I am going to speak quite bluntly and plainly this morning. It has been quite a week for the Church of England. You will all have read and heard about the women bishops vote in Synod. The short summary is that 37 years after women’s ordination was agreed in principle, 20 years after the vote was taken to let women be priests, and following 12 years of attempting to frame the legislation that would open the episcopate to women, the measure was defeated on Tuesday.
Before it came to Synod it was debated in every diocese in the country and was passed in 42 out of 44. One of the two that defeated it was London, and as a diocesan synod rep I took part in that vote. I can tell you that the House of Laity in London passed it – it was the clergy who narrowly made it fail.
At General Synod last week there were many hours of debate, and then the vote came. The Bishops voted 44 to 3 in favour. The House of Clergy were in favour by a ratio of 3 to 1. The House of Laity also voted in favour of the legislation, but missed the required two-thirds majority by six votes. So ironically, a handful of laypeople, many of them female, brought down the legislation that the bishops overwhelmingly approved, because they believed that women should not have authority over men or any teaching role in the Church.
For those who wonder whom these voters represent, I should remind you that lay members of deanery synods, who are elected every three years in annual parish meetings, in turn elect the lay members of General Synod. I know that our lay reps scrutinized the campaign materially carefully back in 2010 when this present House was elected. But many did not. And those who had a clear purpose of thwarting the women bishops legislation campaigned hard to get in, while those who expected it go through smoothly were a bit complacent about electing General Synod reps who shared their views.
This is one Church story that the wider world has noticed. I have had sympathetic messages from Germany, Austria and Denmark. The papers have been on to me – and by the way, please remember that when I am quoted it is always the journalist’s spin on the conversation that is reported. The House of Commons for once was united on all sides in condemning the General Synod vote and demanding that something be done. There have been proposals to remove the Church’s exemption for equality legislation, or to banish the bishops from the House of Lords.
It’s time to take a deep breath. Very helpfully, the vote came in the week when the Church prepares to celebrate the feast of Christ the King. We all need reminding what the source of authority in the Church is. And it is not the zeitgeist of the country we live in. The Church of England is not a branch of the Civil Service. Remember the chilling examples of Churches that were content to be blown by the prevailing wind – the Southern Baptists in the American South supporting segregation, the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa defending apartheid, even the German Churches under Hitler justifying Nazi policies.
If Christ is King, then Caesar is not. That was what worried the Roman Empire, and rightly so. The Church will always challenge the worldly views that run contrary to the gospel. We can think of many things that are widely supported in our country that will never be defended from this pulpit, among them celebrity culture, consumerist greed, casual sex, euthanasia, or a harsh approach to asylum seekers or people on benefits. Our faith compels us to speak out against what the majority may find acceptable.
Now this of course is exactly what the opponents of women bishops think they are doing. They don’t mind being unpopular and standing over against the majority. The difference between the two sides in the women bishop debate is not about whether we adapt to today’s society or resist it. It is about how we understand the gospel.
I was one of a thousand clergy who signed a letter to the Independent last week making a biblical case for women bishops. Tom Wright has done so at greater length in the Times. He says in his article:
“All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.”
Lucy Winkett, writing in the Guardian after the vote, points out that “in the first century AD the church followed wider society, conforming to a societal structure that gave men the power”.
The women bishop issue is not about discovering that 21st century Britain knows better than Jesus. It is about acknowledging that the Church has failed, again and again, from the very beginning of its life, to honour the insights of the gospel and to follow the example of Jesus.
So how do we respond to the situation we are in? I was much moved to read a message from the recently installed vicar of St Martin in the Fields, Dr Sam Wells, who spoke of how he sat down and wept when he heard the news. But he then went on to reflect that there are at least three things to hold onto in such a wilderness moment.
First, the wilderness is where we rediscover the truth. He mentions the people of Israel in the desert. It seems to me that we might also think about Jesus in the wilderness, tempted to reach for worldly solutions but resisting that easy answer.
Secondly, Sam Wells reminds us that if a thing is worth having it’s worth waiting for.
And finally, he says, speaking to those who are too angry to think straight, if the Church isn’t working right now, try the kingdom. Throw yourself into life among the least, the last, and the lost and rediscover the Church there.
As it happens, that is already on our agenda here at St Mary’s. For quite awhile the PCC has been planning to talk about our vision on this Sunday of Christ the King. We must not let current events tempt us to be diverted from doing the work of the kingdom. If the next five years are doomed to be spent on going over and over again the case for and against women bishops, here at St Mary’s we can refuse to waste more time on talk and just get on with our calling to be a place where people encounter Christ.
If Christ is King, then we must listen to his voice and become his followers. The men and women who responded to Jesus in the gospel accounts let their lives be turned upside down by his invitation. Being a Christian is not a weekend hobby for enthusiastic individuals: it is a radical reshaping of our lives in community according to the gospel.
At the end of this service, which is shortened on purpose and not by accidentally leaving out the Creed this time, we will ask you to think about what our priorities should be here at St Mary’s. We want to start by dreaming dreams and shaping a vision. When we have done that, taking everyone’s views into account, then a further stage will be working out the cost of our vision to see what is possible. But for today we want to focus on the kingdom issues. You will hear something about our youthwork. You will know already about the cold weather shelter. And we will explain something about our collective responsibility to maintain the building in which we worship and to and meet the costs of the ministry that begins here and reaches out to the community.
The PCC is committed to this project. I am committed to it too, and I do not intend to be deflected by what is happening in the world of Church politics. Some people have understandably lost confidence in the Church of England and may even be reconsidering their involvement. But as the late lovely Donald Barnes, former vicar of St Peter’s Belsize Park used to say when he was frustrated with the Church, don’t threaten to leave – threaten to stay! We have put our hand to the plough. We are following Jesus. If he is King, then our business is Kingdom business. Let’s not look back but rather, as the old American Civil Rights song says, keep our eyes on the prize and hold on.