Where did it go wrong? Structural issues have done us
I appreciate that, in the rarified bubble that clergy can sometimes inhabit, it probably feels like the entire world will have noticed tonight that the Church of England has failed at the final hurdle to pass legislation to enable women to enter the ranks of Bishops.
I’m sure the reality is that lots of people aren’t paying the blindest bit of notice.
I’m not going to comment on the why’s and wherefore’s of those in favour and those against. My task now, like all of us in the church, is to pray, to support one another, especially those with whom we disagree and to take seriously the desire on all sides to keep working on a solution that will be the best for all.
In the Summer, I expressed my thought that we might be better saying no and getting it right, painful as that might be for our mission to this country. Subsequently I was very happy to run with the revisions they made and say yes, but perhaps a more tortuous route may yield better fruit if it means women can truly be equal bishops, without any sense of discrimination or a two-tier system.
I’ve genuinely cried today. I’m frustrated and angry. I’ve read more Psalms in one evening than I can shake a stick at.
I have no idea how I explain this to people in the parishes who don’t go to church but who genuinely want a Church of England to be there for them and represent them.
Frankly, it all looks a bit ridiculous this evening.
In the press, we are told that the Church of England has voted no to women bishops. And yet…
- 95% of the Dioceses voted in favour.
- 89% of the House of Bishops voted in favour.
- 77% of the House of Clergy voted in favour.
- 64% of the House of Laity voted in favour.
That isn’t a no.
Given that we’ve been electing Police & Crime Commissioners on turnouts of less than 15%, it’s hard to know how such overwhelming numbers in favour can be interpreted as a no. And yet, on another level, the press are right because the legislation has now failed at the final hurdle.
Effectively, it’s failed because of two structural issues. One of which is a good thing. One of which is a bad thing.
The good thing is that the Church sets our electoral bar very, very high. The legislation had to get two thirds majority in every single one of the three houses. It failed today because it was 2% short in one of those three.
The easy thing to do would be to say ‘that’s daft’. Why set a bar so high? Make the bar lower. If a Police Commissioner can get a mandate on minimal voting, then more than 50% sounds okay and we could have Women Bishops by Thursday!
But setting the bar high holds us to a higher Christian standard. Setting the bar that high means I’ve got to pay attention to my brother. If he or she disagrees with me, we need to find a way to walk together. It’s about trying to reach a place of consensus or, at least, mutual understanding so that there can be mutual flourishing. We ought not to be a place like the Houses of Parliament where Labour says ‘You’re Wrong’ and the Tories say ‘No, You’re Wrong’ and there’s never any meeting in the middle.
Every Sunday, I hold up a wafer, break it in half and then bring it back together as a whole circle again as we say ‘though we are many, we are one body, because we all share in one bread.’
That is a weekly commitment before God to work as one.
It means tonight that I must now listen and support and pray and cry with my sisters amongst the clergy who feel deeply hurt by all this. It also means tonight that I listen and pray and try to hear the concerns of Anglo-Catholic and Conservative Evangelical brothers and sisters who feel like this won’t work for them as currently envisaged.
I’m glad we hold ourselves to two thirds majority. Even if that makes life hard and makes tonight very painful. That shouldn’t be messed with.
The bad thing, on the other hand, the second structural issue is that the way Synod meets has not helped us and it needs to change. It’s not good at all.
The fact is Synod meets three times a year. Each time for the best part of a week. All day, everyday for five odd days. If you are a Bishop or a Clergyman, that’s fine. You can work the diary around it. The diocese or church understand. It’s part of the deal.
If you’re a layperson, a regular member of the church, taking three weeks a year to sit in London or York is not so easy. You either need a very understanding employer, the ability to take three weeks unpaid and afford it, or you need to be retired. You probably also need to find a place to stay for those five days. My hunch is that the world in which we live doesn’t make it easy for our laity to be able to participate in the synodical government process.
Even if you were deeply passionate about getting involved, you would struggle to make it work.
My hunch, therefore, is that the House of Laity is generally not very representative of the wider church. If my reasoning about which groups could participate is correct, then that would make the House of Laity generally either retired, rich, or extremely committed to a particular party line and so make it a strong priority and considerable sacrifice to be in the room. Some of them are all three.
Most of our laity across the nation don’t fit that profile. I think there may be a lot more interest in diocesan elections next time around, but even allowing for increased interest – when people sit down and think ‘could I stand?’ and ‘could I make it work practically?’, many people will have to draw the conclusion ‘No’.
I remember this being talked about during my days at Church House and that was nearly seven years ago now. It’s long been known that there is a structural problem as to how you create a representative body that works in a modern society where no-one is being paid to be there. Tonight it has seriously bit us in the bum and somehow that needs to change.