Magazine leader - August 2014

From the Vicar

I write this having just returned from General Synod in York. It was an experience full of good things, but exhausting. The conference hall is like an oven and the business of the day is conducted from 9.30am to 10.00pm. There is a break for lunch and another for an evening meal, but food is shared over more business, in the form of fringe meetings. There are moments of laughter, but also times to face difficult decisions. Undoubtedly the most high profile debate was the one on the ordination of women to the Episcopate.  There were several minor debates on technicalities, but the main debate took up most of Monday. I was reminded of a sign I remember from my childhood, as you turn into Dean’s Yard in Westminster to get to Church House. The sign read: Dead slow, sound horn. It was a relic from the early days of motoring, but I thought it was some kind of motto for the Church of England. The debate about the ministry of women in the Church of England had reached the stage when something needed to be done to recognise that ministry and so, on 18th July 1862, Elizabeth Ferard was ordained as the first Deaconess in the Church of England. The ministry of women in our Church has grown since that time. The first woman to be ordained as a priest in the Anglican Communion was Florence Li Tim-Oi on 25th January 1944. Barbara Harris was the first woman bishop, ordained in February 1989. The first woman Archbishop was Katharine Jefferts Schori, who is the present leader of the Episcopal Church in the USA. In England we made the decision about women bishops in principle some 40 years ago, so it has taken several decades of heated and often acrimonious debate to have got to this final decision. The decision is made. It will happen. It still needs to go before Parliament and then to be signed by the Queen. It then needs to be promulgated at the Synod in November, which means that the Archbishop has to stand up and say it is now law. By Christmas it is expected that the name of the first women to be ordained as a bishop in the Church of England will have been announced.

It is important that we have taken this step. The inclusion of women in all levels of ordained ministry is a sign that all of humanity is caught up into the life of God. It is the whole company of the baptized that represents Christ to the world and the heart of our faith is that God took on human flesh and came to dwell among us. Jesus was a man, but the core of the Gospel is about God coming to be where we are (all of us) so that we might dare to believe that we can be where he is. The inclusion of women into all forms of ministry makes the point that in Christ there is no male/female, no slave/free, for we are all one in Christ, incorporated into his body through the sacrament of baptism. The celebration of this decision is not a triumph for women’s rights, but a joyful acceptance of a ministry that encompasses all people and is now enriched by the inclusion of the other half of the human race.

What is important, and deeply encouraging, is the process by which this decision became possible. A number of people in the Church of England have found this a change that is impossible to embrace. For some it is a matter of tradition and not wanting to break with what they see as catholic practice and teaching. Others hold a view of ‘headship’ in which they see the roles of men and women as different, but with ‘headship’ only belonging to men. In making the decision we have made, we are not saying that either of these positions is the teaching of the Church of England, but we are saying that those who hold these positions are loyal Anglicans and will continue to have their place in the Church. As Archbishop Justin has said, we do not throw out members of our family because we disagree with them. Despite continuing disagreement over this issue, we are committed to ensuring the flourishing of those who find it hard to accept women as bishops. Such people must accept women as bishops, that decision has been taken, but provision is being made for them to flourish and to know that their continuing presence in the Church of England is freely accepted, valued and honoured. We have learnt what it means to disagree with one another gracefully and without rancour. We have learnt to treasure one another and to find ways of living with one another, because that is what the Gospel demands and following Christ unites us, even if we cannot always agree on such things as who should be in different orders of ministry.

This decision will greatly help our ecumenical discussions with the Methodists, just as it will not help our relationships with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. But perhaps there is here a model of what it means to listen to one another and to build relationships together, despite disagreement. We will need more of this as and when we move on to discuss our differences of opinion over the question of human sexuality.

Nigel LLoyd

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