Friday, 7 June 2013

Option Two with teeth

Well, I promised to say which option of the four from GS 1886 I'd choose as the way forward on women in the episcopate, so here it is.

(Though I'd actually prefer to wait, and have much longer to think  and talk, and most importantly pray. If Parliament wants to intervene it would be a bad thing, but the dear old Church of England could simply ignore them - you can pass a law saying women can be bishops, but you can't compel the Church to appoint any (look at the Church of Ireland, or the Easter Act 1928) - however, waiting just isn't going to happen)

A reminder of the options, as I summarized them in my last post:
1) women can become bishops, and resolutions A, B, and C disappear; there is a declaration from the House of Bishops or an Act of Synod which set out national standards for the care of those opposed;

2) as option (1), but there would be an Act of Synod which would have to come into force simultaneously with the Measure to permit women bishops; this Act of Synod would be mentioned in the Measure, and could only be amended or repealed with two-thirds majorities in all three houses of General Synod;

3) an Act of Synod would cater for those unable to accept the ministry of women bishops, but at the parish level Resolutions A and B would be retained;

4) provision for opponents would be contained in the Measure itself.

I have strong sympathy for those opposed to the consecration of women who would like legally binding safeguards, such as would be provided by options three and four. They worry, not without reason, that it is hard to trust that whatever provision is made will be followed unless it is enforceable. They point out, quite correctly, that all sorts of areas of Church life (including the appointment of clergy) are governed by ecclesiastical laws.

But it is becoming clear that, after the "best we can offer" provision of the previous draft Measure was rejected in November, groups like WATCH would not allow anything nearly as "generous" to get past Synod. The Bishop of Willesden tweeted this: "Opponents lost their last chance of legislation with Nov debacle. Neither GS nor Parliament will now allow discrimination in law." Whether he's right about the second half of that or not, I think it represents a pretty common attitude.

So if options three and four are unrealistic, what about one and two? As I said in my previous post on this topic, it just doesn't look as if it can create the trust required, and it looks too much like victory for WATCH.

That leaves option two. The House of Bishops don't outright reject it, but they don't think it's simple enough. Well, I think we need to live with a bit more complexity, if we're going to do this properly - after all, it's not hugely more complex. And it does have the benefit of creating far more grounds for trust, because it makes clear that the Act of Synod it calls for can't just be done away with (it's required by the Measure itself) and it can't easily be whittled away by the majority (a fear of the opponents).

But there are two things I'd like to see included in the Act of Synod, in order to give it enough teeth, and make sure that the minority feel they're being taken seriously.

One is that failure to follow its terms, especially by a bishop (given they have the strongest hand in clergy appointments), should be explicitly stated to be capable of being misconduct under the Clergy Discipline Measure as "conduct unbecoming a clerk in Holy Orders". A complainant would still have to demonstrate failure to observe the Act of Synod, and the "capable of being" means that a defence of "no reasonable other option" would be possible. The benefit of this for building trust would be that opponents would have real recourse to a remedy. If a complaint is upheld, one of the options is go for mediation as a first step (and this is always to be preferred). If mediation fails, an injunction can be issued, requiring the respondent to follow the terms of the Act of Synod. This idea has teeth.

The second is rather less important, as it is unlikely to be used, but it would highly symbolic. One of the fears of opponents is that without the support of statutory provision, a parish which refused the appointment of a women priest could be taken to court for discrimination under the Equality Act 2010. Specifically, the persons responsible for the decision (the incumbent in cases of appointing a curate, the parish representatives in the case of an incumbent) would have to defend the suit at their own cost. They would most likely win (compare Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge, which refuses to accept applications from men for Fellowships), but that's small comfort. So, my suggestion would be the Act of Synod should state that the Church of England should pay the costs of anyone taken to court in such circumstances. This could presumably be done by taking out some kind of insurance policy, and given the very low chances of any suit succeeding, this would cost the Church very little. The symbolic value for the minority would be immense however.

That's my view on what the way forward looks like. I think it should be acceptable to both sides as giving sufficient grounds for trust. I'd really welcome comments from anyone reading this.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Episcopal doublethink?

Well, further to my promise to myself to try harder at keeping this blog going, there's no time like the present.  And given that a great many of my earlier posts have been about the way the Church of England is dealing with getting women into the episcopate, I suppose it's only natural for me to take up with the same topic.

