning to establish feeding to Mary's great relief. He is not yet sleeping through the nights, and Mary and Joseph are shattered. Even though they've registered for the census now, they can't begin to face the long journey home just yet. And to top it all,this enormous star is shining above the inn. We know, but they don't yet know, that it is acting as a beacon for the magi from the East, who saw it shine when Jesus was born and are even now travelling to find this new born king. On this calendar, they'll arrive next week, and Mary and Joseph will then flee before the jealous King Herod can find them and slaughter Jesus.

On the other calendar, our lectionary, we catch a rare glimpse into Jesus' childhood. In our gospel reading today we see him at 12 years old, on what we're told was his annual visit to Jerusalem with a great crowd of extended family and friends. It's fascinating to think that when Jesus went into Jerusalem as an adult, he was returning to somewhere he'd been many times as a child, the place of happy holiday memories. Even the temple, where he was to throw out the money changers and engage in a hostile and ultimately fatal confrontation with the scribes and Pharisees, was somewhere where, as a child, he had longed to be and had sat at the feet perhaps of some of those same scribes and Pharisees, or their fathers, asking eager questions.

And on our secular calendar, we are at the cusp of a new year, with most of 2012 behind us and 2013 stretching ahead. We've read the annual letters from assorted friends, relations and distant acquaintances, summarising what 2012 meant for them, and we may well have written our own, or taken mental stock of a year now ending. And we begin to turn to the new year, whether with New Years resolutions, new gym memberships, new diets, or simply with new holiday planning to look forward to. we have new diaries to fill, we may well know were about to be given new objectives and targets at work, we may be looking forward to a forthcoming birth or a wedding, or a special trip. Christmas can suddenly, even though it was only five days ago, seem so last year.

So many different calendars. All held together, today, by the central figure of Jesus, and his unfolding destiny, and what that means for us.

Both our readings this morning give us little glimpses into the childhood lives of great Biblical figures, the prophet Samuel as well as Jesus. The focus is very much on pointing out their destinies, that even as children they were part of Gods plan and were serving God's purposes. Samuel in particular is well known as the child who heard Gods voice, calling in the night - 'Samuel! Samuel!' - and thinking it was his mentor Eli who was calling, until Eli realises it must be God and advises him to reply 'here I am Lord, your servant is listening'.

And in our gospel reading today, we hear about Jesus, as a twelve year old, getting himself left behind in Jerusalem because he was so caught up in debating and learning in the temple.
We often focus, when we hear this story, on the human drama of a lost child. I'm sure those of you who are or have been parents or in any sort of caring relationship will know the surge of adrenaline you get when you realise the child you're responsible for is out of sight for a second - and the overwhelming relief, and anger, that comes when you find them again!

But I want to focus today on where these two stories coincide. Both end with an almost identical sentence:

Samuel, and Jesus, we are told, both continued to grow. They grew both naturally in size and age as children do, and they grew in favour with God and people.

It is unusual for the heroes of one, let alone two of our daily readings to be children. In these readings Jesus is 12, and Samuel about 7. And it is very noticeable that whilst they are both growing - there is a clear sense of future destiny for both - they are also both serving God and being the people they are called to be now, too. Jesus is sitting and learning from the temple authorities  - effectively sending himself to extra school because the subject fascinates him. Samuel is serving in the temple, being visited annually by his mother - I suppose the closest equivalent today is a choirboy at boarding school. They are both still learning from the masters, but they are also really doing religion themselves too, not just having it done to them. These children are demonstrating something of what it means for children to be the church of today as well as the church of tomorrow. They are still growing, but they aren't waiting until they are fully grown to get started on their life's work. Even as children, they are participating fully in the life of Gods church.

Sometimes we all feel that we will do something good, something important, but we are not ready just yet. We will make changes in our life, but not yet. The time isn't quite right just now. When we've learnt more, earned more, seen more, been more, then, then maybe then....but the time never seems to be quite right.

These stories of Samuel and Jesus as children show us, perhaps, that we can get on with things even as we are growing. We don't have to feel we've made it as Christians before we can be useful to God and others. God works with us as we grow and change and learn.

Just as God called Jesus to certain tasks and to a certain life, so God calls each one of us. We aren’t all called to the same things, and we are called to different things at different times. But we are all called to do something. We are all invited to co-operate with God in bringing his kingdom about. The start of a new year is a good time to take stock, and to make plans. And I want to suggest that it is also a good time for us to think and pray about what God is calling us to do and be. Because one thing I am absolutely sure of is that God has something for you to do in 2013. It might be more of the same. It might be radically different.

Think for a minute about the idea of us as God’s children, his heirs. One of the important things about that image is that there is a future dimension to it. Like Samuel, like Jesus, we are always growing and changing. We learn more and more about God, about ourselves, and about the world around us. We ask questions. We are constantly faced with choices to make about our lives. And what God wants from us can change too.

So as we stand at the start of a new year, what is God is calling you to in 2013?

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Monday, 17 December 2012

Rough Guide to Feminism 3: Recovering Women's Voices

A key area in which a distinctively Christian feminism has been revitalising Christian theology is in recovering women’s voices from the past.

An early and very influential book was Elizabeth Schussler Fiorenza’s work ‘In Memory of Her’, which focused on the women who are either barely mentioned, or not mentioned at all in the Bible, but whose presence can be inferred. Since then it has become part of mainstream biblical scholarship and preaching to note the presence of women in the biblical texts.

Some are obvious, and the first step on this journey was simply to read and use the stories of the women that are indeed in the texts. The role of the Virgin Mary has been rediscovered in the Protestant tradition, for example, and Old Testament heroines such as Esther, Deborah and Jael are now much more commonly cited when we are doing a Sunday school series on Old Testament Stories or biblical heroes, in a way that simply didn’t happen a generation ago.

