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.