Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Women Bishops: This Time It's Personal

So, as you probably know, The General Synod of the Church of England voted this week on the legislation to enable women to be bishops. So very, very much has been thought, prayed, debated, blogged, published and now voted upon on this subject that it seems  to me almost to be a crime against Anglicanism to add to the welter of words.

I'm going to, anyway!

And what I'm going to offer is not yet more theological background, not yet more feminist critique or sociological perspective; all of these have been offered admirably by many sensitive and thoughtful people.

What I'm going to offer is my own, personal, reflection. Last time General Synod voted on this issue, the vote was not carried (hence it's coming back to the agenda this week), and it felt personal then in a way that I hadn't anticipated before the vote. I can still remember a wet Wednesday morning in November, sitting in my parked car, watching the rain trickle down my windscreen, feeling a deep sense of disappointment. Not for myself; after all, I had only recently begun my ministry as a curate and had no pretensions or aspirations to the purple; not even for the women who had long served as priests and who would feel personally slighted and sidelined by this vote. My sadness was for the church, for all that it would lose, both within and without (not that it's particularly easy to define 'within' and 'without' in an established church to which all have equal access at whatever level they want). I remember the weary sadness of having to explain why the vote hadn't carried, how the numbers had fallen, of feeling morally obliged to defend the church - my family - against all-too-understandable accusations of misogyny and male privilege; I felt the longing sadness of the spiritual impoverishment of a church which could not agree to see  the giftedness of some among its number, the lack that it would bear in its shared self because of this decision. I remember sighing heavily, turning the key in the car and getting on with my work as a deacon and curate.

So you might well be thinking at this point that my sighing has turned to singing, my sadness to joy at this week's events. Well, yes. I was pleased that General Synod voted as it did. Relieved. Consoled. Warmed. Judging by the political mood, things could have become intractably messy if the vote hadn't carried this time. But, in all honesty, there's been a bittersweetness to this week to me; second time around the vote has felt, to me, to carry all the emotional weight of that wet Wednesday. That's not just me being perverse, I've realised; it's to do with having heard the arguments, and borne the burden of the stories of so many of my Christian siblings in this big, chaotic, bellicose family of the Church of England.  My love for each one is genuine and my gratitude for them profound. I have heard stories of women priests who had dog poo posted through their letterboxes; I have heard stories of others, both male and female, whose fine conscience dictates that they cannot  truly accept that priesthood can be expressed by people of either gender. I have heard arguments which  I've found to be persuasive and insightful, and others, much less so. My love for those on either side of the debate has not been affected by the persusasiveness of their viewpoints. My love for them is, quite simply, the love of a sister or brother.    

And that's what makes it complicated. This time, as last time, it's personal. It's not about 'women bishops.' It's about particular women, with names and stories, histories and viewpoints, who may or may not be given the opportunity to serve and inspire as bishops. It's about people in pews, who relate to the pointy hats in ways that are so gutsy and so real, or so shallow and fleeting. It's about people who never come to church yet who nonetheless, look to it to provide some sort of sense of God and stability in a worryingly unstable world.

Personally I have been so utterly impressed and blessed by female bishops in other parts of the Anglican Communion, I cannot begin to tell you. Yet as a feminist, I can't help but feel that the possibility of becoming a female bishop in England is important symbolically, but barely scratches the surface of complex issues of gender identity and power within the church (I could say so much more about this!)

But what makes it complicated is that it's not just about me; it's about all God's children: particular people, who think and pray, who care and love, who react and notice from afar, whose responses to this vote, and all that will follow it, are as complex and as fascinating as they are themselves. And, much as it weakens my cause, if cause I even have, I love each one of them.

Personally, I don't want to lose a single person from my family over this issue. Personally, my love and  respect for my Christian sisters and brothers is not pre-determined by the extent to which their worldview mirrors mine. Personally, my genuine relief at Monday's vote is tempered by the clear-sighted awareness of all the very human complexities which will follow in its wake.

So my prayer is one of gratitude, but also one of deep longing still; a deep longing for the unity of all God's children despite our differences.  Crass though it may be to pray through the lyrics of a pop song, let us all ask our Heavenly Father that 'what we have's enough.'  


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