 More subtly, Christian feminism has pointed out the presence of other women who are relatively hidden in the texts. To take perhaps the most obvious example: The feeding of the 5000. We still call it that, don’t we? Yet what we’re told in Mark 6 is that those present ‘numbered five thousand men’, and in Luke ‘those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children’. Woah! This isn’t the feeding of the 5,000. It might be the feeding of the 10,000, or the 15 or 20 or 25, 000.

That passage is a very stark demonstration of how feminism can open our eyes to the extent that the Biblical texts were very much a product of their time. It would have suited the writers purposes to give us a bigger number, as it would have made the miracle even more impressive. It simply doesn’t seem to have occurred to them to count the women and children – literally, only men counted.

This is why Christian feminism is deeply sceptical of arguments against women’s ordination which are based on the so-called fact that Jesus only called male disciples. Really? We don’t actually know that.

What we know, as a strict matter of historical evidence, is that the biblical texts written between 70 and 200 or so years after Jesus’ ministry, describe 12 of his male followers as a special category of disciples. They also mention several female followers, often with an extremely close relationship to Jesus. Amazingly, in fact, we know that far more of these women were with Jesus at his death than the only male disciple recorded; and that women were the first witnesses of the resurrection. Feminist theologians wonder, therefore. Was there in fact such a distinction between the men and the women at the time, or might this be a later interpretation imposed on the record? The question is worth asking.

Similarly, another major strand of work amongst feminist theologians is the recovery and critical study of the work of female theologians of the past. It is still relatively common to see lists of major theologians, or anthologies of Christian writings, which include either no women at all, or only one or two examples, often Julian of Norwich or another of the medieval mystics. This is often defended on the basis that, sadly, the way the world was in the past meant that women simply weren’t given the education or the opportunity to write. The giants of Christian theology were indeed all male and there is not a lot we can do about that, runs the argument.

Yet in mainstream history we have largely discarded the ‘great men’ way of doing history in favour of a much more nuanced and multi-vocal approach. Historians are very used nowadays to seeking out the stories and voices wherever possible of those normal members of society who were having history, in the old model, done to them. And as feminist theologians have gone looking for women theologians of the past, they have found them, working away in whatever ways were just about deemed culturally acceptable and open to them at the time.

The amazing role of the early abbesses, for example,has been rediscovered in recent decades. Double monasteries, containing communities of both monks and nuns, were relatively common in England before they were banned in the papal reforms of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. And double monasteries were always headed by an Abbess, who was in overall charge of both communities; the most famous example, of course, being Hilda of Whitby.

The medieval mystics, of which Julian of Norwich is only the best known example, were very often women, and this was clearly a way in which women with great spiritual wisdom or theological gifts were able to use those in an acceptable – indeed, in a very highly valued – way.

Another aspect of women’s theological writing that has been rediscovered in recent years has been particular genres that were available to women. The most well known of these is poetry. Women writing poetry was very widely accepted, and with the invention of printing women’s poetry could even be published acceptably and enjoy a very wide readership. Some of these poems, such as those by Aemilia Lanyer – who is best known as one candidate for being Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady’ – are in fact carefully argued theological treatises, simply arranged in poetic form.

Another genre that was particularly available to women in the sixteenth and seventeenth century was the ‘Mother’s Legacy’. This was a book of theology written, or supposedly written, whilst a woman was pregnant. It took the form of a letter to her unborn child, the idea being that, if she were to die in childbirth, this is the substance of the faith that she would otherwise have taught the child in infancy. These were often substantial theological treatises, and again were frequently published and enjoyed wide sales. They were often published with a foreword pointing out that since the initial composition of the letter, the mother had found that other mothers of her acquaintance had found it helpful in teaching their own children, and that on the advice and entreaty of the local bishop it was now offered to a wider public.

So Christian feminism points out that our view of what is a theological writing has itself been skewed through a patriarchal lens.

Women were writing theology, they were simply having to use alternative genres to achieve acceptance and publication opportunities. If we continue to limit our view of what comprises the canon of classics to the university texts written by male theologians, after becoming aware of this other history, then we are complicit in continuing and extending the suppression of women’s voices.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

Rough Guide to Feminism 2: Raising Awareness

The first key task of feminism is awareness raising.

And the first thing that feminism has contributed to modern Christianity is an increasing awareness that issues of sex and gender are issues at all. In particular, feminism has hoped to make people realize how much our cultural assumptions about what it is to be human have been based on what it is to be a particular type of adult man.

In the early days of feminism this needed saying again and again and again. Feminists have sometimes have been accused of being ‘strident’, and we’ve all had the experience of raising a point about gender in a meeting and seeing everyones eyes roll – there she goes again! But sometimes, when one is saying something that a culture doesn’t want to hear, you have to shout repeatedly to be heard at all.

Feminism is first and foremost about raising awareness of issues of sex and gender.

The two  terms 'sex' and 'gender' are often used interchangeably, but they represent slightly different aspects of the issues. In broad terms, ‘sex’ is a matter of biological reproductive fact. It concerns the variety of sexual and reproductive differentiation in both plants and animals. So when we speak of issues of sex we are properly speaking referring to issues regarding the spectrum of physical and biological differences between the male and female of the species.

‘Gender’, on the other hand, refers to a much wider variety of culturally determined understandings of what it is to be male or female. Sex, we might say, is a given; gender is performed. And there are a wide variety of gender identities, which often change over time: simple examples are girl/woman/mother/grandmother, or boy/man/father/grandfather. Each word encapsulates a distinct set of cultural expectations as to how that gendered role will be performed, and what it is to be a good boy, woman, father, grandmother. Once we grasp the idea of gender as performance and as a cluster of cultural expectations, we can see clearly just how much variety there is and has been historically.

