What was lost this week?

Something more than a measure of Synod was lost this week. In the aftermath of the vote on Tuesday evening not to accept the legislation that would make it possible for women to become Bishops, we also seem to have forgotten how to finish these phrases:

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called …

“Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as …

“If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of …

“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you …

“Therefore, if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and …

(Matthew 5:9; Colossians 3:13; 1 Corinthans 6:1; John 13:35
& Matthew 5:23-24 if you do need to look them up)

From what is being reported of church services this morning, there have been a very wider range of reactions to the General Synod vote, but everyone seems to agree that we can’t leave it here.  Synod has spoken, but no-one is happy, the question is whether synod members are willing to return to the table and work out a solution before being asked to vote again.

Right now, today, we have an opportunity to do something remarkable. Instead of defending our corner or justifying our decisions and actions, what if representatives of the different groupings in General Synod decided (or were invited) to meet together and try and agree what to do next.

Instead of trying to win public sympathy for our cause while we let open wounds fester and turn septic, let’s show the world what it means to be the household of God. Let’s do what Christians do: sit down together and study the scriptures with an expectation that God will speak though them; listen to each other’s hurts and frustrations; pray blessing over each other; then share a meal together and say “Though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread”.

But what we can’t expect from such a meeting is that anyone will go away with exactly what they want. A common refrain during the Synod debate was that everyone felt they had compromised more than enough already but, as painful as it is, compromise is the only way we can find a consensus. On Tuesday the Church of England was humiliated before the world and we deserved it. Synod was presented with a piece of legislation which very few people were happy with and we cannot allow this to happen again. I pray that we can pass legislation with a 100% majority in each house, but this can only happen if we work out a solution in advance.

So here is my solution. Here are where I see possible compromises, and also why I think these are less serious that they might appear. Apologies for the simplification and grouping of positions, but I wanted to keep this post shorter then my usual efforts.

Legislation.

  • Pass a measure which removes the block on women being ordained as bishops, but rather then completely removing the provisions from the 1993 measure and the accompanying Act of Synod, retain the option for a PCC to request alternative episcopal oversight from a Provincial Episcopal Visitor (PEV, or Flying Bishop) but without the need to pass a resolution preventing women from ministering in churches.
  • As they do at the moment, PEVs would continue to act as suffragan bishops, providing pastoral care and episcopal ministry in churches which request them. They cover a wider area than just one diocese and so there might need to be more than three if more churches opt into this scheme.
  • This also removes the need for an unknown ‘code of conduct’ and removes the ability of an individual bishop to devise a scheme which does not meet the need of those who request it.
  • NOTE: as ever, the devil is in the details, the Act of Synod which provides for the ministry of PEVs is not enshrined in legislation, but carries a similar moral force. Extending the scheme in a way which met the needs of groups #2 and #3 below would be the main sticking point for group #1.

Group #1 Supporters of a Single Clause Measure

  • The compromise for this group is significant. PCCs will effectively be able to reject the ministry and pastoral oversight of a women bishop.
  • But we need to remember that this is the current position and has been for the last 20 years. Diocesan Bishops have not been complaining about feeling like second class bishops just because a PEV operates in their diocese, so women who become diocesan bishops and men who ordain women need not feel that what is being created is a two-tier system within the House of Bishops.

Group #2 Conservative Evangelicals who cannot accept the episcopal oversight of a Women. 

  • The compromise for this group would be in accepting that a woman could be appointed who was legally responsible for them and to whom they would be required to swear canonical obedience.
  • They would also have to give up any idea of ‘co-ordinate jurisdiction’ of a province within a province.
  • But this is not really a theological issue, as we already reason that the oath of canoncial obedience is made to the ‘office of bishop’ rather then the particular incumbent and that it is only ‘in all things lawful and honest’. So we already (sometimes) make that declaration to bishops we don’t agree with.
  • Similarly, we currently invite bishops to come and perform episcopal ministry and we choose which bishop to invite by thinking about the style of service, the pastoral needs of the participants and even which different bishops will insist on wearing. If there is no acceptable diocesan or suffragan bishop in a particular diocese, the PCC can opt to come under the ministry of a PEV.

