As you will be well aware, General Synod this week voted not to approve the measure to allow women to be ordained bishops. Was this the most important thing that happened in the news? No. Does it spell the end of the Church of England? No. Is it a reason to leave the Church? No. Does it fatally compromise the Church’s life and ministry in this country? Contrary to some reports, I believe not. I do not think that having women bishops is of the esse of the Church. (I don’t think having any kind of bishops is, but that is another story.)
But we do need to reflect on what has happened here.
A proposal which has the overwhelming support of bishops, other clergy, and laity in the church, which has received strong support in 42 of the 44 dioceses, which has been discussed actively since the 1970s (when it was agreed that there was no theological objection to women’s ordination), which has been on the agenda since women were ordained presbyter in 1994, which seems to the general public to be little more than common sense—this proposal was rejected by Synod by the narrowest of margins. This is not about a Church which (as some have suggested) is careful and appropriately cautious in making decisions. This is a Church at a standstill because one set of wheels (mostly out in parishes) is turning one way, and another set of wheels (in Synod) is turning the other.
How can this be? The voting figures tell a story.
The House of Bishops voted 44 to 3 with 2 abstentions, which is 90% in favour.
The House of Clergy voted 148 to 45, which is 77% in favour.
The House of Laity voted 132 to 74, which is 64% in favour.
How might we explain this progressively increasing opposition moving from bishops to clergy to laity—which is a common feature of Synod voting? Here are six possibly explanations.
- The laity on Synod are more theologically conservative than clergy, who in turn are more theologically conservative than bishops. This is a commonplace in the Church of England; evangelicals have long complained that they are under-represented in the ‘hierarchy’, and by and large evangelical churches have higher numbers attending, which means that more ‘conservative’ views gain differing degrees of representation at these three different levels.
- The laity on Synod are more socially and culturally conservative than clergy and bishops. It is hard to remain unaware of social change if you are engaged in ordained parochial ministry (or any other kind for that matter), but it is possible for congregations to become bastions of social stability, islands of calm in a turbulent social sea. I remember being almost assaulted by a lay person at a Deanery Synod where this was being discussed and I was speaking: ‘You are taking away my church! You are taking away my church!’ This kind of visceral fear of change is present, and perhaps not sufficiently acknowledged—but much more so amongst laity than clergy, in my experience.
- The laity on Synod are less willing to think radically about change for the sake of mission. I sometime worry that ordinands training here at St John’s will get tired of us saying that the future of the church depends on entrepreneurial missional leadership (even though that contrasts with first experiences upon ordination) and no clergy can avoid the constant discussion about Fresh Expressions and all that jazz. But these things are not the bread and butter of most PCC meetings in local churches.
- The laity on Synod are in general less social media savvy than their clergy counterparts. Bishops blog, and some time ago clergy communication went electronic, but the Synod laity (especially older ones) do not have the same pressure to get wired. It was said that social media could swing the vote; if so, it would have affected clergy much more than laity.
- The laity at Synod are less theologically engaged in the arguments. Now, I am aware that I am on dangerous ground here, but it has been remarkable to hear the number of times in recent weeks people reciting that women are forbidden from exercising authority (1 Tim 2.12 does not say that), or that a man is the ruler of the household (that comes from Aristotle’s Politics, not the New Testament), or that headship is about authority (which in 1 Cor 11 it is not), or that there is gender hierarchy in Genesis 2 (there is none). Clergy sometimes mention these things, but by and large they know better, since the vast weight of scholarship and study refutes each of these ideas. More often they are found on the lips of Synod laity, despite some valiant attempts to make the background information more widely available.
- The laity at Synod are less representative of the wider Church than the other Houses. All the diocesan bishops are in Synod, so there is no question there. Clergy are used to attending tedious Anglican meetings, so don’t have to make such a leap to engage in Synod. But the laity? I think it is fair to say that, overall, Synod laity are not your typical cross-section of Church membership. For one thing, you have to have time (and money?) on your hands to make the commitment to the (unpaid) attendance at meetings. For another, you have to feel at home with the idea of procedural motions. And this vote is further, strong evidence that Synod laity are not speaking representatively for the views of laity more widely.
I have carefully said that these are possible explanations, and you might or might not agree that they are true. I certainly know plenty of missional, creative, risk-taking, theologically engaged lay men and women in Synod. But if at least some of these are not true, how do you explain the voting?
It might be possible to see a number of these things as positive virtues, but there are some which clearly are not. There are already calls for a review of how Synod works, and in particular how the laity are elected and represented. Having spent five years as a member of Synod from 2000 to 2005, I have to say that its workings are very far from perfect.
What is fairly certain is that, unless something creative is done in the near future, the elections for the Synod of 2015 to 2020 will be fought almost exclusively on this issue, and many of the current, more conservative members will lose their places without a doubt.
Why is such change inevitable? Let’s consider the impact of this vote.
Firstly, this has been massively discouraging for a very large section of the leadership of the Church: women clergy. Opponents of the measure argued that their view was being marginalised. But attacks on your views, however strongly held, are not attacks on you. Women clergy I know have felt this to be a deeply personal issue, as it puts a question mark against the vocation for which they have often made considerable sacrifice. To leave the Church on a matter of conscious is one thing; to be told that your ministry has no theological validity is quite another.
Secondly, this has seriously undermined the credibility of the Church, as a moment’s glance at any of the press will tell you. It seems to me somewhat ironic that evangelicals who are concerned with mission have been instrumental in doing such damage. To claim that this is not about credibility, but about ‘doing things God’s way’ is delusional. Some people need to get out more!
Thirdly, it could be that it is this issue, and not same-sex marriage, which starts opening the cracks in the dam of establishment. Whatever the merits or demerits of each of the many (and complex) aspects of establishment, a move towards disestablishment would signal a decisive step away from this country’s roots in Christian faith. This doesn’t look like a good idea to me.
Fourthly, this vote will make it hard for the Church to speak with any authority on the question of same-sex unions, as Giles Fraser notes (with pleasure—he calls this a ‘silver lining’ in what is otherwise ‘suicidal stupidity’). Again, it is the achievement of evangelicals who tie these two issues (women’s ministry, and same sex unions) together which make it harder to address the second, since so many people see affirmation of women’s ministry as self-evident in a way they still do not see affirmation of same-sex unions.
Fifthly, postponing a decision will not help unity one jot. The requirement from opponents is, in effect, to have a hermetically sealed episcopacy of their own, free from the taint of women. That is something the Church will never agree to, as has been made clear in all the discussions.
Sixthly, if this vote is defended as an expression of biblical values, then most people will decide that they would rather do without such a Bible. Defence of a ‘biblical’ position requires that there is a credible apologetic, and for those outside the Church this position has none. Saying that ‘Voting no was a vote for equality in the church‘ will not cut it (as comments on this article show).
Perhaps this will be the most lasting, damaging legacy of all.
[In case you are wondering about the picture, it is of a town in Corfu called Episkepsi. Being on the top of a hill, it offers a wonderful view over the lie of the land, hence its name. You can see a long way from here. And you will see from the rainbow that there is still hope in Episkepsi.]