In the past, the category of eunuch was a distinct male gender identity (there is a fascinating chapter on eunuchs in Teresa Berger's excellent book Gender Differences and the Making of Liturgical History). Nowadays, the category of gay man is clearly differentiated from the category of heterosexual adult male, or ‘family man’. In our culture, too, heterosexual adults who remain childless often find that they are problematised by society as not fitting neatly into any of our main cultural gender stereotypes.

In the early days of feminism this emphasis on raising awareness of sex and gender was heard as being about ‘women’s issues. But maleness is, of course, as gendered a concept as femaleness. I say ‘of course’, but in fact this is one of those seemingly obvious statements that people seem to find it very hard to fully accept.

Feminism has done quite well at this core task of awareness raising, though the task is by no means over. But the very fact that we are having arguments about women bishops, and that in those arguments nobody is suggesting that the women we have in senior roles now wouldn’t make excellent bishops, shows how far we have come.

Writing in the Church Times in the autumn, Rowan Williams argued that our current position in having women priests but not bishops is anomalous, and doesn’t reflect a proper theology of the priesthood of all believers. And he acknowledged the debt that Christian theology owes to this awareness raising task of feminism. He said: whilst ‘Wanting to move beyond this anomaly is not a sign of giving in to secular egalitarianism… we must be honest, and admit that, without secular feminism, we might never have seen the urgency of this, or the inconsistency of our previous position.’

Saturday, 24 November 2012

A Parable for Christ the King

My husband couldn't sleep after the vote on Tuesday, and the next day he told me this story.
This is my sermon this Sunday, and he also asked me to post it here.

Once there was an inspirational Scoutmaster, who set off with his small Scout troop on a hike.  As they walked with him, He gave them a vision of the beautiful far country, the King’s own country, that they would reach if they followed his Way.  They had also been taught the Scout hiking rules; that you stay together and you can only go at the speed of the slowest walker.

After only a very short while, the Scoutmaster had to leave the Scouts to hike alone, but they had faith in the vision of the beautiful far country and the Way to it that the Scoutmaster had described, so they walked on together.  And as they walked, they talked to people they met on the road, and they told them about the Scoutmaster and the beautiful far country, and many joined them on the hike.  As they walked and talked together, they realised that the Scoutmaster was in fact the King and had gone on ahead of them to His beautiful far country, and their thirst was redoubled to reach there and meet him again.  

They needed this faith as the terrain got rockier, and the Way became less clear.  The Scouts realised that the hike was longer than they had thought, and they did not have a map of the terrain ahead, or where the Way was when the path branched.  

The Scoutmaster had described to them what the Way was like, so together the Scouts wrote down his descriptions to give a navigation guide to those who had joined them on the road, and had not heard the Scoutmaster for themselves.  As they wrote together, they realised they each remembered different things of what the Scoutmaster had said, one recalled that he had been especially clear about following the rules of the road, another that he had said …., and yet another that he was….. 

And as they walked on the number of Scouts on the hike grew and grew. They became so numerous that they organised themselves into Patrols, sometimes grouping together Scouts who had joined at the same place, sometimes because they agreed about a particular image of the Scoutmaster.

And sometimes, when they came to a branch in the path, the Patrols would disagree about which was the Way, and would take different paths, with bitter regret, and hoping that the paths would converge again later, and they would meet again in the King’s far country.

So now we will follow just one of these Scout Patrols, after they had been hiking together for many miles.  They had the navigation guide that other Scouts had written before them, and they also had faith that the Scoutmaster continued to guide them and that they were walking in roughly the right direction. Even though they could not see him, sometimes one of them thought they could hear his voice calling to them in the night, or speaking to them in the silence as they walked. And they were also guided in finding the path forward by continually looking over their shoulders and comparing the terrain ahead with the path they had followed to get there.  

For some time this patrol passed through some lush valleys. But then the road became steeper, and the terrain less welcoming, and they could all see a big mountain up ahead.  It became very unclear where the path was going, or even what was the path and what was just rocks. 

And as the going got steeper and the path less clear, a few of the Scouts began to say that the lush valleys behind them were in fact the King’s far country already.  

They increasingly wanted to slow down, stop, and turn around to admire the beauty of the view. Look how lovely it is, they said. This must be the beautiful far country the King spoke of. The path was so clear up to here, and that view down there is so beautiful and so peaceful.  They began to suggest that carrying on walking ahead was to walk out of the King’s country. Some began to say that they should just sit down and stay where they were, looking backwards along the path they’d come and admiring the view.

 Many others recalled that there had in fact been steep and rocky hills between each valley, and potholes in the road that had tripped them up. They did not believe that this was the King’s own country, and they wanted to press ahead on the Way. But the Patrol had remembered the Scout hiking rules; that you stay together and you can only go at the speed of the slowest walker, so they waited, more or less patiently, as some groups stopped or walked slower. 

But as time went on, and the walk got slower and slower, and the arguments about whether they should climb the mountain, or stay here, or try a different path went on, many got bored and disillusioned by the bickering. And more and more of the scouts gave up on the walk and drifted away, or set off on their own.

Eventually after the Scouts had said many words to each other, but they were still at the foot of the mountain, the Patrol Leader got tired and decided to retire. And he handed onto a new Patrol Leader just at the point where all the Patrol thought they had agreed that they were finally about to ascend the mountain together.

But just at that moment, a few of the Scouts didn’t want to go up the mountain on the unclear path sat down, or lay down, and refused to move. The rest of the patrol pleaded with them to get up and keep going. But they refused to move, and shouted triumphantly that the rest of the Patrol could go not go forward either, as the Scout hiking rule was that they should remain together and go at the speed of the slowest hiker.

And all the rest of the Scouts looked at each other in amazement.  They wanted to follow the voice of the Scoutmaster calling from over the mountain, and eventually to meet him face-to-face in the King’s far beautiful country.  But they didn’t want to leave their brothers and sisters sitting and lying in the dust of the road. And they didn’t want to all  stay under the shadow of the mountain, whilst many of those who lived on the mountain laughed down at the ridiculous spectacle they had made of themselves.

