Monday, December 3, 2012

Women Bishops: The Bishop of Ebbsfleet responds to the English General Synod Vote

The Rt Rev’d Jonathan Baker is Bishop of Ebbsfleet, one of the three “Flying Bishops” of the Church of England and Chairman of Forward in Faith. He is soon to become Bishop of Fulham, exercising a similar role in the Dioceses of London, Southwark and Rochester. Dr Baker issued this letter reflecting on the English General Synod vote on women bishops. It is from the See of Ebbsfleet web site.

After the General Synod failed to give Final Approval to the draft legislation on the ordination of women to the episcopate, I had hoped for a period of calm, prayer and reflection all round; and perhaps some sense of regret, on the part of the proponents of the Measure, that they had not got the legislation right. Of course, as we now know, this was very far from the case: instead, a media furore, and a sense from some quarters that those who had voted against the Measure need to be punished in the future for daring to step out of line.

We need to say very clearly, that we understand, and deeply regret, the pain, hurt and anger felt on the part of many women clergy and their supporters; that we value the huge contribution of ordained women to the life of the Church of England; and that we recognise the gifts which God has given in and through their ministries.

However, we also need to challenge some errors and misunderstandings which have been widespread since the vote was taken. 

First, it has been suggested that the draft Measure represented the fruits of work done over many years by representatives of all traditions in the Church of England, and that it was a compromise and the best possible way forward. This is simply not the case, as anyone – myself included – involved in the various processes of preparing the legislation for Final Approval (the legislative drafting group, the revision committee stage, and so on) would have to admit. At every step of the way, provision for the traditionalist minority was withdrawn altogether or significantly watered down. Looking back, we can see a number of decisive forks in the road: when delegation (rather than a transfer of jurisdiction) was adopted as the basis for the legislation; when the Archbishops’ amendment for co-ordinate jurisdiction was defeated – by just 5 votes in the House of Clergy – in 2010; when the amendment to Clause 5.1. (c) of the Measure, proposed by the House of Bishops, was withdrawn in the face of pressure from members of WATCH in July of this year. In the light of all this, it seems to me that there is only one analysis of the vote on 20th November which rings true: that the draft Measure was driven ‘over the cliff’ by those unwilling to agree proper provision for those of us who have conscientious difficulties concerning the ordination of women.

The second misunderstanding is that the Synod’s processes were somehow abused or manipulated to produce this result. Again, we need to say clearly that this is not the case. Every member of General Synod understands very well what the processes are which are followed in order to pass legislation: processes which, in matters of doctrine, are designed precisely to ensure a high level of consensus, such as is surely appropriate for a Christian community. The meetings of General Synod are always framed with prayer – prayer that the Holy Spirit will guide the hearts and minds of those speaking and voting. It is difficult not to be amazed at the confidence with which many people have rushed to conclude that the Holy Spirit could not have spoken through Synod on 20th November. Having said all that, I would be the first to agree that the Synodical system has not served the church well in discerning the way forward on this matter. Perhaps one thing that the Holy Spirit might be saying to us, is that there might be a better way.

The third thing which I have found puzzling in the last week or so is the growing sense in some quarters that there was an ‘unholy alliance’ between traditional cathiolics and conservative evangelicals to defeat the Measure. To say this is again, surely, to misunderstand how General Synod works. Individuals vote on the legislation laid before them, and, while it is true (and hardly startling) to say that of course anglo-catholics and evangelicals will have different – often, markedly different – theological instincts and insights, what mattered in this case was only the fact that Synod members from both traditions found the draft Measure wanting. We also know now that a significant number of Synod members who are wholly supportive of women in the episcopate nevertheless voted against this draft legislation; they did so out of concern for their brothers and sisters in the Church of England with whom they disagree, but whose flourishing they desire: surely a model for us all.

Where do we go from here? I very much hope that all parties to this debate will resist the calls from some MPs and peers that Parliament should legislate ‘over the head’ of the Church of England in order to impose a solution. That way cannot be right.

The Bishop of Durham, our next Archbishop of Canterbury, has called for fresh discussions early in the New Year, with a view to preparing the way for fresh legislation on women bishops. I am sure that is right, although I do hope that the desire for haste in some quarters will not squeeze out what I am sure the whole Church truly needs: real listening, engagement, and, above all, mutual charity. We must get away from the whole sense which has dogged us for so long, that this is a zero-sum power game, with winners and losers, and, at the end of the process, first and second class bishops, serving – as Fr Simon Killwick put it so well – first and second class Anglicans.

So what, in our local context, can we – priests and people of the See of Ebbsfleet – actually do? The first thing, obviously, is to pray – and the fact that this is such an obvious thing to say makes it no less true. My late confessor and spiritual director always urged upon me the virtue of praying, consciously and by name, for those with whom I disagreed, had fallen out, or had (in reality or just in my imagination) done me wrong. That was good advice then, and I commend it to all of you now.

The second thing to do is actively to work to maintain the bonds of charity with all those who are your partners in the mission of the Church in your area – clergy and laity of other traditions, male and female, all those involved in the life of your diocese and deanery. Let it never be said that the traditional catholic voice is absent from the life of the local church.

Third, we must all seek renewal in those great gifts which our tradition brings to the life of the whole of the Church of England: our zeal for souls; our liturgical worship; the sacramental life; our incarnational faith, rooted in the community and especially in service to the poor; our deep commitment to the full visible unity of the one Church of Jesus Christ. You can all, I am sure, add other things to that list of equal or greater importance, but there are five to be getting on with!

We have just celebrated the great feast of Christ the King; now we come to prepare for the celebration of the birth into this world of time and space of that same Word of God who is King of the Universe and King of our lives. May each of us be deeply renewed in our discipleship this Advent and Christmastide, and may the Lord stir up in us those supernatural gifts given us at our baptism: faith; hope; love.


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