Incidentally, although there might be something trainspotter-ish about coming back to this again, I've dealt with it so much partly because it was the big issue around at the time I started blogging, and partly because it is fairly important to quite a lot of people in the Church.

So, where are we up to? Well. we had the "disastrous" General Synod vote last November, which led to all sorts of recriminations and the setting up of a new working group to find the way forward. This working group met a few times with representatives of the various campaigning groups plus others, and invited submissions from anybody who could be bothered. The working party reported to the House of Bishops, who have published the report along with their own comments and a proposal for the next step - together these are GS1886. Various responses have been forthcoming - from Reform, Forward in Faith, the Catholic Group on Synod and Affirming Catholicism. Doubtless other responses will come.

Here's the first part of mine.

I think it's a pretty good report, and it's probably worth reading if you want to get a flavour of where the Church of England has got to in all this. It sets out five elements of the vision needed to sort this out. They are given on pages 2-3 and 9 of GS1886, but in summary they say that:

1) once legislation is passed the C of E will be fully committed to ordination being open to all without reference to gender;
2) C of E ministers must then acknowledge the Church has made a clear decision on this;
3) this needs to be set within the context that Roman Catholics, Orthodox and some Anglican provinces don't ordain women as priests or bishops [figures are hard to get, but that's probably half of practicing Anglicans];
4) those opposed to women's ordination remain within the spectrum of Anglican teaching, and the C of E remains committed to enabling them to flourish;
5) provision for the minority will be without time limit, and in a way that allows maximum communion and mutual flourishing.

The report also places emphasis on the needs for simplicity, reciprocity, and mutuality (see pages 10 onwards), and wants to get on with things as quickly as possible. It says, and the Bishops agree, that "the way forward is likely to be one which makes it difficult for anyone to claim outright victory." Both say that trust needs to be built.

So there are four options offered by the report:

1) women can become bishops, and resolutions A, B, and C disappear; there is a declaration from the House of Bishops or an Act of Synod which set out national standards for the care of those opposed;

2) as option (1), but there would be an Act of Synod which would have to come into force simultaneously with the Measure to permit women bishops; this Act of Synod would be mentioned in the Measure, and could only be amended or repealed with two-thirds majorities in all three houses of General Synod;

3) an Act of Synod would cater for those unable to accept the ministry of women bishops, but at the parish level Resolutions A and B would be retained;

4) provision for opponents would be contained in the Measure itself.

Now the important point to note is that there is huge difference between an Act of Synod and a Measure. The former is no more than advisory and discretionary, the latter is legally enforceable. Thus options one and two give no enforceable rights to opponents, options three and four do. By the way, a declaration from the House of Bishops would have the same force as an Act of Synod, the difference lies in who is setting out their expectations of how people will behave - and surely it ought to be the whole Church in an Act of Synod.

So far, so good.

But then we need to consider the House of Bishops' recommendation, which is to go for option one. The only thing they add to it is an idea that there should be a mediation process included in the declaration/Act which sets out the expected pastoral arrangements. Now in one sense it's fair enough. This would be the simplest possible arrangement, and it would place more emphasis on trust and grace than law, which is very commendably Christian.

The trouble is that it seems to me to fall short of what's needed on several counts.

Most importantly, it looks like an almost complete victory for those who want to see women bishops without any substantive provision for opponents (like WATCH, for example). The only two differences from what they really wanted in November are that the arrangements would be at a national rather than diocesan level (which makes for relative uniformity across the C of E, not unreasonable), and there would be some process for parishes to seek redress if they felt hard done by: mediation. I'm not the only one who thinks this looks like victory for one side: Andrew Brown writing in Guardian thinks so too. I don't think the Bishops can have been ignorant of this impression, which makes it hard for opponents to feel they can trust the bishops, who appear, doublethink-style to say one thing ("no victories") and propose the opposite.

Quite how that mediation process might work will need a lot of clarification.

Opponents, naturally enough, want the maximum legal provision - clearly they'd favour option four, out of those suggested. They point out, reasonably, that options one and two fall some way short of what was rejected in November and so there is little chance of this present Synod passing them. To move forward quickly with something which looks so deeply flawed to opponents of women in the episcopate hardly seems to accord with respecting them. Again, there is not much room for the creation of trust in this.