 “Enough is enough” they said.  And they picked their brothers and sisters up from the floor, swung them over their shoulders, kicking and screaming, and - more slowly than they would like, as they were carrying their friends - they set off on the Way up the mountain together.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

My reaction? Incredulity, hurt - and anger.

So, the vote is no. Which doesn't close down the debate and allow us to get on with other things, but simply condemns us all to another 5-10 years of working on this. I am stunned that anyone, whatever their views on women bishops, could feel that is a good use of our time and energy in the next decade.

I suspect some of those who voted against are similarly stunned. From the looks on some faces, and brief conversations as we left, I get the impression that some - probably more than 6 - wanted to register a protest but hadn't expected it to mean the measure would fall. If so, they badly miscalculated. The damage this has done, and will continue to do, to the reputation and moral authority of the Church of England is very great.

 But we knew the vote might be no. What has really upset me is the level and tone of some of the debate. Despite all the protestations that this was 'just' about 'more provision', what speaker after speaker said was that they entirely reject any leadership by women.

 We were told that God the Father is the head of the Trinity, so subordination is at the heart of God. That is blatant heresy.

 We were told that because the Bible speaks of God as Father and Son as favourite metaphors, God is male, and women can therefore only be second class approximations to his image.

Top quote of the day - not for offensiveness, but for sheer open- mouthed incredulity that anyone would even think of saying this, was 'Of course, women aren't just there to make the tea. Though that is an important aspect of diaconal ministry'.

 If I thought the Church of England believed all that, or expected me to teach it, I would have to leave now. Today. Forget the fact that I've just moved house, moved kids schools, started at a new church. I couldn't possibly be trying to grow the Church, support it, persuade others of its truth. I couldn't even be a member, let alone a priest, of such a Church. Allow me some conscientious objections too.

But the Church if England does not believe that. So please, please, can we start having this sort of damaging nonsense challenged by the men in authority, not pandered to? Such speeches should not have been tolerated by the Chair. They should have been rebutted by the bishops. Instead, people fell over themselves to offer reassurances that those with these views would be 'protected' from women bishops who clearly can't be trusted to behave as bishops and pastor their flock.

We need to grow up and use the Bible maturely, and not be bullied into agreeing that any quotation can be applied directly to our own context, or that any interpretation is valid because it is 'my deeply held theological conviction'. I know this applies to all of us. I know it is messier than pretended certainties. But it is also more honest.

The gloves came off in this debate. Opponents have generally  tried to be polite about women in recent years, realising that blatant rudeness damages their cause. But the ugly attitudes and damaging beliefs about women have not gone away, and they surfaced yesterday. Speaker after speaker against the motion grounded their opposition to this measure in a view of sex and gender that sees male and female as irreconcilably different and unequal. One is more godly than the other. One is destined to be in charge. 'Equal but different' was the rallying cry, but the difference was spelled out as one being in leadership and the other not. What value does the word 'equal' have here?

And, of course, the elephant in the room was homosexuality. Because those opposed implacably to women having authority rightly fear that if they give ground on the essential difference of the sexes, they undermine what coherence there is to their arguments in support of their visceral distaste for same sex relationships.

Those opposed from a 'conservative evangelical' perspective (redefined, as Elaine Storkey pointed out, to mean you are only a conservative evangelical if you believe in male headship) complained that they couldn't trust the legislation as there were no conservative evangelical bishops. Two points on that. Firstly, if you define your constituency so narrowly as to exclude anyone who would be able to work respectfully with ministers of other views, thinking they don't believe the Bible, then of course they can't become bishops. Secondly, I refer you to my previous blog post entitled 'Pick your own bishop'. This legislation would have guaranteed any parish a male bishop if that is what they demanded. It could not and should not guarantee everyone a bishop who agrees with them.

I am left feeling rejected by the Church that accepted me for ministry. Among all the talk of promises and assurances, what price the promise in my ordination, that the Church believed I was called to this ministry and that it had the authority to ordain me? It is all very well to say that we want to go forward together, but that was the offer yesterday and it has been ripped up and thrown in our faces.

So why not resign?

 Firstly, because I do believe I was called by God, 20 years ago, to be a vicar. I might pray 'take this cup away from me', but at the moment I am strengthened by the memory of that initial moment of call. I will continue to try to follow.

Secondly, I think back to the Minster service during Synod in July. The first reading was from Ezekiel 2. There were several wry smiles as the prophet repeatedly spoke of a 'rebellious house'. But the words that spoke directly to me were: 'I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, Thus says the Lord God. Whether they hear or refuse to hear (for they are a rebellious house), they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.' All we can each do is say what we are given to say, do what we are called to do. I need to remember that success or failure is not up to me. I trust God won't judge me on whether I manage to get the whole Church to agree with me.

Thirdly, of course, my parish. I have a job to do here, people to love and serve. People to baptise, marry, bury, teach, celebrate communion with, pray with and for. I owe it to them not to walk out on them.

And I apologise to them - as I will on Sunday - for the time I am going to spend on this over the next few years. I was hoping that wouldn't have to be the case, but my call is both to serve them and to say what I have to say.

And so we go on.


Monday, 19 November 2012

Open Letter to General Synod

I sent this letter to The Independent, and it is published today along with over 1000 other clergy signatures. Many more people have since emailed me to say they didn't see it in time, but would also like to sign.

Sir -
We, as clergy of the Church of England, stand alongside Rowan Williams, Justin Welby, and the dioceses of the Church of England, in hoping that the General Synod will vote tomorrow to allow women to become bishops in our church.

We believe wholeheartedly that this is the right thing to do, and that the time is now right to do it.  There are many reasons for this belief, and we highlight just some here.

