This week the proposed measure for moving forward with enabling women to become bishops was lost by the narrowest of margins at General synod. This is bad news, for all of us.
It is bad news for those of us who believe that, taken in context, those verses that in English translations appear to place certain limits on the roles of women not only do no such thing but cannot possibly do so (the context of the Big Picture of Scripture; the context of the wider line of thought in which they are set; the missiological context into which they are spoken; the linguistic context of what words can and could and don’t mean), and who long to see women released into the same freedom as men.
It is bad news for those of us who believe that in the Scriptural trajectory of moving from captivity to freedom, this is the prophetic moment. That the trajectory must accommodate certain captivity in order to progress (the writings of the New Testament accommodate slavery, not because captivity is better than freedom, but because the thought of dismantled slavery within the Roman Empire is akin to chaos, and in the end true freedom never flourishes in chaos; and so slavery is accommodated – though not without significant modification in the light of the bigger trajectory) but that if we fail to set people free at the prophetic moment (that is, the point where it calls for change, but imaginable change: the Wilberforce moment, the MLK moment) we resist God’s call and move from accommodating captivity to advancing it.
It is bad news for the very many women among Church of England clergy who feel that judgement has been passed on them as less than – less than men, and less than many women who have been airbrushed out of church history.
It is also bad news for those of us who, in conscience, cannot accept women bishops. After much reflection, prayer and study, the Church of England concluded in the 1970s that there were no doctrinal reasons why women could not be priests or bishops. In 2006, we decided that the time was right to include female priests among those priests who could be asked to serve as bishops. This will happen. But our failure to agree on provision for those who dissent – the rejection of the best provision we could come up with (and no provision or decision can ever be perfect) – simply means that it is far, far more likely that this will happen with no provision made at all.
But this is also bad news for all of us in relation to another issue, that of gay marriage. Until now, women bishops and gay marriage have been two separate things. That is, while they have belonged together for the most conservative and most progressive wings of the Church (and of society), at this time the overwhelming majority of church members are in favour of women bishops and the large majority of church members are not in favour of gay marriage. But now these two issues are locked together. They are locked together because as legislation is progressed into law, the Church will not be granted exemption (there are always exemptions to equality law – for example, a shelter for women who have experienced domestic violence can make a case for employing only female staff – but exemptions must be shown to be reasonable, and responsibly applied), and because the Church has lost the moral authority to speak into the public debate.
This is perhaps a silver lining for those of us who believe that it is (more than) time that we embraced gay marriage. But it is a thin silver lining. This is bad news for us, because we would want to see gay marriage shaped by a Christian rather than an atheist imagination, and by association we have lost much of the credibility to do so.
This is bad news for those of us who are open to gay marriage, but who hoped for more time to do the theological work necessary to be able to fully support gay marriage and to help our congregations and even the (far from unified) wider public reach that place (and who had hoped that resolving the issue of women bishops would free up the space for such work). It is bad news, because we will not have that time. But we will have to get on with it, and we will do so, knowing that if gay marriage is in line with God’s will, it will be one small step forward (and not heaven come on earth), and if it is not in line with God’s will, it will be one small step backward (and not hell opening up beneath our very feet).
And this is bad news for those of us who are categorically opposed to gay marriage. Indeed, it is a disaster. But it is a disaster brought about not by the lobbying of that wing of the Church that argues for gay marriage, but by the lobbying of that wing of the Church that opposes it. It is the perfect irony.
This week is not, as some have suggested, suicide for the Church. It is suicide for those within the Church who, a generation on, cannot accept the will and the (badly communicated) teaching of the Church in relation to women. They will leave, and they will have left in such a way that makes things harder for those who stay.
When the measure was lost on Tuesday, I wrote this:
Before today, I believed that the kingdom of heaven has come, has drawn very near, is delayed in its coming and it is not for us to know when it will arrive, is yet to come, and will one day come in fullness - and that in all this we are called to live within it, to repent and enter it, to be faithful, to help others imagine it, and to hope for what we do not see. Today, I believe that all of the above is still true. Nothing has changed (but neither has it stayed the same).
And that is the good news, the good news that transforms the bad news.