We have got ourselves into an unbelievably silly place.
The House of Bishops has amended the Measure to allow women bishops in two ways. One is about how a bishop exercises his or her authority legally and in terms of his or her 'ontological status' as a bishop. Most people seem able to agree that this is helpful.
The second amendment is causing problems. It goes something like this; the Code of Practice which will be drawn up to protect those who don't want women bishops will have to contain something that says that parishes who don't want them (or their male colleagues who ordain women) must be provided with a bishop who has similar beliefs to theirs. On a first reading this sounded fairly innocuous (though quite a departure from normal Anglican practice which is that you accept your bishop whatever his particular theological 'flavour'). You could say that it is common sense not to suggest a conservative evangelical bishop for an anglo catholic parish and vice versa and to remember that bishops for the anglo catholic parishes will need to be those who can be guaranteed not to have been ordained by bishops who ordain women. However, the more I think about it, the more I believe that the House of Bishops has snuck a dangerous time bomb into the legislation. This amendment, together with the little paragraph that says that a 'supply' (interesting word) of non-women-ordaining-bishops will be maintained, is going to ensure that the Church of England remains divided, if not for ever and ever, then until our grandchildren's grandchildren are looking at their grandchildren. To quote Nick Morgan, this is a 'schism in waiting.' The Church of England claims to be a church for the nation. In a society where excluding people from things on grounds solely of their gender or race is increasingly unacceptable, the Church of England is going to find itself in an untenable position and the pressure from our culture is going to tear the church apart. I have not yet heard a convincing argument for why excluding women from things because they are women is good for them, much less how it is Christ-like behaviour.
Logic suggests that the Church of England has now reached the place where either we go for it and ordain women to all orders of ministry without reservation or we decide that our relationship with those who believe women cannot be bishops has such a vital contribution to make to the future of Christianity that we go down the counter cultural route and exclude women from leadership. Given that 42/44 of the Diocesan Synods voted for the Women Bishops Measure with only 10 asking for legislation to protect those who object, to follow the latter route would seem perverse.
The time has come to acknowledge that the Church of England cannot go on having it both ways. Broad church is one thing; two entirely conflicting integrities is another. People with split personalities are ill. The Church of England will, I fear, get sicker and sicker if it doesn't now grasp the nettle and resolve this issue one way or the other.
Is it important to acknowledge that women are fully human in the image of God (male and female God made them) and that the crucial thing about Christ's incarnation was His humanity, not his maleness? Did He show by His life and words that there is 'no Greek or Jew, no slave or free, no male or female but all are one' and that, in the new order of things, race, power and gender are not to condemn people to a particular place in the ordering of society or to oppression by others? Or is it important to acknowledge that, in the past, Christianity has demanded that women keep to a particular place in the order of things and that either theologies of the priesthood or interpretations of the Bible show they cannot be priests, leaders or teachers in the church? We have to decide.
For 18 years the Church of England has been trying out an approach that says, in effect, 'both groups are right'. A lot of us thought we were doing this in the patient expectation that one or other group would eventually become less sustainable. How else are decisions made and people able to move forward? You pray, you argue the rationale, you try things out, you put it to the vote. In the Church of England, we seem now to be saying that however small the number of people who want to be protected from women priests becomes, we will continue to order the life of the church for their benefit and at the expense of all who want to see women in leadership.
Well, I can see that to pass legislation that is completely unacceptable to those who do not want women priests and bishops is a very hard decision to take (and not, at this point, one that is open to Synod) but let's look at the cost of continuing with this 'two integrities' approach
- It seriously endangers the coherence of episcopacy in the Church of England. The bishops will be trying to move in two directions at once over a good number of issues to do with gender and the ordering of the church.
- It will cause arguments in parishes where there is a divergence of view about women's ministry, particularly as the 'supply' (to use the bishops' word) of clergy gets smaller.
- It makes for a national church that treats women as second class, something parts of the church have to be protected from. How proud of that can we be?
- It means that language about 'taint' and 'the unsuitability of women having authority' will continue to be a norm of church life. (As Desmond Tutu so famously pointed out, what you say about people in fact shapes the possibilities of your behaviour towards them.)
- It endorses the notion of different churches within the Church of England needing different types of theological leadership - will other grounds for being able to petition for a different bishop begin to emerge? This leads to chaos!
Ah well, we shall all wait to see what happens - I hope we can get away from anger and over-reaction and from sophistry and press releases no one can understand, but I fear we are in for a turgid time!