First, because the Bible teaches that 'in Christ there is no male and female', but all people are equal before God. Just as the churches have repented of our historic anti-semitism and endorsement of slavery, so we believe that we must now show clearly that we no longer believe women to be inferior to men.

Secondly, Jesus treated women radically equally. He encouraged them as disciples, and chose a woman as the first witness to His resurrection at a time when women's testimony was inadmissible in law.

Thirdly, we have promised as clergy to 'proclaim the faith afresh in every generation'. We fear that failing to take this step would do the opposite, proclaiming instead that the church is more interested in the past than the future.

The legislation to be voted on tomorrow represents enormous compromise from all sides. Those who wish to avoid the ministry of women will still be able legally to do so.

We hope and pray that all will feel able to work together in the future with the trust and respect that should characterise our Church.


Revd. Dr. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes,
Vicar of Belmont &Pittington, Diocese of Durham.


Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Rough Guide to Feminism 1: What is Christian Feminism?

Today I have been annoyed by reports of the Forward in Faith conference. This may not surprise you! But what has annoyed me is not their heartfelt opposition to women bishops, but a throwaway comment that the opposition to clause 5.1.c came from 'unreconstructed sixties feminists'. 

On Friday, I gave a talk at Romsey Abbey on 'Feminism and Faith'. I'd like to reclaim feminism from this sort of criticism. Feminism has achieved a great deal for our society over the years, and should not be used as a disposable insult.

So to begin with, lets go back to the basics. What is Christian feminism?

For me, the heart of Christian feminism is that it is a form of liberation theology. Like other liberation theologies it assumes that God’s intention for the world in its creation and redemption is good news for all people. It takes very seriously the call of the prophets for justice and equity between all peoples, as being more important to God than fidelity to a particular worshipping tradition for its own sake. It assumes that, where inequalities and injustices are to be seen in the world, this is a result of human sinfulness and is not God’s plan in creation. 

As a result, liberation theology believes that a key aspect of the Christian response to such inequalities and injustices is to challenge them. It understands a key aspect of Christian discipleship as being to seek to make this world somewhere more closely approximating to the vision of God’s kingdom: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven’. 

Liberation theologies practice what is known as a hermeneutic of suspicion when considering sacred texts, traditions and practices. They ask of any text or practice, whose interests is this fostering? In whose interests is it to continue doing things this way? And whose interests might be being marginalized or dismissed by the way this text or tradition is being used?

Liberation theologies each have their own particular focus, but the family likeness between them is that the focus is one of perceived inequity and injustice between two groups of people. Classical liberation theology focuses on the poor and the rich, or more specifically the disenfranchised and oppressed and the rich and powerful. Black theology focuses on issues of racial and cultural discrimination. 

And feminist theology, of course, focuses particularly on issues of sex and gender discrimination. Christian feminism takes as its starting point the belief that God created both men and women in God’s own image, and that the gospel is good news for both men and women equally. It then attempts to shine a light on areas where this has not been followed through in Christian tradition and practice, and seeks reformation.

 There are still people out there who caricature feminism, either out of ignorance or to try to discredit it. They see 'feminism’ as being about trying to privilege women above men, or about women hating or despising or wanting to ‘get back’ at men. It also gets confused at times with the term ‘feminisation’. People sometimes accuse Christian feminists of ‘feminising’ the church, making it all pink and fluffy and putting off men from coming. Of course, when we unpack the accusation of ‘feminisation’ we uncover all sorts of cultural assumptions that women and women’s values are of less importance than men and men’s values, and that men are of more importance than women. 

Making the church female, or privileging women over men, is not what Christian feminism means or wants. I suspect it is too late to try to change the name now, and in fact to do so might be colluding with the view that female is bad, but in some ways ‘genderism’ would be a better description. Because the aim of Christian feminism is to make the world a better place, in line with what we think God intends for God’s people. We believe that will be better for both men and women. 

Sometimes people worry that this will be bad news for men, because if power is shared more equally men will get less of it. However, as Christians we believe that all of us are better able to flourish when power is given up to be shared with others, rather than used to lord it over other people. So we believe that the redistribution of power between men and women is not, in mathematical terms, a zero sum game, in which as some gain an advantage others lose out. Rather, we believe that by sharing power more equally, all people will be better able to flourish as the human beings God calls us to be.

In common with other liberation theologies, Christian feminism believes that, by working together in partnership without giving value judgements to the distinctions that so often divide us, all of God’s people are given their true dignity. By valuing all people equally regardless of (for example) colour, wealth, sex or gender, we are all freed from the limitations of cultural expectations, to flourish and grow as disciples of Christ.

So Christian feminism believes that God created both men and women in God’s own image, and that the gospel is good news for both men and women equally. It then attempts to shine a light on areas where this has not been followed through in Christian tradition and practice, and seeks reformation in our churches as a result.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Asking the trick questions

This is the gist of my sermon this morning on Mark 10:2-16.

Some Pharisees came: and to test Jesus they asked him: is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?
I've been fielding quite a few press enquiries over the last couple of weeks, about the appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury, and some of the things that the press keep asking about the various candidates is  'where does he stand on gay marriage?' or 'does he support the ordination of women?'.

Reading Mark 10 for today's sermon, as I read that first test question, time seemed to compress. People don't change much, do they?  We seem to have an inbuilt desire - part of what the medieval theologians described as original sin - to classify people. And so we ask some key questions, of bishops, of politicians, of people we meet at parties (more subtly). And we assume that the answers to those questions will tell us whether the person is on our side or not. Are they right or wrong, good or bad, in or out, acceptable or unacceptable, depending on their answers to a few key test questions.

The actual questions change over time and between contexts. In modern American politics, abortion is a key one. And indeed we seem to be heading that way here. In church circles, gay marriage is rapidly overtaking the ordination of women as the killer question.

