On Tuesday night the Church of England voted against the legislation that would allow women to be ordained as bishops. That sentence needs clarifying on a couple of points before I continue…
‘the Church of England voted’: the General Synod is the legislative body of the Church of England. The General Synod meets two or three times a year for four or five days depending on issues arising. It is organised into three distinct ‘houses’; bishops, clergy and laity. General Synod is made up of representatives of all 44 diocesan synods organised in a similar way but over a smaller geographical area; the members of which are nominated from deanery synods, which are smaller still.
For a significant motion (like the legislation for women bishops)to be passed it needs to be voted in all three houses by a clear majority, 66% of the vote. This is where there has been some discussion in the aftermath of Tuesday’s vote. When I say ‘the Church of England’ I mean the decision making body of the Church of England and not the whole Anglican populous in this country.
‘the legislation that would allow women to be ordained as bishops’: the Church of England has already voted in favour of the ordination of women as bishops in theory by the majority spoken above. It is now a matter of making that expression of intent a reality in practice. The legislation being discussed on Tuesday was an attempt at this practical aspect. The Church of England wants women bishops; we haven’t discovered how to do that with integrity for the whole church body.
As the dust settled around this vote there have been some reactions expressed in public that are understandable but not necessarily wise. There have been some expressing a desire to scrap or change how votes are taken in General Synod to allow everyone to have a say. Some have suggested that the bishops should be able to override Synodical decisions. Some have suggested that the Church of England is weak and fails to lead its people. Most of these opinions express, for me, a lack of understanding of what is happening. We, as the church, are not organised so that our leaders have power. We are organised so that our leaders serve. As a leader in the Church of England I serve; I serve broken, fallible, emotional and unpredictable people who demand things that may not be good for them, who express things which haven’t necessarily been processed and thought through but I serve them nonetheless. Would I act or say what they do and say? No but I am called to serve them but… I’m also called to help them to grow and transform themselves from what they are now into the likeness of Christ. It is a difficult and long process of holding and waiting. This process is made harder by the fact that I too am needing the same thing. I am broken, fallible, emotional and unpredictable.
We, as the church, have a social narrative which underpins our discussions; the principle of ‘I am a fluid entity in search of solidity in another.’ What this means is one principle behind our society in the church is the understanding of self as changeable. If we are unnable to change then we refuse the power of the God we believe in who transform us daily by His Spirit.
So the reactions have been boldly claimed and emphatically announced but are they right?
One question arising from Tuesdays shock vote is over how the laity, sitting in the house of laity, are nominated and from what demographic. Synod is understood to be a representative body speaking on behalf of the whole communion in this country. How can the vote against the motion vastly contradict a previous vote in favour by 42 diocesan synods out of a possible 44? It must come down to which laity is sitting on General Synod.
Although the question needs to be asked we do not need to change the synodical structures. The system works and Tuesday’s vote shows that it works. The solution to the ‘problem’ is to encourage more members of the church to respond to the call of God to change the world from a seat of responsibility. Mark Russell once told a seminar at Soul Survivor Conference that there are two ways to change the world; from bottom up and from top down. He suggested we need to do both in order for change to stick. This is profoundly true and is one reason why I’m so keen to sit on synods (deanery and diocesan only…for the moment!) What Tuesday night shows us is that those sitting on the laity have put themselves forward to be responsible and they have acted. They went through the system and got to General Synod by nominations and votes. We, as the Church of England, put those people there by our votes. We cannot then ask who is representing us in the various houses. We got what we voted for. If we wanted a different outcome we need to look at ourselves and ask; is it me who needs to speak?
I was deeply encouraged by the amount of my lay friends taking an interest in the synodical governance of the church after Tuesday. It no longer was a dry, impotent body but one that has an impact on our mission, our life together and our worship. Synod is important and powerful. If you are upset and angry about the vote on Tuesday and you are not on a synodical body (deanery, diocesan or General) then maybe you should test a call to stand up and represent.
It is deeply upsetting that it was such a painful motion that finally woke us up to our responsibility and missed opportunity to speak. It was as if shouting from the bottom up just wasn’t loud enough; we need to also join the voices at the top to ensure the centre (and it really was the centre in this vote) hears what is being discerned. After all this is said, synod works. It ensures that the whole body is united in a decision. If one part hurts the whole body hurts, or in this case if one part of the body is uncomfortable, unsure and angry the whole body is. We have been too lax in our responsibility to discuss and connect together. We mock and belittle the point of meetings and synods but then are upset when they don’t speak for us. Being elected onto synods is not like government elections its about being willing.
My time on deanery and diocesan synod has been frustrating but only when I sit and listen to the voice in my head which says you have nothing to say on this issue. I have sat and listened to some bizarre opinions during synod but always they are listened, counter balanced and discussed.
The other reaction that came from Tuesday night was one that upsets me more than any other: This feeling that we need to ‘get with the program’. That a government body who say with their lips they listen and respond to the people but in their action fail to respond to the vote against welfare cuts, NHS, war in Iraq and many others is hypocrisy of the highest order. The political process in the house of parliament is so separate from the people that it relies on opinion polls and gossip to make a decision. The Police Commissioners vote is just one proof of this. Equal Marriage is being passed despite reservations by a large part of our society…
And here I am, arriving at my main point. Synod works because it forces us, as a Christian family to be aware of the minority and to ensure that the decision we arrive at is collaborative. The vote on Tuesday shows us not that we need to force, bully or violently oppress a minority voice but, frustratingly, continue the discussion. Yes, this faction may not want to discuss the issue and may enjoy the hostage situation in which they hold the power but, nonetheless, we must. Justin Welby said in his first press conference after the announcement of his move to Canterbury that we are to disagree in love. This is what that looks like!
We in the church don’t do what government do which is twist and distort opinion and PR to suit our own will but rather face up to the conflict, to enter into the pain of living together. Nor do we respond in the knee jerk way that popular culture does. We are not like the Jeremy Vine Show which any voice, if shouted loud enough and insistently enough gets what they want. Synod ensures a deep collective discernment and if it is not completely collective we wait, we heal, we forgive and we unite in love. We allow the shouters and impassioned voices are heard and wait for them to shout themselves into silence and then we wait for the dust to settle and discern what is the wind and what is our own frantic movement causing the dust to fly.
What this means in terms of moving forward is not about forcing this motion through to the detriment of this ‘insignificant minority’ but rather about continuing the process of disagreeing in love. We have come along way since the motion was first introduced; we’re heading in the right direction. The response should be to continue to love one another, painful, upsetting, confusing and frustrating as that always is but that’s what we do as the body of Christ.
As I process all of this along with my brothers and sisters, there’s so much to say but that’s not what’s needed. Silence, contemplation and prayer, that’s what’s needed. Our society has nothing that unites them and so the fear in these situations kicks in causing frantic change and rash decisions but we, in the church have one thing that unites and it comes into its own in situations just like this. Synod works because it forces us to admit that no matter how hard we shout it is in silence and calm surrender that we can, as a whole body move forward together into the presence of God who will transform us increasingly into the likeness of Christ… frustrating, isn’t it?