To be fair, the bishops are saying that they propose option one as "the natural starting point for the debate," suggesting they'd be happy enough to see a shift - but then they also think it is "what most [Synod] members currently favour," which again might read like a snub to the minority.

Trust will be hard to come by. The Editor if the Church Times also thinks so.

Much prayer is required.

Next time ... which option I'd choose.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Must try harder

When I started this blog, part of my reason for doing so was to see if I could keep it up. Turns out it's not as easy as one might think - so there haven't been any posts recently. It's not that there haven't been topics worth writing about, but I've not found the time to sit down and tackle them. And then the moment passes, and you think, "well that's old news, no point doing that now."

I'm not sure that's the right instinct though. After all, I'm hardly informing the world of things by writing about them, and hardly anyone is going to read what I put, apart from me. So maybe it should be much more about getting my ideas and musings down for my own benefit. And maybe, just maybe that will be of use to me at some point in the future - even if only to see how foolish I used to be.

For although writing something for public consumption can look as if it lacks humility, the possibility of using it in the future to demonstrate one's own lack of wisdom/insight/knowledge/spelling means that it can't be merely an exercise in pride. And there's something to be said for the discipline of having to put what one is thinking in terms temperate enough to share with others. It tests me - can I give reasons for what I think which are sensible enough to be capable of being explained?

And maybe, just maybe, someone else will read what I write, and it will give a little bit of pause for thought to someone else. Who knows what might be useful to another?

So I'll try to write more often, and I'll not restrict myself to the most current events in Church life, but sometimes go back and reconsider events which have passed, or just the random thoughts which come to me about theological stuff.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

We have a Pope!

So we've ended up with a 30-1 outsider apparently. Personally, I was hoping for a long conclave (at least a couple of weeks), which would have shown the watching world that the cardinals were taking the problems facing the Roman Catholic Church seriously. For, like it or not, the fortunes of all Christianity are bound up with the way that things happen for Roman Catholicism. There are simply more of them than of anything else, and so how they behave and the impression they give of Christianity makes a difference. If Rome looks immoral and out of touch, that impression gets transferred to other Christians, even if in a subliminal way.

This is certainly true for those churches like the Church of England which have bishops and liturgy  How much does "the man on the Clapham omnibus" distinguish different Christian groups? Not much I suspect. This was brought home to me last Friday, by a man on the radio talking about the origins of Mothers' Day: "I'm no expert, but I believe it comes from religion," he said. Christianity is lumped with all religions into the category of "weird stuff that nobody serious actually believes."

But if we didn't get a Pope elected after a long drawn out conclave, at least we got a surprise. When the name was announced the crowd outside stayed silent (see at 1'16"). It was a "Who he?" moment, even from the people with an Argentine flag at the front of the crowd (and sign of the times, look at the ipads, too). By contrast, as I recall, the name of Joseph Ratzinger was greeted with an instant cheer (from 6'10").

Now there's no end of information online about this new guy (e.g. here, here, here, some of it good, some of it suggesting murky bits of complicity in Argentina's past), so no need for me to try and say too much. But there are a few things which I like about him, which seem to bode well for the future.

He chose not to wear a red cape, just a simple white cassock. He didn't clasp his hands together as if in a victory salute (unlike Benedict). He started his address with a simple "Brothers and sisters, good evening," and finished it "Good night, and sleep well." He asked  the people gathered in St Peter's Square to pray for and bless him, before he blessed them. There's a common touch here it seems. This is probably not surprising from a Jesuit, for the Jesuits were founded as a missionary order - precisely to reach out to people where they are, rather than imposing from above. Which, it seems to me, is just the kind of thing we need at the moment. But of course, the Jesuits combine this with scholarship - don't expect the common touch to mean dumbing down or wooly liberalism.

Most significant perhaps, is the choice of name: Francis. Of course St Francis has a reputation for humility and concern for the poor (and we'll see whether the new Pope gives new impetus to liberation theology). But he was also reform-minded. Just choosing a name borne by no previous Pope is reform already, and sends a pretty strong signal to the curia that things are going to change.