In Jesus case the gospels record four test questions put to him. There is this one about divorce, and then a set of three test questions put to Jesus by different interest groups on another occasion: should we pay tax to the emperor? If seven brothers all marry the same woman in turn, as each dies in turn, whose wife would she be at the resurrection? And which is the greatest commandment?

These questions were put to test or to trap Jesus. The questions were obviously designed to have no safe answer. They test specific points of Jewish and Roman law, or the Pharisees and the Saducees theological disagreements on points of theology, and to that extent don't translate well into our own time and place.

But what is very striking about the test questions Jesus was asked, and the test questions that people are faced with in our own time, is how much they revolve around issues of sex and gender. Abortion, gay marriage, divorce, remarriage, how sexual relationships on earth will map onto relationships in heaven. We often hear how the church today is obsessed with issues of sex and gender, and perhaps it might give us some perverse comfort to know that there is nothing new in that. Questions of sex and gender seem to be particularly latched onto whenever human beings are looking for questions to ask to test who is in and who is out, questions asked specifically in order to condemn someone. Questions asked to police the limits of the group and the purity of a religion.

Another way in which time seems to compress between then and now in reading this passage is the way in which questions of sexual ethics and the way we treat children are brought together here. Now it may well be that in previous generations people might have been blind to the fact that these are linked, but we certainly can't make that particular mistake any more. Whether it is a 15 year old and her teacher running off to France together, the latest celebrity paedophilia scandal, or the systematic grooming and pimping of young girls in Rochdale, questions of sexual ethics and the appropriate boundaries and relationships  between adults and children  are everywhere.
This reading is part of an extended section of teaching by Jesus in Marks gospel which broadly addresses issues of Christian discipleship. The section extends from mid way through chapter 8 to nearly the end of chapter ten, and both begins and ends with Jesus trying to explain to the disciples that he was going to be killed, and the implications of this. Much of the teaching in this section is teasing out the implications of Jesus own example for living a Christian life.

It isn't only the Pharisees who find this hard to take. Time and again in this section the disciples either can't take in what they are hearing, or react against it. Right at the beginning, in 8:32, when Jesus has just begun to teach the disciples about what will happen to him, Peter takes him aside and rebukes him, prompting Jesus into that startling command to 'get behind me, Satan!'. Further on in chapter 10, when Jesus has mostly finished his teaching for now and the disciples are on the road again, we are told they are both amazed and afraid. This is not easy stuff to take. It wasn't any easier for the first disciples than it is for us.

This particular section comes at the beginning of Chapter 10. It is part of a section of teaching that all happens in one place, framed by Jesus and his disciples travelling. The story opens in verse 1 with Jesus arriving in Judea and teaching the crowds as was his custom. Immediately, the Pharisees turn up with their trick question about divorce. Jesus answers that, and then we have the incident with people bringing their children to him for a blessing. He is about to head off after that, when a young man runs up to him to ask how he could inherit eternal life. The incident ends with the saying that it is harder for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
This is the context in which those who are following Jesus are bemused and afraid. We can imagine that those who are not following him are even more confused, and when even his own followers are scared, it is less surprising that the Pharisees are out to get him.

The key theme of this episode is perfection. How do we achieve perfection, what sort of perfection does God demand of us. And I think the key to it is the central passage, the point at which Jesus takes that child and tells his disciples that unless they enter the kingdom like a child, they won't enter it at all.

Children in those days were the lowest of the low. They had no status, no rights. Under Roman law, a father had the right of life and death over his children. We might agonise about smacking children, but then a father could legally kill his child. Children had less legal protection than slaves, less than women.

But Jesus tells his disciples not just to let children take up his time and energy, but to become like them. In the context of this whole section, we have quite a dramatic structure here. The Pharisees ask about legal perfection regarding divorce and Jesus sets them a breathtakingly high standard. The young rich man, keen as mustard, asks how he can be saved, and told to obey the law he eagerly asserts that he has kept every word. Jesus looks at him, loves him, and says 'Well, if you want to be perfect, sell all you have and give it to the poor'. That's what terrifies the disciples . Who then can be saved? They ask, and Jesus replies 'for people it is impossible, but nothing is impossible with God.'

The pivot of this whole section is that small scene with the children. The desperate parents are thrusting them towards the celebrity preacher, hoping for some stardust to rub off, some blessing to be catching. And Jesus not only gives them what they want, but insists that the children are the role model for Christian discipleship.

The Pharisees are desperate for legal perfection. The rich young man is desperate for moral perfection. Both want to know that they are doing the right thing.And the vignette of Jesus and the children acts as the pivot, the hinge, between these two stories about seeking perfection, seeking assurance that we are in not out, wanting to know that we are doing the right thing.

It seems to me that what Jesus says when he puts the small child forward needs to be understood in this context. Perfection, though a great thing, is not the point. Seeking after perfection, whether for our own moral satisfaction or as something to impose on others, gets in the way of a simple desire for an encounter with Jesus. The parents haven't understood what Jesus is saying, but in thrusting their children forward to Jesus they have understood more of the heart of his message than the legal experts and the deeply moral young man.

It is so tempting to ask the test questions. It is so tempting to seek to define others, not just because we want to know whether they are in or out, but because at an even deeper level we want assurances about our own righteousness. We want the answers our politicians, our bishops give us to reinforce our own sense of being right. We want our fears that we might be wrong to be authoritatively answered.

And Jesus is sympathetic to that desire. He doesn't give the Pharisees and the young man wispy washy answers suggesting that you can do what you like. He answers their questions on their terms, and the answers are terrifying. They are clearly meant to be terrifying, to set a ridiculously high standard, to expose the absurdity of attempts to be perfect. A few moments later, when the disciples are astounded by the parable of the camel and the needle they ask 'who then can be saved?', and Jesus says it is impossible for us to be saved by our own efforts; but all things are possible for God.