Group #3 Anglo-Catholics seeking sacramental assurance

  • The compromise for this group is that they lose the rights given in the 1993 measure to prevent the eucharistic ministry of a woman priest in their church. They too have to swear canonical obedience to the diocesan bishop (male or female) and would have to accept ordination to the diaconate from a female bishop or a male bishop who has ordained women.
  • Also lost would be any legitimisation of ‘societies’ or quasi-diocesan structures within the Church of England.
  • Again, the compromise is not as great as it may seem. No incumbent need invite a women to offer any of the sacraments (or to preach) and no parish reps need accept a women as incumbent. With PEVs in place, the issue of sacramental assurance is also clear. Ordinations to the priesthood are usually done in the parish anyway, so a PEV could ensure that the priest was being ordained by a man who had not ordained women and who was not himself ordained or consecrated by a women.

So will you join me in inviting the people who spearhead your campaign to start talking to each other? If there was an easy solution then we wouldn’t be in this mess now, and what I’ve said above might be totally unworkable, but I don’t see anything else on the table.

So this is my open letter or my own petition to synod members, to the Archbishop Designate, to WATCH, Reform, GRAS, Forward in Faith, Anglican Mainstream and everyone else. If you like what I’ve said, then please give me a retweet or comment.

If you don’t then come up with something better, but please, please be a peacemaker, for they will be called Children of God.

Is Synod Broken?

It’s very hard to find a silver lining to the cloud created by this week’s General Synod vote not to pass the measure making it possible for women to become Bishops in the Church of England. If there was an upside, though, it would be the sudden resurgence of interest in the synodical governance of the Church of England and the legal framework which underpin it. Synod has done in one day what the education officers of the Ecclesiastical Law Society have been trying to do for years: get people excited about Canon Law.

Over the past week there have been many different voices clamouring to explain how just 6 people could swing this vote so dramatically. There have been calls for reform (small ‘R’) calls for disestablishment, some fairly scary calls for laity (non-clergy) to butt out of decision making altogether and also some potted historical analysis to try and explain why the General Synod is follows the same debating ethos as the ‘Mother of Parliaments’ on the other side of the Abbey Precinct.

There are three questions which need to be asked in the light of some of these comments. My answers come from my study of representation and governance in the Church of England, so hopefully they are more than just personal opinion. But then, as all good students of Canon Law know, interpretation of English law is very much to do with opinion, so feel free to weigh in.

#1 What are General Synod Members there to do?

Before I began my formal theological training, I worked for a while in the Student Union at a university. My job was to prepare students to represent their peers and to be involved with the governance and academic improvement of the university. So when students sat on disciplinary panels they were there to look at the evidence and decide for themselves, and when they came to quality assurance meetings they were there to offer a student perspective on the teaching and learning in their department. Most of the time they were there to think for themselves.

But once a year we prepared delegates to attend the Nation Union of Students’ annual conference. These students were different because they were not only elected, they were also given a mandate and the wider student body indicted how they should vote. As such, it was usually possible to predict quite accurately what the outcome of a proposal would be, even before there had been a vote.

Now, the important thing to realise about General Synod members is that they are representatives, not delegates. Members are elected from and by their peers and entrusted with making a decision on our behalf. They are not sent with a mandate, they are elected to think for themselves.

As such, a representative is there to listen to as much information as they can and to make an informed decision about how they will vote. When they came to vote on Tuesday evening, General Synod members had seen the responses from the parishes, deanery and diocesan synods, they had read the documents and responses produced by the different interest groups, they had read the letters to The Times and The Independent and noted the numbers (and genders) of signatories, they had done their own reading and reflection, and then they had listened to over 100 speeches over the course of the debate. Then they were asked to have a few moments silent reflection before pressing one of the three buttons on their electronic keypad.

It is absolutely no surprise how many of the members voted. Before they had even been elected they had laid their cards on the table and so it was possible to have a fairly good estimate about the general shape of the vote. But synod is not partisan in the same way Parliament is, and there is no mechanism for compelling members to vote with their ‘party’, to vote with the majority and especially not to vote to appease the secular media or even government.

And so there were members who went into the chamber undecided and formed their opinion by listening carefully over the course of the day. Some were looking to be persuaded one way or another, some just wanted to hear how the different opinions stood at the end of the debate.