It remains to be seen whether the common touch can survive the behind-closed-doors battles which no doubt await, or whether, at 76, the new man has the energy to do what needs to be done. But the fact that the cardinals elected him after just five ballots (it took the front-runner Benedict four) suggests that he has a mandate from within the hierarchy to be something different from what went before.

Lat us all pray for Pope Francis. He'll need it.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Crisis in Rome?

The news that Cardinal Keith O'Brien is to resign from his position as Archbishop of St Andrew's and Edinburgh a little early, because of allegations of improper behaviour by him against priests of his diocese is a cause of great sadness - for all concerned. He denies the allegations, and says his resignation is only in order not to draw media attention away from the real business of choosing the next Pope.

That seems to me an honourable thing to do.The media (in this country at least - I wonder whether the rest of the world has taken much notice) would always remember that the next Pope was elected partly by a "tainted cardinal." That would hardly help anyone. Could one vote out of 115 really be the difference between a good Pope and a bad one?

Of course only time will tell whether the charges against Cardinal O'Brien are substantiated, though I suspect they are of a kind which it would be very difficult to prove in court, so we may never really find out. It's unclear what is actually alleged - "inappropriate approach/contact" and "unwanted  behaviour" could mean any number of things, though they imply something far less than outright sexual assault, for example. Whilst all have sinned and fallen short, clearly certain standards are expected of a bishop. The allegations perhaps have more to do with hypocrisy and abuse of power than sexual misdemeanors as such, and to that extent are very serious indeed when applied to a leading figure in the Church.

And herein lies the wider problem for the Roman Catholic Church, one which I hope will be addressed in the choosing of the next Pope. For a great deal of what has undermined the Church is to do with abuse of power. We might remember that it was abuse of power which led to the Reformation in the first place - the Protest was first and foremost against selling indulgences to pay for the rebuilding of St Peter's Basilica in Rome. In recent years, the scandal over child abuse by priests would not be half as bad if the institutional Church had not done so much, for so long, to try to cover these things up. Insult really has been added to injury, and abusers have been allowed to carry on abusing (and I'm aware that the Church of England has not been entirely without fault, as the situation in Chichester Diocese attests, for example).

To a modern Western mindset which is inclined to question all sources of authority, abuses of power are particularly damaging. Only if the source of authority comes well out of the questioning can it hope to have any credibility. And one of the questions must be "how is that authority being used?" The result of recent papacies has been to concentrate power in the Vatican. This not only means that there is likely to be a disconnect between the faithful on the front-line and those in charge (shades of the trenches in WW1 anyone?), it also means that blame rests where authority does. Failings in one diocese make the world-wide Church look bad. Popes who want total control need to accept total responsibility too. That hasn't usually happened.

So the crisis for the Roman Catholic Church must be over the approach the next Pope takes. Either assume full responsibility with the power, or decentralize the whole thing, move lots of decision-making away from the Vatican, and make it much more flexible and responsive. I know which I think should happen. I fear neither will.

But at least Cardinal O'Brien, in openly saying that priests might be allowed to marry, and in resigning quickly rather than thinking himself above criticism, has shown the kind of options which might restore the credibility of the Bishops of Rome. He's unlikely to be elected.

Monday, 11 February 2013

A new Archbishop, a new Pope

Well, it's been a long time since my last post, which goes to show that once you get out of the habit of doing something it's hard to get back into it. The pressure of work, with undergraduate interviews in early December, and then being off on holiday (when I therefore had much better things to do with my time) both got me out of the habit. And then I just didn't get back into it for quite a while.

Indeed, this post got started last week, on the day Justin Welby was confirmed as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. But I wasn't decided about what to say, and it got put off. But now Benedict XVI has announced his resignation and I feel I ought to get back into the game - though I'm sure the Holy Spirit didn't arrange the resignation purely for the purpose of prompting me to blog again.

So today is quite a momentous day - no Pope has resigned since 1415 (actually of course the momentous day will be February 28th when the resignation comes into effect since he might theoretically change his mind before then). And when Popes have resigned in the past (according to wikipedia) it has not been because of advanced age. It seems that Benedict has decided that he doesn't have the strength to lead the Roman Catholic Church because the pace of modern life is so fast, and the challenges so great, that the won't be able to do the job properly. In a sense it is an admission that the Church faces a crisis far more significant than previously faced by aged Popes. Not in the sense that child abuse scandals present a crisis - I think the crisis goes deeper than the wicked behaviour of a relatively small number of priests.