But before that, he has shown them rather than told them what he means, with this encounter with the children. It is a vivid demonstration of his point that ultimately, our call to perfection is a distraction from what is simply a call to come. Our call to morality is secondary to our call to simply encounter Jesus. Our acceptability to God lies simply in our being prepared to come and meet God, just as we are.

Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Essential History of Christianity: Christological Pluralism?

I've just received the first pre-publication copy of my new book, 'The Essential History of Christianity'. It summarises the key developments in christian history in under 150 pages, and doing so nearly killed me! I hope it is useful, and (naturally) highly recommend it to anyone starting theology or history courses, and as a Christmas present for everyone you know!

But the more I read it - and I've had to re-read it several times over the past few months, as copy editing and proof stages passed - the more I think that this paragraph from the introduction is  key:

'The history of Christianity can seem a dauntingly large one. It covers 2000 years – more, if its roots and Judaic pre-history are to be adequately accounted for. It covers virtually every corner of the world, and not simply sequentially but in a complex and overlapping sequence of movements, retreats and conflicts. And, as it has been received into different cultures and periods, it has been defracted – like a rainbow in a prism – into a dazzling spectrum of different shades. As a result, there is never a time at which we can point to one, monolithic grouping and say ‘look – there is Christianity as it originally was; now let’s see what happened to it’. Right from the beginning, the movements inspired by Jesus were disparate in geography, outlook, cultural and religious background, social class and nationality. Theological differences in emphasis and in substance were the inevitable result. This seems to have been a logical result of a religion which began, so its adherents believe, with the incarnation (literally, the ‘en-fleshing’) of God in one particular time and place. This is a religion whose main doctrine has never – contrary to much popular opinion – been contained between the covers of a book, but in the lived experience of a human, historical person. It follows logically and inevitably that there is no one ‘correct’ form of Christianity, but as many different relationships to that person as there are people in relationship with him.'

I wonder whether this perspective offers a hint towards a way forward in the seemingly intractable disputes between 'evangelicals' and 'liberals' in the church today? My 'liberalism' is not based on the philosophical liberalism of the nineteenth century. In fact, the more I read about that, the more I feel that 'liberalism', with those connotations, is a bad discriptor of my position - though I like the associations of freedom and generosity, so will be sorry to say goodbye to the word. But my 'liberalism' is fundamentally Christocentric. I am a liberal because I am a Christian, not one despite the other. And that passage - which I found the easiest to write in the whole book - sums up why. 

So I wonder if we need a new term, a new label? I wondered about 'Christocentric liberalism', but I fear that the word liberal may be so tarred with old brushes that it is better abandoned. So how about 'Christocentric pluralism'? The belief that, precisely because  we believe in Jesus, we find that we must embrace a plurality of ways of approaching God, and must accept that we cannot prescribe one correct way of being a Christian? That precisely because  of the incarnation, we must accept the huge diversity of faith and lifestyle and personality that exists, even where we don't like it? 

And yes, that does mean accepting the existence of those who disagree with this approach! The line that there is 'nothing so illiberal as a liberal'  is rather tired, but it is true that this Christocentric pluralist approach requires an acceptance that the range of views represented in this diversity will include fundamentalism. It doesn't, though, mean we have to agree with fundamentalists or others - simply recognise that their views may well be formed by their own particular circumstances and relationship with Christ, and so are deserving of respect (that word again!).

In summary - that because we are Christians, defined by our unique relationship with the person of Jesus, we must recognise that others will inevitably have a different relationship with God. 

What do you think?

Sunday, 23 September 2012

The Appleby Amendment

I was quoted by the Northern Echo this week as  having hailed the 'brilliance' of  Janet and John Appleby's amendment to the now-notorious Clause 5.1.c. That's not quite what I said, though I did use the word brilliance...(and to be fair, the Echo did also include an extended version of my remarks).

What I said was that the amendment wasn't really what either those of us most in favour of womens ordination, or most opposed to it, wanted. We all agreed some years ago that a single clause measure was preferable for clarity and theological coherence. However, there does appear to be a growing consensus that this current compromise will do for most people.

I've had several conversations with some of those who oppose women's ordination on principle. All have said that, though they probably won't feel able to endorse women's ordination by voting yes in November, this current compromise package would be acceptable to them assuming it goes through. In other words, they could live with it.

I've also had several conversations with some of the strongest advocates for women's equal ministry. Some of them, too, will struggle to vote for this, as the compromise package is such a major compromise from our original dream of a simple statement that men and women are both called and gifted by God. But most are saying that - though they feel bitterly frustrated and angry at being expected to make further compromises - they feel they could vote yes, if only because the whole sorry debacle has demonstrated clearly just how much the House of Bishops needs women members. In other words, we can live with it.

So why did I use the word 'brilliance'? I think the brilliance of the wording the Applebys have come up with lies in that word 'respect'. This cuts to the heart of the issue for most opponents, who fear that their position, and they, will not be treated with respect. And it allays some of our worst fears, because respect does not imply endorsement. I can respect your views, and you, without agreeing with you on something. I can act towards you and treat your views with respect without endorsing your views. And I can reasonably expect you to do the same with me and my views.

This legislation is not a perfect package by any means. It is still, in my view, theological nonsense to allow someone to choose their bishop based on whether they agree with them. The notion that ordaining a woman, or holding certain views on women's ordination, can impair someone's communion with their male bishop to the extent that they 'need' an alternative is anathema to me. But that is the legislation that the dioceses have accepted, and seems to be the best we can achieve in this generation. That is very sad.

Still, allowing myself a wistful sigh for what might have been, I think this legislation offers us the best hope for the future that is realistically achievable now. I will be very surprised if it doesn't go through in November.

Oddly, I feel little emotion at the prospect of it succeeding or failing. The legislation is too flawed for its passing to be cause for a great deal of joy. And if it fails, then I imagine a single clause measure will be what comes next: because if the compromise is rejected, what is the point of compromising?