There is no question that the rank-and-file of the Church of England (myself include) wanted a measure to be passed which allowed for Women to be consecrated as bishops. Those floating voters in the Synod’s House of Laity, however, felt that it was more important not to exclude those who could not accept this, rather then to push ahead regardless. That was the conclusion they came to after hearing all those speeches and their decision was informed and deeply considered. Those in the public gallery might have felt that provision was adequate but having heard the debate, more than a third of the House of Laity did not.

Having understood what the members of General Synod are there to do, we then need to ask the question about whether the members themselves really are trustworthy to make decisions of this magnitude on our behalf.

#2 Is the House of Laity Representative?

The criticism which has been repeated online and in print is that the method of election of General Synod members either ‘favours larger churches’ and that it ‘allows it to be captured by special interest groups’.

The first thing to say is that these two criticism are antithesis to each other. EITHER the membership can be dominated by the majority OR it is open to abuse by minority groups. It cannot be the case that a majority can be called a special interest group.

But let’s look at those two statements one at a time. Is there any truth in them, and are there better ways to choose representatives from those who are most invested in the Church of England, its members?

For those who’ve missed the multitude of dummies-guides-to-synod over the past few days, most of members of the House of Laity of the General Synod are elected by the membership of al the Deanery Synods in their diocese. Anyone who is on the electoral roll of a Church of England church can stand as a candidate for the Laity of General Synod, but it is a subset of this total ‘membership’ who will decide who is sent to represent the diocese. There are a few unelected (ex-officio) positions, but these are a tiny minority of the total number of lay reps.

This is in contrast to the House of Clergy, where all the clergy licensed to a particular diocese can vote for their General Synod representatives.

Each Deanery synod will have members from every church in the local area (the deanery) and so every parish in the Church of England will have at least one person who votes for lay General Synod reps, and this person will be elected by the church members who attend the annual church meeting. The number of reps elected depends on the size of the electoral roll (which is usually bigger, but proportional to, the regular attendance at that church). But does this favour larger churches? Well, it’s the diocesan synod that determines the number of Deanery Synod reps from each parish and, if anything, the smaller churches send a larger number of reps per person of the roll.

If a church has under 26 names on the electoral roll, it can only send one rep to Deanery Synod so, in theory, a church with 26 members could send two reps, although in practice the cut-off is more like 40. Much larger churches on the other hand, usually find themselves allowed six or seven reps from a membership of several hundred. This means small churches can have a ratio of Deanery reps to members of 1:20, while in a large church it could be as low as 1:100.

Add to this the fact that there are many more small churches than big ones, it does seem that the criticism that larger churches are overrepresented simply does not hold water.

There have been some calls to reform this house, or at least reform the way it is elected. These do seem to misunderstand the way representation in the CofE works. As I hope I’ve demonstrated above, any sort of proportional representation would only seek to increase the influence of the larger churches. Also, it is almost impossible to determine a genuine ‘membership’ of any given church. The two instruments which come into play in the selection of Deanery Synod representatives are the Electoral Roll and the Annual Meeting. If you are on one and come to the other, you have a say.  Moving the other way would also be counter productive. Having some sort of ‘electoral college’ (maybe the members of diocesan synod) further removed the process of election from those people who the lay members of General Synod are there to represent. As it stands, the electorate of General Synod lay reps is directly representative of every church in the country, and there is no other body than Deanery Synods of which that is true. 

So what about the claim that General Synod is open to ‘capture’ by minority interest groups? As with all elections were candidates are not personally known to the electorate, voters are choosing based on the information they have. Name, manifesto, history, churchmanship, gender, views on women bishops; most of this will be used by voters as they select their candidates, but it seems that the most important criteria is record of service.

In representative organisations it is common for voters to choose to stick with the status-quo, so in practice a diocese will often have the same set of General Synod reps until one moves away or decides not to stand for reelection. This means that the members are usually stable and informed about debates but, more than that, they are also known to the electorate. So it is quite hard for a new candidate to be elected, especially if they are trying to unseat an existing rep. And trying to co-ordinate Deanery Synods across a whole diocese to elect a particular rep (as one of the current online petitions is trying to do) is difficult, if not impossible.

Like all committees, the reason why minority candidates can wield influence is not a problem with the structure, but because of apathy among candidates and voters alike. With a few notable exceptions, Deanery Synods are not the most exciting place to spend and evening, and so members do tend to be there by default rather than because of an active choice. Because of the time commitment, General Synod elections are also not that hotly contested, so often the limited choice of candidates confirm the view that voters don’t really need to be that informed as they cast their vote.

