SERMON FOR 8th JULY 2012
No, I’m not Linda, who is under the weather this weekend and is very disappointed not to be able to be with us this morning. I have not had very long to prepare to preach in her place, and I hope you will excuse me if I am rather topical on this occasion, because one issue above all others has been weighing on my mind this past week. It’s not the tennis – though that has done much to lift my spirits – but of course the General Synod meeting taking place in York this weekend.
It is not by design, but it is a happy occurrence, that the collect for the Sunday when General Synod is debating the issue of allowing women to become bishops contains this prayer for all God’s faithful people: that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name. Those of you who have not followed the twists and turns of the Church’s in-house debate on the subject of women in the episcopate may not realize quite what is at stake at the moment. For years the Church of England has been inching towards allowing women, who now make up 30% of the clergy and 50% of new ordinands, to be consecrated as bishops. There have been women bishops for decades in other parts of the Anglican Communion. A measure allowing women to be made bishops in the Church of England, and also providing an assurance that opponents will receive appropriate pastoral care if they cannot receive ministry from a woman, has been passed by 42 out of the 44 dioceses.
In the past few weeks, the House of Bishops has used its power to add a couple of amendments to the measure, which cannot now be debated. One of the amendments will give congregations a legal right to request a bishop who shares their theological views that women cannot be bishops. Thus the very law that will open the episcopate to women, and that must be passed by both General Synod and Parliament and become part of the law of this land, will state that it is perfectly all right to deny that women can be bishops at all. This is the straw that has broken the back of many supporters of women bishops. Senior women clergy in General Synod will now vote against the measure, saying that they would rather wait as many years as it takes to get a decent law, rather than have women bishops at so humiliating a price. It seems likely that the debate will be adjourned, requesting the House of Bishops to think again about their amendments. If they do not withdraw them, the legislation is likely to fail completely and we will wait another four or five years before we can be at the point of changing canon law to allow women bishops.
Now I do not intend this sermon to become a whine about how hard it is for women to flourish in the Church. On the whole it is not a daily struggle. Most ordained women I know, including myself, have no wish to be bishops, but we certainly do want to serve in a Church in which the episcopate is open to both women and men. The thorn in the flesh is just that, a constant niggle rather than an incapacitating problem, at least for those of us who have been fortunate enough to be selected and given the opportunity to serve. But I am somewhat emboldened by the epistle and gospel today to speak the truth about a difficult situation.
St Paul is struggling with what has been called the sorry necessity of self-praise in the face of attacks on his authority as a person called to be a planter of churches among the Gentiles. Other people, rivals in the Church, seem to have suggested that he is lacking in spiritual gifts and experiences. So Paul briefly and intriguingly refers to a mystical experience he had fourteen years earlier. “Such a person” is a rabbinical way of referring to himself. This was not his conversion experience on the road to Damascus, nor was it his commissioning for service. It was a personal gift in his prayer life, when he was mysteriously brought into the nearer presence of God and had a glimpse of glory. He himself doesn’t know how to describe it, whether it was something that happened to him bodily or not, but he does know the truth of it. He speaks of it with hesitation but also with confidence, as genuine mystics do. Some of you may remember that I heard the Pope preaching about Paul’s mysticism a few weeks ago when I attended a papal audience. Here is the very heart of what the Pope was referring to: a mystical union with God that was briefly granted to Paul in an extraordinary moment of bliss, to encourage and empower him in his ministry and service.
Having described the gift that was given to him, Paul then talks about the thorn that won’t go away. No one has ever been able to say what this is, though commentators tend to agree that it was some form of physical pain or illness. I think it is providential that Paul didn’t spell it out, so that this passage can be a help to each of us, whatever thorn we must endure. Paul is clear that it is an evil – in his words, a messenger of Satan – rather than something sent by God, but he also acknowledges that despite his prayers God has not removed it. This is an echo of Christ’s prayer in Gethsemane that the cup might be taken away. For all of us, there are mysteriously painful things that simply continue to oppress us. But God’s grace is enough for us to be able to endure them, and so Christians rightly boast not of our own abilities but of the gift of God that enables us to serve, whatever our personal circumstances.
Paul’s experience of being criticised and undermined was of course foreshadowed by Jesus’ own experience when he returned to his hometown of Nazareth, after beginning a ministry that had been marked by miracles and the excitement of huge crowds wherever he went. Back home it is a different story. No one takes him seriously. They mock the very idea that God could have called him to a special mission. Who does he think he is? We know his family. We watched him grow up. He is no better than the rest of us. And the poignant thing is that Jesus himself is immobilized by this negativity. In the face of such a refusal to be open to a surprise, to something new and transformational, he can do nothing.
In my reflection this week on what is happening in the Church of England, I find this bleak little episode in the gospels somewhat comforting, just as I find Paul’s frustration helpful. There is nothing new in the putdown of one Christian by another. We have always been ready to question each other’s spiritual authority, and to laugh at the idea that God might be doing something totally new in a place where we expect to see only the same old thing.
There has been an enormous amount of discussion, and rightly so, about the troubled consciences of those who cannot accept a change in the tradition of the Church. Some people are convinced that the Bible does not allow women to have authority over men in the Church and that submitting to a woman bishop’s authority would be against the will of God. Others are anxious about the validity of the sacraments that a woman bishop would administer – would a priest she ordained really be a priest, able to celebrate the eucharist and absolve people’s sins, or would he or she simply be a sham?
For those of us who do not share this view of scripture or sacramental assurance, these anxieties are deeply baffling. There is no doubt that they are a real concern for some people, however odd they may seem to others. But while we are constantly reminded that we must accommodate the tender consciences of others, we sometimes fail, I think, to challenge the negative views that gave Paul such trouble in Corinth and Jesus in Nazareth.
What if the Holy Spirit is giving spiritual authority to people from whom we do not expect it? What is something new is afoot? What if miracles are waiting to happen, but the fear of change is preventing them from taking place?
I truly believe that we do not help people to grow spiritually when we simply leave them in a ghetto and refuse to engage in dialogue with them. Last Wednesday the Area Dean and I went to All Hallows Gospel Oak to say Evening Prayer with the vicar, David Houlding, who is one of the leaders of the traditionalists in General Synod. It felt profoundly right to stand there in my clerical collar and say the words of the Magnificat together. We can engage courteously with one another, even if we will not change each other’s minds this side of the Second Coming. But what we must not do is ignore one another and refuse to challenge the views we think are spiritually dangerous.
The really difficult thing is to decide how this makes us vote. Many people, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, urge us to modify the legislation to the point where the opponents of women bishops can still feel able to remain in the Church of England. The problem here is that even the currently mutilated measure is not nearly enough provision for them and they will not vote for it. Given that fact, I believe the readings today encourage us to say it is time to make an opening for the Holy Spirit to move us into a new place. Maybe now, maybe in November, maybe not for another five years, but someday we will be able to take a deep breath and say yes, even those women clergy whom we know, who have been serving among us all this time, can be given the spiritual gifts to exercise authority in the Church. And if the locals refuse to let these gifts unfold and change the Church, Jesus told them, and all of us, to shake the dust off our feet and just keep moving on in faith wherever he sends us.