Friday, 14 September 2012

Concerning the Consecration of Women as Bishops

So the House of Bishops has come out with its revised version of the now infamous Clause 5(1)c. I feel I have to comment - after all, what else is a blog for? And this has to be the biggest thing happening at the moment in the Church of England, of which I am part.

What's interesting to me is that there hasn't been the huge rush to comment that there was when the Bishops introduced the original Clause 5(1)c. At the time of writing WATCH (Women And The CHurch - a campaigning group) didn't have anything o their website, and Google reveals only a few blogs with comments: Nick Baines (the "blogging bishop"), Ancient Briton, Peter Ould, and of course the ever-interesting website Thinking Anglicans. Miranda Threlfall-Holmes, always worth reading, is so far silent.

Perhaps this silence is just people taking time to think about it all, which would be good (so why am I not doing that, eh?); perhaps it indicates that on the whole people are going to be happy to move forward with the new wording; perhaps indicates that people just don't know what it means.

Well, here are my thoughts on the new Clause 5(1)c, which states that the Code of Practice accompanying the Measure must provide for:

“the selection of male bishops and male priests in a manner which respects the grounds on which parochial church councils issue Letters of Request under section 3”

This is instead of:

"the selection of male bishops or male priests the exercise of ministry by whom is consistent with the theological convictions as to the consecration and ordination of women on grounds of which parochial church councils have issued Letters of Request under section 3,"

But  what does this mean? it's not entirely clear - and therein lies the difficulty. If this is deliberately vague as part of a tactic to get the vote passed in November, and open the way to having women as bishops, does it store up problems for the future? I fear it does.

Although "respect" looks like a nice fuzzy alternative to "consistent with," suggesting compromise and openness (not bad things, of course), the Law does not generally like fuzziness (that way lawyers' fees lie), and I'm not sure that it actually means anything different. How does one respect a reason given without actually accepting it and acting on it? Can I respect the grounds on which you've asked for something, but still say "no"? Just possibly; but can my selection of a male bishop respect your grounds for requesting one without giving you what you want? I can't see how it can.

Which makes the other vagueness even more problematic: the replacement of "theological conviction as to the consecration and ordination of women" (which WATCH hated) with "grounds". For "grounds" does not specify that the letter of request should have to do with theological convictions - it might open the door to simple prejudice. I don't think any parish would ask for a male bishop on grounds of prejudice, but who knows?

More importantly, it looks as if the door is wide open for a parish to request a bishop who agrees with their position on women's ordination, male headship, homosexuality or a range of other things. The previous Clause 5(1)c meant only that the bishop or priest's "exercise of ministry" had to be consistent, i.e. that he had to be a genuine bishop/priest as the parish understood it (not ordained by a woman). It didn't mean that they had to agree with the parish's views on anything. After all, when a bishop does a confirmation, if he lays hands and says the words provided by Common Worship, we've no idea whether he believes in male headship or not - but his ministry has been duly and properly exercised.

But if a parish ask for a male bishop because only a male bishop will hold a strong view of male headship, and they want a bishop who holds such views, then the diocesan responding to the Letter of Request must "respect" this and provide just such a bishop, views and all. Or so it seems. And a parish might make a Request on the grounds that only male bishops will have the "right" views on homosexuality, but since the grounds for the Request include views in homosexuality, that would need to be respected.

Now I don't for a moment think that this is what the House of Bishops intended. It will be interesting to get the fuller account of their discussions, and the legal advice about what the new clause means that goes with it. What is put into the new illustrative draft Code of Practice will be highly significant, and it may be here that the next battles are fought. But if my reading is a valid one, where does it leave us for the vote in November?

Well, I would have thought that it does leave the way open for opponents of women's consecration to vote in favour or abstain, because it does seem to give the safeguards they want in the Measure itself, rather than in the Code of Practice (which can be amended relatively easily in the future to get rid of them). But for those in favour of having women as bishops, but not at any cost, this would seem to be a problem. They objected vociferously to the previous Clause 5(1)c; I think they ought to like the current one even less.

Everyone recognizes that a failure to pass the measure in November will be extremely damaging to the Church of England, at least in the short run (in terms of the blame-game and internecine strife). What the longer term implications would be is anyone's guess.

Time for us all to pray even harder for the Holy Spirit to get very, very busy.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

What's this blog all about?

So, why write a blog?

As much as anything, to find out if I can. As Chaplain at Christ's College in Cambridge, I find myself dealing with young people who are completely up-to-the-minute on social networking and all that kind of stuff. And I'm not. I know these things are out there, and I feel that they ought to be part of my ministry somehow. Indeed in these cybernetic times, it probably makes sense for anyone charged with keeping the rumour of God alive in British society to yet make use of them. But I don't really know how to use them effectively. So here I am, making some effort. Only time will tell if it works.

Whether my period musings on things related to Christianity will be of any value to anybody, I have no idea. I'd like to think that I'm a pretty decent theologian, and that I'm good at explaining theology to the non-theologian. This blog will be one way of testing that theory.

It might be useful to myself, in that sometimes the mere fact of saying or writing what one thinks about something can help the thought process itself, and make what was vague clearer. Sometimes it will expose gaps in knowledge or understanding. I hope this will happen for me. And I hope that if people read this blog, and choose to comment on it, they will charitably point out the gaps and failings which it exposes. In other words, I hope to learn from the process.

If people post responses, then conversations may open up. This is bound to be a good thing. I certainly believe that theology is best done as a discussion.

Which brings me to my title. Why "Infinitely Uncertain"?

Because I hold the general principle that anyone who starts talking about God had better remember that God is infinite. And we are finite. Which means that we will never be able fully to grasp everything about God. We will never get the full and final answer to any of our ponderings. Any results of our theologizing will be provisional. We need to recognize the vastness of our own uncertainty. This means we must all have the charity to say to others, "You may be more right, I may be more right, the truth probably lies somewhere in between." Sometimes (often?) we have to settle for whatever we can make work in any given situation. We may have to agree to differ, and live with out uncertainty. We may manage to agree that we are tending towards the truth, whatever it may turn out to be.

This doesn't mean that I think there are no "right" or "wrong" answers to the questions we ask - God is the God of truth, after all - but it does mean we can never be quite sure we've got the right answer. I believe that the truth is absolute (it's "out there"), but I'm never going to have all of it. Or even most of it. God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ (Colossians 1.15,19; Hebrews 1.3), and continues to reveal himself through the Holy Spirit (John 16.12-13). But we are left struggling to make sense of this revelation afresh in each generation. That job never finishes.

I reckon that the moment you think you've pinned God down is exactly the moment when you're furthest away from the Truth. We must never give up seeking. Never rest on what we think we know. My lack of certainty should admit no limits. I am, I hope, infinitely uncertain.