Difficult choices for the General Synod

18 11 2012

Members of the General Synod are starting to arrive in London for a special session. The Synod rarely meets in November, but in July we adjourned the final debate on a piece of legislation that would enable women to become bishops in the Church of England.

To onlookers, this issue seems such an obvious no-brainer that many people I speak with cannot understand why the Church is taking so long to settle the issue. Before the debate proper gets under way (there has been plenty of warm-up material on twitter, blogs and through the post), it's worth exploring what the real issues are.

The first thing to remember is that we are NOT debating whether or not we want women as bishops. The will of the church is clear – we definitely want women bishops, and we want them as soon as possible. The question is therefore not whether to have women bishops, but how to have them.

The difficulty is that there is a number of parishes in the CofE who have an understanding of scripture and theology that means they believe only men can be bishops – the General Synod can put a mitre on a woman and give her a crozier but, to them, she is not a bishop. This matters because bishops have such an important role in things like ordaining priests.

By itself, this would not be a problem. A solution in the secular world might be for the majority simply to dismiss the minority saying “we reject your views; you are no longer welcome here.” But this would be a misjudgement on two counts:

  1. This is not simply a case of bigotry – the objections to women bishops come from sound reasoning based in legitimate theology.
  2. Throwing people out of the church because you disagree with them is not very Christ-like behaviour. In fact, that is exactly the kind of behaviour most people find hypocritical in religious people.

I am grateful for the fact that the situation is further complicated by a very earthly political consideration. Any legislation to enable women to become bishops would require a two-thirds majority in every house of the General Synod (Bishops, Clergy and Laity). The 'traditionalists' currently make up just over a third of the house of laity. This means any solution simply must make an adequate compromise for both sides of the debate.

Thankfully, for the reasons above, it is not an option to ignore the minority's point of view.

The vote on Tuesday must be carried for a number of reasons, but the most important is that this legislation is the closest we will get to a satisfactory solution for everybody. If the vote fails, it is unlikely that the current concessions for 'traditionalists' would be considered acceptable in any new legislation.

The 'traditionalist' lobby is currently asking for stronger, legal reassurances that they will have an honoured and respected place in the Church of the future. This is neither necessary, nor appropriate. Any solution must be founded not in law, but on trust between brothers and sisters in Christ.

That is why the challenge for this group of sessions is for the majority to make clear to the 'traditionalist' groups that they are valued, that they will be respected, and that they can support this legislation with confidence.

Nobody wants this saga to continue. We have some legislation that can do the job. Now we need to build the trust to make it work.





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