I am extremely fearful of the damage of a politicised single-issue General Synod could have on the governance of the church, but the effect at deanery level could be quite exciting. Having a local meeting of Anglican Christians who are engaged with the process, involved in local mission and there by active choice could transform Deanery Synods into really effect forums for collaboration in mission. So my plea to those who want to hijack the process is this: if you stand for Deanery Synod, please don’t see your role as just to number the right boxes in a few years’ time, instead sign up with a willingness to be a part of the Church’s mission in your local area. 

#3 Does Tuesday’s vote show that the system of synodical government has failed?

Over the past week the prevailing narrative seems to have been “Synod has failed”. There have also been petitions, calls in Westminster and cynical cartoons calling for synod members to go back in the chamber and ‘come out with the right result’. One or two people have helpfully pointed out though, that having agreed the rules of debate, we cannot say that democracy has failed, just because the system did not deliver the result we wanted.

Did the House of Laity fail the church last Tuesday? No, I think it showed us that synod is still working. General Synod members are still prepared to vote against massive pressure from other members, from the clergy, from the bishops, from the internet and from the government if they feel that what is being proposed is not right for their church. For that I applaud them. Those who only last week were saying, ‘trust in the process’ now need to examine themselves to see if the abuse they have directed towards ‘no’ voters is anything more than sheer bullying.

But what about the overall majority who wanted to pass this measure? Would reform of the voting within synod be an option?  The phrase that is commonly used of governance in the Church of England is that we are ‘Synodically Governed and Episcopally Led”. In practice, this means that it is difficult, if not impossible, for significant developments unless they are supported by both synod and the Bishops. The reason why the ability to vote by houses is unlikely to be removed is that it gives power to the House of Bishops as they can to veto legislation and other developments of importance. The Bishops also have the power to modify legislation before a vote (as they did earlier this year), but this isn’t a right that is shared by the other two houses. And this cuts both ways, because by the same token the House of Laity can also exercise the same right of veto, which they did in Tuesday’s vote.

One person who brought huge clarity to Tuesday’s debate was Elaine Storkey. I remember clearly a story which she told about the vote 20 years ago to ordain women as priests. Following the vote she met a senior churchman in tears outside the chamber who held her hands and said “I don’t agree with this, but the church has spoken”.

The synod has spoken, and it has said that we cannot have Women Bishops at any price. Now the challenge is to work out a solution, which allows women to become bishops without tearing the church apart. What I can’t see any point in doing is bringing this back to another vote on this same measure with this same synod before there is some sort of consensus among members about a way forward that is acceptable to all.

UPDATE: If you thought this was long, my college essay on Synodical Government is even longer, you can download it from this page.

Not for this reason, not in this way.

This week was always going to be a difficult one for the Church of England and I, for one, can’t see myself celebrating either of the possible outcomes from tomorrow’s debate and vote on the Women bishops legislation. I’ve felt for some time that I don’t really feel comfortable in either ‘camp’, but this morning’s open letter published in the Independent has confirmed my view that I am in a real minority.

So let me start by saying something that I hope won’t be a surprise, but which I haven’t made public: I’m theologically in favour of Women’s ordination and so I don’t see any barrier to women being consecrated as Bishops. In theory, I’d be voting in favour of a motion to allow women to become Bishops and thinking it was not before time. Although I don’t like the label, I guess this makes me an egalitarian. Now I realise that according to some of my conservative evangelical colleagues I ought to drop the ‘conservative’ label, but I still feel that this best describes the approach to serious engagement with the whole Bible and the conviction that I should obey what it teaches.

But as the debate currently stands, I can’t find myself supporting the motion that is before General Synod this week, and were I asked to, I couldn’t sign a letter which uses the arguments printed in today’s Independent. Although in agreement with the principle, I can’t say that the “end justifies the means” – I don’t want it for this reason, and I don’t want it in this way.

Not for this reason.

Much of the ‘yes’ debate can be reduced to the single point made in today’s letter:

First, because the Bible teaches that “in Christ there is no male or female”, but all people are equal before God. Just as the churches have repented of our historic antisemitism and endorsement of slavery, so we believe that we must now show clearly that we no longer believe women to be inferior to men.

