I’m ashamed of the Church of England. As a long-time lay member (I was confirmed when I was 18), I’ve been with her through thick and thin and never felt so alienated as I do this week. It’s not the decision of our governing body in itself – one can argue quite validly either for or against women bishops from both the Bible and Church tradition, and it seems to me that this is not a matter of doctrine but of Church government, which we should simply decide on prayerfully and then get on with peacably. But the vitriol with which the debate was carried on has no place in the deliberations of any church, however deeply felt the position on either side, and will leave a scar whatever happens next. Where did we lose sight of “You will know my disciples by the love they have for each other”? or “Be united, so that the world may believe”? Washing one’s dirty linen in public is what my mother would have called this sorry debate, and it makes me sick.
The wider question, however, is where we go from here? I started training as a lay reader in the late 1990s – though I never finished the training for various reasons including a move from one diocese to another – and I remember clearly in one of my earliest essays deploring the doctrinal chasm between liberals and evangelicals, which I was sure even then would lead to a split in the Church of England, right down the middle. My tutor, a canon at Winchester Cathedral, disagreed – indeed, he seemed surprised that I had even suggested such an idea (what planet was he living on, I wonder?) But the problem is now that these two opposing points of view make it quite difficult for the rest of us to live harmoniously in the “broad church” that the Anglican Church has always managed to be, with room for everyone. In earlier days we could agree to disagree, and none the worse for it. Now it feels as though one has to choose between the two camps, whose views are actually very narrow. The whole argument about women holding leadership roles in the church is based on a very small number of biblical verses, and as I said at the beginning of this post, both points of view can perfectly well be argued without overly distorting those verses. Which surely must make it likely that this really isn’t an important issue, but one where both sides should proceed with respect and an awareness that their point of view might be mistaken, or not important enough to make an issue of. There are much much more important threads in the Bible that we should be majoring on together, things like care for the poor, love for (all) our neighbours, and generally being a light in a very dark world, which cares not an iota for our petty differences, but is crying out for hope and a better way in the face of the hatreds and despair with which many are faced. The Church of England is letting down those people who most need her help, particularly since its status as an established church has meant that its clergy and congregation have always held a special place in the community. I wonder whether they will hold that place for much longer.
So what are the options? We can divide into two, and let different parts of the worldwide Anglican communion join whichever section they wish, or be divided as well. That would be radical and simple, but to my mind a tragic outcome that we should avoid if we can – and which poor Rowan Williams spent the whole of his archepiscopate trying to prevent. Or we can opt for a looser linkage that keeps us together formally while allowing different national churches to take different routes. Our own church here would still have the difficulty of opposing camps, but at least we wouldn’t be dragging everyone else into the abyss too. The North American church is culturally very different from the sub-Saharan African churches, and I think should be allowed to take the route with which it is comfortable. Thus there might be women bishops in some Anglican communions, but not in others. Individual national or regional churches might choose their own conclusion on this issue.Would that matter so very much? If I move to Africa, I would accept that they take a more traditional stance. If I am in Canada then I recognize that for Christians there gays and women are acceptable in leadership as they are in secular government. They may be mistaken, but they would not be evil. I may be wrong about some things too – and pride of opinion has no place in a church where we worship a God who recommended (in the Old Testament) that we “do not lean on our own understanding”, and in the New (via St Paul) that we “do not indulge in petty arguments about minor doctrinal matters”. As long as people are sincerely seeking the truth and trying to follow God’s way, there is room for a little error with humility. It is the arrogance of assuming that our way and only our way is the correct one that has caused the venom of the debate last week. That is a way we should follow no further, for our church is in grave peril.
There has always been argument, much of it angry and venomous, in the history of the church, ever since St Paul began to formulate doctrine within a few decades of Jesus’s resurrection. The result has always been schism, division and often even open warfare. I guess perhaps there always will be. But it doesn’t mean that there should be, or that we are advancing the Christian cause or God’s purposes. The Crusades didn’t do so, the Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th centuries didn’t do so, nor have any other conflicts brought about in the name of religious differences. God is not in the earthquake, the wind or the fire, but in the still small voice. Let us listen to Him.