Thursday, 22 November 2012

Christ the King and women bishops in the Church of England

After last Sunday's apocalyptic prophecies, we come today to the feast of Christ the King. The earliest Christians believed that the Kingdom would come, quite literally with trumpet blasts and Christ descending from the sky to judge the world, in their own lifetimes. St Paul's letter to the Thessalonians, one of his earliest and therefore one of the oldest parts of the New Testament, show this quite clearly. His later letters, though, such as Romans, show something of a change of mind - which is one of the many problems for people who think that the Bible is some kind of divinely dictated history book-cum-instruction manual. Because we know, as St Paul came to realise, that he and the earliest Christians were wrong. As Nathan helpfully reminded us last week, it doesn't look like the world has ended yet.

But the early Christians did have a point. In a way, the Kingdom has already come, though not with the fanfare they expected. Even in His lifetime, Jesus Himself told his disciples that the Kingdom was already among them. We only need to open our eyes to see it: within ourselves, within others, and most especially in the hearts of those in need. It will reach its fulfilment only when time ends, but the victory of the noble Kingdom over the dictatorship of sin is something that the Church is called to realise here and now, today.

Yet it might be rather hard for some of us to see that in the Church just now. Those who aren't lucky enough to have hair to tear out are at least scratching their heads at our church's decision last week not to go ahead with the ordination of women as bishops. How, our politicians and journalists are asking, can the Church be so behind the times on such a fundamental matter as sexual equality? But I'm afraid this just goes to show the limits of the public debate. Even a presenter on the Today programme polarised the argument as being between 'progressive society' versus 'what the Bible says.'

There are two problems with this polarisation. First, with the 'progressive society,' because the Church's duty is not just to go along with the times. Today's political beliefs are a flash in the pan compared with the thousands of years-old tradition that the Church is bound to guard. The question, for the Church, is not necessarily what today's society thinks, but what is true and right.

But coming to the problem of what constitutes 'truth' for a Christian, we need to see that it is not (and never has been) limited to 'what the Bible says.' As we've seen already, St Paul changes his mind within the Bible, between his first and his last letters. The idea that the Bible simply 'says' one, consistent thing, is very problematic. Our Church simply does not believe, like Muslims do, that we have a divinely dictated book which gives us definitive answers. Biblical fundamentalism is not our historic faith, it is a nineteenth-century invention. The fundamentalist Christians who do believe this sort of thing are a minority, and in the Church of England, a very small one. The Anglican Church, like the Roman Catholic Church, has never taught that the Bible is the be-all and end-all of theology. It is a library of different texts written by different people at different times, not an instruction manual for eternity, and it is only one part of the Church's vast tradition. The argument about women bishops, for most Christians in the Church of England, is not about 'what the Bible says.'

So, if the debate last Tuesday was not about the Bible versus modern society, then what was it about? Why are we still divided?

There are, of course, those who will not accept the authority of women bishops. But this has nothing to do with modern ideas of sexual equality. Among the antis, only a very small minority reject women's leadership on biblical principles of male headship. A larger cohort believes that the Church of England has no right to make such a significant change without the support of the bishops of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. And many more of those who voted against the measure did so because they thought it was messy legislation, giving either too little or too much support to those who cannot in conscience accept women bishops. They are far from a homogenous group, and it will not help the Church to move forward if we simply demonize them as misogynists or Bible-bashers, however angry we might be.

But actually, we are not as divided as last week's synod might suggest. Forty-two out of forty-four of the dioceses which make up the Church of England had already supported the draft legislation in their diocesan synods. Even within the General Synod, the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy passed the legislation, listening to the voice of the Church. It was only the House of Laity who stymied the vote, falling short of the needed two-thirds quorum by just five votes.

This should give us pause for thought. In our supposedly sexist, hierarchical church, it was the all-male bishops and mostly-male priests who voted for women bishops, and the more diverse laity who voted against. Ironically, if we were genuinely as hierarchical as our detractors like to think, and we had left the (male) bishops to make the decision, we would now have women bishops.

So, the picture is much more complicated than the media suggests. It demonstrably is NOT a matter of Bible versus modernity, conservative hierarchy versus progressive democracy, male misogyny versus women's rights. But of course, that message will not be heard, because it's much easier to boil it down to a simple opposition, a story that fits neatly with modern prejudices. Sadly for the Church, this is the story we will be judged by. I don't think I'm overstating the matter when I say: our relationship with the state will be jeopardized, and with it, England's identity as a Christian nation.

Like it or not, the Church of England does, overwhelmingly, want women bishops. It does not want them because modern society tells us we should, but because the Church believes in them as a matter of Christian theological principle. The failure of Synod to vote for women bishops has nothing to do with hierarchical structure, nothing to do with the men in charge, who almost all want women in their ranks. It has everything to do with one small and unrepresentative structure - the House of Laity in the General Synod - whose position is now very questionable, and whose action may even throw us into a constitutional crisis.

The Kingdom of Christ is not about us Christians and our salvation. It's about the Church becoming the vehicle which will lead the entirety of creation into salvation at the end of time by revealing the Kingdom here and now. The Church of England exists to call the entire people of this nation to the vision of that Kingdom. We need to think - and pray - very carefully about just how we are going to do that in the aftermath of what happened last week. Wherever you stand on the issue, there's no room for rejoicing, and I'm afraid we are ending this ecclesiastical year on a note of pessimism, because times are not about to get easier for our Church.

So perhaps we should look to the new Church year instead. Advent, a season of sober reflection and repentance, is just around the corner, and by God, we need it. But Advent is also a time of waiting and of patience, and we need to hold fast to those, too. The birth pangs of the fulness of Christian truth may be painful and long-lasting. Yet in the rebirth of Christ which we await at this time every year, we are promised that it will in time be delivered.

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