This is the trump card which is used to defeat all other arguments. ‘God thinks we are equal, so the church needs to come in line with the will of God, and repent of not doing so sooner’.

But to take a single phrase out of context and to elevate it above the rest of the Bible’s teaching is a sloppy way to make a point, and the danger of using proof-texts in this way is that by trading verses in this way we can generate a lot of heat, by no real light.

Over 1000 Bible teachers signed the letter in the Independent, but the challenge to Anglican Bible teachers as we engage with this issue is to heed the warning of the 39 articles, which prohibit the church and it’s clergy from “so expound[ing] one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”. If we favour one text at the expense of another then we are not allowing ourselves to be led by scripture, we are sitting in judgement upon it as we say the bits we like are more valid than the bits we don’t. We need to look at more than one verse as we come to this debate.

So what does that passage in Galatians say, and what does it mean? And as we do so, let’s remember that this verse is written by the man who is often wrongly portrayed of as the arch-misogynist of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul.

“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God  through faith,  for all of you who were baptized into Christ  have clothed yourselves with Christ.  There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free,  nor is there male and female,  for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  If you belong to Christ,  then you are Abraham’s seed,  and heirs  according to the promise.” Galatians 3:26-29

The big debate in the letter to the Galatians is whether Jew and Gentile are going to be included and united together in on church. In this context, this verse is not about the abolition of all differences, but it is about the unity of all believers in Christ. The Galatian believers were in danger of going back to an Old Testament legalism, which does talk about differences between the way men and women are included in God’s people. Paul wants to refute that as strongly as he can and we writes “You foolish  Galatians!  Who has bewitched you? … Did you receive the Spirit  by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?”

So we cannot use this phrase as a proof-text to justify the rejection of all gender distinctions, or any other distinctions for that matter. It is not the trump card that destroys all other arguments or silences all other voices. We need to engage with the whole council of scripture.

As I said earlier, I want to take scripture seriously and I do come to conclusion that gender distinctions should not prevent women from playing a full part in the life and leadership of the church. I come to that conclusion from looking at the accounts of the creation of men and women in Genesis, from looking at Jesus inclusion and treatment of women (as mentioned as the second point in today’s indy letter), looking at Paul’s practice in appointing, training and deploying female leaders and from seeing the way household codes empowered women in the home and in society, in stark contrast to pagan instructions from the same period.

But in this backdrop Paul sees fit to limit the ministry of women in Ephesus and also, to  degree, in Corinth. There can be no question that Paul really does write “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man;  she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12). This is not a man who thinks that all gender distinctions have been completely abolished.

I’ve taught elsewhere about how I this passage can be understood as the exception to the rule of equality, rather than the general principle which is excepted by Paul’s choice of women as leaders and teachers. But the point is that I come to an egalitarian viewpoint because I believe scripture consistently allows us to do so, rather than because one verse allows us to disregard all others.

Not in this way.

The other reason why I can’t support the measure as it stands and couldn’t have signed today’s letter is that it does not involve the “enormous compromise” which is claimed by the ‘yes’ lobby.

The church of England is governed by an incredibly complicated web of legislation, hierarchy and representative bodies, which allow for a wide diversity of theological opinion and practice. So it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that such a complicated institution could produce legislation which safeguards the integrity of all its members.

I recently read an e-mail from one of the General Synod members from my own diocese saying that we needed to trust the house of bishops to come up with a non-statutory code of practice to safeguard those who hold a complementarian position. The irony is that just a few months ago, the same people who are urging us to ‘trust the House of Bishops’ were up in arms that the Bishops had attempted to introduce a fairly minor change to the legislation which is before General Synod tomorrow.

My fear is that if (and when) this measure is passed, over time the provision for those who cannot accept it will be weakened and then removed altogether. It isn’t that I don’t trust our leaders, but as I look around the Anglican Communion, and especially in the direction of the Episcopal Church in America, what I see is the dilution of protections to the point where congregations are forced to leave their buildings and dioceses find themselves in conflict with their national church.

So I can’t see myself celebrating either outcome from tomorrow’s vote. Unless that vote is to introduce genuine compromise, which allows for women bishops, while protecting the integrity of all those who want to remain under the authority of scripture.