Thursday, 17 July 2014

The BBC and women bishops


Radio 4 gives much to enjoy, but it can sometimes be bad for my blood pressure: not least when it betrays the Beeb's wilful ignorance of anything to do with Christianity. The standard of its religious reporting is wretchedly simplistic, and makes me wonder how far they dumb down the rest of our news. This morning, the Today programme proclaimed that the Church of England is "banishing the Devil" from its "Christening ceremony." Once again, the feckless C of E kowtows to secular modernity. Never mind the fact that we offer the sacrament of Baptism, and not "Christening ceremonies," whatever they are; nor that the Church has simply approved one new optional liturgy which does not mention the Devil in addition to the existing ones which all do; nor that the Book of Common Prayer in its 1662 manifestation remains the normative standard of our liturgy and doctrine, in which the Devil is most vehemently and explicitly rejected. No, forget all that: the addition of one new, perhaps misguided, order of Baptism to the liturgical canon (which will probably barely be used) is simply not as newsworthy as the BBC's fabricated version of events, viz. "the Church has gone to the dogs."

And so we should not be surprised that the bigger news of the week is treated with the same declination of forehead. The Church has finally decided to consecrate women as bishops. In any moment of controversy like this, the media likes to find two clear sides, however complicated the debate may really be: the wheat and the tares, one might say. For the BBC, this means the wheat who support women's ordination, and the tares who don't. The wheat are secular modernists who want to move the Church with the times, nice progressive types like those who run the BBC. The tares are the cassocked Neanderthals of the Anglo-Catholic movement and the swivel-eyed Bible-bashers from the Evangelical fold.

This is a myth that, to be fair, some of the debatably monikered "traditionalists" also buy into. Anyone who disagrees with them is a vassal of secularism and traitor to the true faith, whether it's the Catholic faith according to the Roman Curia or the Bible-based faith of the fundamentalists. If you support the ordination of women, you're just a woolly, liberal sell-out.

The truth is not that simple. There are indeed some nasty misogynists among the antis and there are also barely Christian secularists among the proponents of women's ordination: I've even heard some say that we need female bishops to get women into "senior management of the Church," which makes me want to vomit. It's hardly the job description St Ignatius of Antioch would give the successors of the Apostles.

For the most part, though, both the pros and antis are genuinely seeking to discern God's way and walk in his truth, as this Sunday's Psalm has it (87.11). There are Evangelicals whose reading of the Bible does not allow for women to lead. There are Anglo-Catholics who cannot countenance unilaterally changing the episcopate of the Holy Catholic Church (of which the English church has always claimed to be part) when the rest of the bishops of the worldwide Church oppose that change. But then, there are Evangelicals who read Scripture quite differently, and prioritise the teachings and life of Jesus over some minority texts in Paul; and there are Anglo-Catholics who would argue that our church has made many unilateral decisions in the past, and its Catholicity does not depend on a majority decision of foreign bishops. For my part, I think that this week's decision was the logical and right one, and Christian and biblical to boot; but I cannot bring myself to crack open the champagne over an action which fractures the Church any further and, for the time being at least, jeopardises any hopes of reunion with the wider Catholic Church.

Coming back to this Sunday's Gospel (Mt 13.24ff.), it is sad that not just outsiders but so many of us Christians still see each other as wheat or tares: there are fellow Anglicans who are quite sure that those of us who support women's ordination will be gathered up for the bonfire at the end of the ages. Despite all this, the Church of England remains unified at least in its liturgy of "Common" Worship (not as common as it used to be in the BCP days, sadly, but there we go). We should, for the most part, all be praying the same Collect this Sunday, which happens rather fortuitously to be for vocation:

"Hear our prayer which we offer for all your faithful people, that in their vocation and ministry they may serve you in holiness and truth to the glory of your name."

This, at least, redirects the spotlight of vocation away from the clergy and back to where it belongs: that is, on "all faithful people," every Christian, ordained or otherwise. We each have our vocation to serve the Church however God might call us. One may or may not believe that women are truly called to be priests or bishops, but none can doubt that they are called, as we all are, to something. So whatever our theological positions, we should all unite at least in praying for the best fulfilment of everyone's Christian vocation in the Church today: that, in the words of the old Prayer Book collect, "Thy Church may joyfully serve Thee in all godly quietness." Surely that, over and above who is or isn't called to Holy Orders, is the point.

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