A few thoughts on General Synod’s (narrow) rejection of the Women Bishops Measure

What follows is not so much any kind of a coherent response to today’s debate and vote, but more a collection of assorted thoughts and questions that I’ve had as I’ve followed this issue over the last few days.  If I’ve misrepresented positions at all, over-generalised or otherwise made an unhelpful intrusion into what is a painfully divisive debate, then do please accept my apologies.
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There was a lot of talk today in Synod about the need for better provision for those opposed to women bishops, but is there ever going to be sufficient accommodation that satisfies those against the change? I just can’t see a situation whereby any compromise will be sustainable long term.

For the Anglo-Catholics opposed, the chief issue (and I’m no expert) appears to be about the ‘spiritual chain of command’ and thus an unwillingness to be subject to a female bishop – but if it comes to having a woman as Archbishop then surely that puts an end to any such provision? Or am I misunderstanding their position? Either way, when the change eventually does happen, I imagine many will join the Ordinariate.
For conservative evangelicals opposed, the main issue is the interpretation of the various relevant NT passages. But note that these passages are all about women in church leadership full stop – for me I don’t see any tenable position where someone could accept women’s ordination, but not accept women bishops, as there is no distinction in the NT between local church leadership and that of wider systems of church governance (although open to correction on that point).
There are doubtless many among those in the House of Laity who opposed the change are genuinely keen to reach a compromise that both sides can agree on – however improbably that may or may not be – however, it does make me wonder whether there are others for whom no amount of ‘provision’ is enough, as they are simply opposed to women bishops on principle and will vote against any measure that would bring that closer to reality.  Those who wish to see the continued unity of the Anglican church will hope that the former outnumber the latter in this instance.

I suppose one solution would be to do away with bishops altogether in the Church of England as that would at least solve the inequality problem! I don’t think that’s likely though…

My hope is that there will be a move to reach a solution sooner rather than later and bring the different parties together to hammer out an amendment that all sides can agree on – although I presume that is what has been going on already and it hasn’t worked out yet.
It’s both interesting and sad to see the way that the Church of England is going to be dragged through the mud over this in the media and in public perception, and if the current status quo continues then the clamour for disestablishment could grow and grow.  It’s interesting to read the outrage of so many at a decision by an organisation of which they are not part – the sense that the Church of England should represent the values of wider society has been evident in much of the initial reaction.
While my own position on the question of disestablishment is only partially-formed at present, I am far from persuaded that it would necessarily be a bad thing.  The fact that people are now calling for Parliament to intervene and force Synod to pass the legislation (as I read one vicar in favour of the change demand earlier) is not exactly indicative of a healthy model of church-state relations.

Overall, however, today is not a good day for the Church of England.  Those in favour of correcting the glaring inconsistency that allows for women to become vicars but not bishops will understandably be deeply frustrated and saddened by today’s vote, especially as it was so close.  Those who opposed the change will be relieved that the vote went their way, but it is a hollow victory as the Church’s deep division on this issue has been exposed once again.  We can only pray that it won’t take another 10 years before an acceptable compromise position can be reached.

I would, however, like to make one point regarding an argument that has been put forth by a number of people both within and without the Church in the last few days, which is the one that broadly goes along the lines of ‘society at large will find anything but a ‘yes’ vote absurd and offensive, therefore we should vote ‘yes’ to maintain our social credibility’.  I admit that there is an emotional force to this argument and the Church is really going to be put through the mill over this in the coming days, with a lot of bad press and a great deal of ill-feeling generated towards the Church.  However, that simply cannot be a decisive argument on such an important issue.  We are not called to reflect society back at itself, but to show God’s love and grace revealed in the Gospel to a world that has rejected Him. Whenever those in favour of women bishops stray from theological reasoning to this more populist approach, they do themselves a disservice.  While we all want to be liked and admired, it is more important to be faithful to the path God is leading us on.  There are plenty of other things that we believe in that society as a whole finds implausible and ridiculous, not least the Resurrection itself.  Appeals to opinion polls and seeking to avoid a social media firestorm is no substitute for the deep theological reflection that is required.

To finish up, my hope is that both sides can allow God to help them to respond with grace and love even in the midst of frustration and mistrust, that a genuine dialogue and reconciliation process can take place and that a properly workable solution can be found that somehow, by God’s grace, will be acceptable to all sides who are willing to work together for it.

Recommended posts I’ve read today:

Peter Ould’s reflection is informative as ever and well worth reading.

Tanya Marlow’s piece from yesterday, and thus before the debate, is powerful, moving and gets to the heart of where quite a few people seem to be at on this.

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3 thoughts on “A few thoughts on General Synod’s (narrow) rejection of the Women Bishops Measure

  1. Populism no, agreed. But you’re maybe in danger here of putting ‘social credibility’ in some box quite separate to the movement of the Spirit within society. Take it a step further and we’d make a complete inversion, e.g. ‘If “society” approves of this, it must be wrong …’ Here’s what I blogged on the vote this morning –
    http://richardawarren.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/women-bishops-over-the-cliff-with-general-synod/
    No apologies for the anger.

    • Thanks for commenting Richard – I agree that there is a balance to be struck between the two, which isn’t always easy! I certainly don’t go along with those who think any opposition must be a sign that we are doing the right thing – sometimes it is, but sometimes it’s because we’re being stupid.
      My feeling I guess is that in making the case for this change, it’s better to lead with the Biblical and theological reasoning, rather than an appeal to the fact that it will get us brownie points with the wider culture. However, it’s not a bad thing if wider society views the church favourably! Especially as it may lead to a more sympathetic hearing to the Gospel message.
      For those opposed, the reality is that this debate was over 20 years ago, it just hasn’t been accepted yet – and while proper provision does need to be made, the idea that you accept women vicars, but not women bishops, is simply untenable.
      Thanks for linking to your post too! Better out than in is what I say when it comes to expressing things! 🙂

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