It seems to me that the challenge faced by the Roman Catholic Church, and also faced by the Church of England, is that we live in an age of rapid communication, much of which is mis-communication. This means that discussions which Christians have between themselves take place too quickly, and between too many people. There isn't the time for reflection there used to be. There isn't a control on who gets to join in. Which means that all too often people say and write things which they might regret later, and all too often things are said across cultural divides without proper cultural translation - leading not to fruitful reflection on the glory of God, but hurt and confusion and anger. Fast communication has tended to lead to arguments - about questions of gender and sexuality most noticeably in recent years.

Now I don't think that discussions of difficult topics are bad for the Church, and I don't think the Church should say to some people that they aren't allowed to have discussions, but I do think it's OK for the Church to try to exercise some kind of influence over the way that discussions are held, so that they tend to be constructive rather than destructive. Discussion is good insofar as it leads to the building up of the saints, but not otherwise.

One way for the Church to influence things is to try to keep a watchful eye over discussion between different cultural groupings, and to try to make sure the necessary translation is happening. This requires a nimble, light-handed approach if it isn't to become oppressive censorship (which is a bad thing). I have a suspicion that Justin Welby has some of the skills for this. I suspect Benedict XVI feels he lacked the energy for it. I hope his successor will be chosen with a view to doing it.

But both will need the support of the Churches they are trying to lead. This means in part being willing to accept a guiding hand here and there, and it means being willing to sit light to authority structures sometimes (because they tend to stifle real engagement with a discussion by deciding what the outcome should be in advance).

Most of all Justin Welby and the next Pope will need ours prayers as they try to work in extremely challenging times.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

The statistics of representation

I promised in my last post to say something about the things which are going around the web which I think are unhelpful.

One is that there is something fundamentally wrong with the way General Synod operates. How can it be that it voted down something which was overwhelmingly approved by the Dioceses (42 to 44), and which has such significant support in the wider Church? Well the answer is that our representative system doesn't work the way that these questions presuppose.

Yes, they are skewed towards the pressure groups and factionalism that political processes formalize. But how could they not be so? How many Members of Parliament are not members of a pressure group or faction(/party)? And yes, General Synod is skewed towards those with time and resources to be able to attend meetings - but tell me which church council isn't!

Most important to remember, General Synod members are not elected simply to vote in accordance with the views of those who elected them. How are they supposed to know those views? From opinion polls? But how many polls are broken down on a Diocese by Diocese basis? How many include only regular church-goers? Perhaps from the letters they get then? And I'm sure many members do take full account of letters. But these will be not much more representative than the Synod members themselves: the same people who care enough about Church politics to write letters are those who put themselves forward for elections.

No, Synod, members are elected on the basis of having knowledge and experience of the Church, of the Bible, of theology, perhaps even for their known spiritual life. They are, in short, relatively expert in the kind of thing Synod discusses. How many people "in the pews" really understand what Synod was discussing? Or have taken time to familiarize themselves with the theological and biblical arguments on each side? Precious few, I would hazard to guess. And why should they, really? We have representatives to do that stuff for us. Again there is the parallel to MPs (consider how many MPs would vote for the restoration of the death sentence(very few) and what opinion polls tell us of the public's views).

And we should remember that the Diocesan Synods are generally somewhat less expert than General Synods (like local councils to Parliament). Moreover, if the Diocesan Synods had used the same system of 2/3rd majority in each of three houses it would have been passed in 33 of them, rather than 42 of 44. So 25% would have been against, a much larger minority than the debate tends to acknowledge.

Diocesan and General Synod votes cannot be directly compared, of course, because the memberships are different, and they are voting at different stages in a legislative process (so the psychology of members will be different accordingly).

There again, if a survey this year is to be believed, 31% of regular Anglican church-goers want to see women as bishops either never or when there is consensus with other churches. Now since 36% of the House of Laity voted against the Measure, compared to 23% of Clergy and only 6% of Bishops, it turns out that the Laity were more in line with the mind of the Church than the others. I don't suppose anyone is proposing to reform the Houses of Bishops or Clergy to bring them into line.

The Synodical system isn't perfect, and reform may be appropriate. But before we start to make changes, let's make sure we understand what we've got properly.