I'll save my excitement for the consecration of the first woman as a bishop in the Church of England. I am confident that she and her colleagues will demonstrate that there was no need for all this fear and talk of legislative safeguards, because they will be truly brilliant.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Reflections on Mark 7

I was asked to preach today at Shotley St.John, in Northumberland, on the subject of women bishops and where we are now. The gospel reading was just so apposite....

Jesus said to his accusers, the religious elite of his day, 'Isaiah prophesied rightly about you, "in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrine". You abandon the commandment of God, and hold fast to human doctrine'.

This is an accusation any of us who engage in trying to get the church to change its mind about things are very familiar with. I am tediously familiar with being told that I am simply trying to get the church to do what the world says is right. That I am working for secular concepts of justice and equality rather than obeying the Bible. That the church shouldn't follow modern trends as they are just human precepts rather than true doctrine. That, in other words, by believing that women can be called by God to ordained ministry I am guilty of abandoning the commandment of God and holding to human values.

Such criticisms are made of any attempts to change the way the church does things, or what it believes. Historically, exactly the same sorts of things were said about allowing the remarriage of divorcees; allowing contraception; and so on. Whatever the particular issue at hand, such criticisms of religious change assume that things we have done for a long time are more likely to be right than new things. They assume that change equals corruption. And they are based on an assumption that the religious establishment - the Church, or Temple tradition - is more Godly than the secular world and must not be contaminated by it.

But what Jesus says here, of course, is almost precisely the opposite. In todays gospel reading, Human tradition and human precepts means religious traditions, religious rules, cultic ideals. Building on the long tradition of Old Testament prophets, Jesus directly opposes the idea that long established religious traditions and practices are necessarily good things, or what God wants.

The prophets repeatedly emphasised that God wants real change of hearts and minds, rather than correct worship. This real change would be demonstrated in lives lived according to the principles of justice, equality and mercy. The prophets are passionate about justice being a - perhaps the  - fundamental teaching. Even if women's ordination were simply about justice - and I think it is about far more than that - we could never say that that was opposed to the teaching of the Bible.

Jesus himself is of course the best example of dramatic change occurring within a religious tradition. The gospels show him repeatedly coming up against the religious establishment of his day, challenging their most cherished beliefs, practices and places. We get so used to thinking of the Pharisees as the bad guys that it is easy to forget how offended we would be by someone doing similar things today, in our churches. I imagine the outrage caused in Moscow's Orthodox cathedral by Pussy Riots punk prayer against President Putin was probably quite similar to the outrage Jesus would have caused over turning the money changers tables in the Temple.

One of the many interesting things about this passage is the principle that Jesus uses to critique the Pharisees' values. Twice, he refers them to God's commandments. 'you abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition; you have a fine way of rejecting the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition!'

In modern religious argument, the whole Bible is sometimes meant when people talk about Gods commandments. But here, Jesus is very specifically referring to the 10 commandments. His particular point is that the Pharisees have developed a tradition of giving to the temple at the expense of looking after their elderly parents. They are breaking the commandment to honour your father and mother, in order to feel good about their own religiosity. Applying Jesus' technique more generally would suggest that a key question to ask of any tradition is whether it contradicts any of the 10 commandments.

And I would suggest that a tradition of male - only clergy, and of privileging men above women more generally, does exactly that.

The 10 commandments don't say anything explicitly about gender. That in itself is interesting. Except in the commandment not to covet your neighbours wife - where coveting their husband is not mentioned - all the commandments are quite remarkably gender-neutral. We are to honour our father and mother - no gender hierarchy is even hinted at there. All are to rest on the sabbath day, including our sons and daughters, and both male and female servants or slaves.

But perhaps the most relevant commandment is that forbidding the making of idols. Nothing shall be made into an idol for ourselves, we are told very firmly indeed. Yet I would argue that much, if not all, of the opposition to women as clergy and as bishops rests upon an unacknowledged idolisation of maleness. Historically, maleness has been given God-like status. God has been consistently imagined as being male, and by extension, men have been assumed to be more God-like than women. One writer put it very succinctly several decades ago when she came up with the phrase 'If God is male, the male is God'.

And the male ideal that is seen as being most God-like has generally been a particular kind of male - adult, not a child; strong and healthy, not weak or disabled or ill; heterosexual, not castrated, and at various points in history either celibate (showing strong mastery over his bodily urges), or married with children (demonstrating fertility and maturity). Not only have women traditionally been seen as further from God than such men, but men have been judged and graded in holiness against this particular ideal. As we are inspired by the Paralympics, it is worth reflecting on this - are Paralympics less godlike than 'unimpaired' human beings? Of course not. Yet for millennia, religious tradition would have said, Of course.

About 10 years ago I knew a young man in his early twenties, a friend of a friend, going through the process of selection to become a Roman Catholic priest. One month, he noticed a lump in a testicle, and luckily went to see his GP. Testicular cancer was quickly diagnosed, and the testicle swiftly removed. Fortunately, further tests showed that it had been caught in good time and had not spread. A week or so later, he had his next appointment with his mentor, and told him all this. As you can imagine, for a young man to face a diagnosis of cancer, and loose a testicle, within the space of a few weeks had been a pretty significant experience, and he wanted to talk it through. But his mentor, on hearing the story, had only one question - 'did they remove one testicle, or both? Because if you've been castrated you can't be ordained in the Catholic church.'

When we talk about women's ordination, and the consecration of women as bishops, people express all sorts of hopes and fears. Some hope that women will change everything, others that they will change nothing. But one thing that I think will be very significant is the simple symbolism of having both men and women sharing in all our ministries, symbolising very strongly that we believe that God made all humanity, male and female, in God's own image. Regardless of all the many gifts that women will bring to the House of Bishops, one of the most important things will be to challenge, simply by their presence, this idolisation of a particular type of adult maleness as more God like than other gender identity.

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'.