The result of Monday’s vote on women bishops, the Archbishop of York stipulated, must be greeted in silence, as is the convention at the General Synod. This, perhaps, was a misjudgment: it would have been more natural, surely, to allow an instantaneous mass-whooping for joy and an outbreak of uninhibited Anglican hugging, rather than to force everyone to sit tight through two or three tedious extra amendments and then to make them all stand up and start singing and swaying to ‘We Are Marching in the Light of God’, which was what happened.
But, say those who are delighted with the outcome of the vote, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury must be praised for their work in bringing this vote to fruition. ‘The Archbishop of York was an excellent chairman of the debate,’ said Sally Barnes, media officer of Women and the Church — ‘except at the very end. It was disgraceful to be told to keep quiet and not rejoice. Yet again the message to women was, “You may not rejoice.” One or two of us did stand up and cheer, and were scowled at.’ But as soon as the session ended and they were let out on to the York University campus, she said, ‘the joy just spilled out, and it carried on and on into the evening’.
I rang the Bishop of Worcester, John Inge, early on the morning after the vote. (Clergy who live in cathedral closes are up and dressed for 7.30 Matins; you can ring them before breakfast.) Bishop John said he was impressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s work in getting people on opposing sides of the debate to talk to each other. This is not easily done: theological views, when stubbornly held, are notoriously hard to budge. Archbishop Justin Welby achieved a subtle toning-down of the extremes of violent disagreement with the help of a brilliant Northern Irish facilitator, David Porter, who is Canon Director for Reconciliation at Coventry. (Coventry has been a great centre for reconciliation ever since the end of the second world war, when the city vowed to make lifelong friends with Dresden to make amends.) Spurred to action by the vote against women bishops in 2012, which caused national outrage, Welby was determined to bring key disagree-ers to the negotiating table, with David Porter (toughened by his Northern Irish experience) as trained facilitator, steering their conversations and telling them that Christians should not behave like that and should try to trust each other. The result is that people who used to be hostile to and horrid about each other (for example, ‘headship’ Christians and liberals) are now a little less so.
Those who are happy with the outcome seem to agree that, with hindsight, it’s good that the vote didn’t go through in 2012, as this time the legislation is simpler, and nothing divisive is enshrined in law. ‘It demonstrates how God can bring good things out of bad,’ said Bishop John Inge. One of the Five Principles set out in the Measure states: ‘The Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open equally to all, without reference to gender.’ Women priests love this longed-for clarity. ‘At last, after 20 years, women priests can stop feeling ambivalent about themselves,’ said Jody Stowell, vicar of St Michael and All Angels, Harrow. ‘I’m in a day-to-day situation where my colleagues are affirming me; but it makes a huge difference when it’s the institution itself that is affirming me.’
Still on the trail of the pre-breakfast clergy, I rang Bruce Ruddock, Canon Precentor of Peterborough, former director of the Anglican Centre in Rome and in close touch with Roman Catholics. How would this vote affect the relationship between the Church of England and the Church of Rome, I asked. ‘I don’t think it will harm the relationship at all,’ he said. ‘The Roman Catholics have been expecting it — it has been regarded as a given for some time that we will have women bishops.’
Anyway, he said, ‘ecumenism is not about trying to bolt together the hull of some great ship which was broken in the 16th century; it’s more about a flotilla sailing in the same direction. Unity is not uniformity. The mantra is “unity in diversity”.’ When the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope meet, Bruce Ruddock said, ‘although they do have theological discussions, they don’t talk endlessly about women bishops. They’re tackling other issues — for example, there’s a new initiative spearheaded by the Vatican and the Anglican Centre in Rome to tackle human trafficking.’ For which we are surely grateful.
Always there is the quiet minority for whom this is all very difficult. These are the people who will now be required to live alongside women bishops in an atmosphere of ‘mutual flourishing’ (another key phrase from the Five Principles). At 9 a.m. I rang Canon Roger Job, who resigned his Church of England post in 1994 after the vote to allow women to become priests. ‘The Church of England seems to spend a lot of time endearing itself with society,’ he said. ‘I mean, so what if David Cameron, Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg are thrilled about this vote? As Pope John Paul II said, you cannot determine what is good and what is bad simply by reference to its popularity.’ Canon Job believes that ‘the admission of women to the sacred ministry without any reference to Rome or the Orthodox church is a terrible mistake. Any pretence to being a united church is shattered, and unity with the Catholic church is now quite a lot further off.’
It remains to be seen how mutual the flourishing will actually be. This is one of the concerns of those in favour of the vote: there will still be ‘flying bishops’ ministering to parishes opposed to women priests. These bishops will be visiting parishes and taking school assemblies; it will be all too easy for them to steer well clear of women bishops whose ministry they don’t recognise, and a very frosty atmosphere could develop.
All the more important, then, for women priests (and soon bishops) to sharpen their act: to look good, dress well, preach well, sing well, and lead well. The best way to convert people to women’s ministry is to let them experience it: but it needs to be top-notch.
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Ysenda Maxtone Graham is the author of The Church Hesitant.
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