Monday, 27 February 2017

Vintage pop, controversial bishops and Alexander Hamilton

'There's always something happening, and it's usually quite loud': Vintage pop, controversial bishops, and Alexander Hamilton (just another month in the Church of England)

February 27, 2017
The Church of England has certainly had more than its fair share of column inches in the British press this month; firstly, over the General Synod gathering which rejected a report on sexuality which had been written by a group of bishops, and then, just when the dust had started to settle, Martyn Percy, the Dean of Christchurch Cathedral in Oxford was reported in the Guardian to have suggested that the man who will be the next Bishop of Sheffield, Philip North, should step down, not for any scandalous reason but because Philip North has never been anything other than honest about his view that women should not be ordained. I can't help thinking of the line from the vintage pop song, 'Our House': 'There's always something happening, and it's usually quite loud.' Truer words were never spoken of the C of E! As you can imagine, and may well have seen, there was a huge outcry in response, from those who agree with Martyn Percy, those who agree with Philip North, and those who agree with neither Martyn nor Philip.

I find myself in the latter camp; strange, you mind think, for someone who is a woman vicar. How can it be, you might wonder, that in this day and age the Church of England can have bishops who don't agree with women being ordained alongside bishops whose job is to ordain women and, of course, ordained women?  And how can an ordained woman be relaxed about a bishop who doesn't believe in the ordination of women? What rabbit hole have we fallen through here? Surely the Church made its mind up on the issue of women priests in the 1990s and on the issue of women bishops more recently, the people spoke through the representative channels of Synod, action was taken as a result of those votes, and that's that?

Well, in true Anglican fashion, yes and no. The Synod did thrash out all the ins and outs of ordaining women, the vote was (very narrowly) in favour of women priests and yes, obviously, many women have been ordained as a result of that vote, myself included. However, what didn't happen in the 1990s or since then, was for the Church's representatives to say to those who voted against women's ordination anything along the lines of 'We won; you lost; get over it; the people have spoken.' Quite the opposite; those who voted against women's ordination were recognised as part of 'the people' and therefore, the next problem on the table became how to honour the consciences of those who had voted against women's ordination, which, after all, had the weight of most of Christian history behind it. In this spirit, provision was made for those who had voted according to their consciences, and those in pews up and down the country who would agree that women shouldn't be ordained, and although some clergy did choose to leave the Church at this point, others didn't: hence Philip North and those who share his convictions. 

It'd be disingenuous of me not to admit that this way of knocking along together isn't complex or bruising for some of us, sometimes. It is, undoubtedly, easier to get on with people who think like oneself, but for me, knocking along together despite differences without for one moment caricaturing or trivialising those differences is worth the complexities and bruises, because to me, it is the way of being together that is most authentically Christian. The Madness song 'Our House' is a song about family, and the Church is family. After the February session of General Synod, the Archbishop of Canterbury issued a statement calling for a spirit of 'radical Christian inclusion.' I see the consecration of Philip North as living proof that this radical Christian inclusion might just be more than a slogan; radical inclusion (although I'm not a great fan of the word 'inclusion') means recognising the Christian least like me as my sister or brother, and doing unto him or her as I would want to be done unto myself. This, I believe, is close to the heart of being a Christian. 

It's much more intellectually honest, too, to own our differences and own each other despite our differences than to pretend that we all think the same. Our current household obsession is the hip-hop musical 'Hamilton', based on the life of the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton who, as the writer, Lin-Manuel Miranda put it, 'caught beef' with just about every other Founding Father before being shot dead at the age of 47 by his nemesis, Aaron Burr, in America's most notorious duel. (This seven-minute mash-up is great!) Aaron Burr, an endless equivocator who is 'not particularly forthcoming on any particular stances', runs as President against the brash Thomas Jefferson, who hates Hamilton ('he knows nothing of loyalty / smells like new money, dresses like fake royalty. / Desperate to rise above his station, / Everything he does betrays the ideals of our nation'). A 'key endorsement' is needed in this tightly-fought electoral battle and Hamilton, having been knocked out of the political running due his 'torrid affair', shocks the voters of 1800 by endorsing not Burr, whom he has known since teenage years but Jefferson because 'when all is said and all is done, Jefferson has beliefs. Burr has none.' Burr's last words in the libretto are poignant; 'I was too young and blind to see...the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and me'.

I'm with Hamilton on this one; I'd far rather have leaders with beliefs, even those with which I disagree, than leaders without beliefs, both in secular life and in the church. And I'm glad to say that the Church of England is wide enough for both Philip North and me. After all, duels are so eighteenth century. 

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