Timidity in Devizes follows dynamite in the House of Bishops

Yesterday evening I attended an open meeting of Devizes Deanery Synod where the ordination of women to the episcopate was being debated. The meeting began with speakers (both men) for and against following which it was open to the floor. I rose to speak after seven contributions had been made by men, mostly against the resolution, to say I was shocked that no women had contributed to the debate so far. That spurred a women priest, member of General Synod, to speak passionately in favour, but she said that until I had pointed out the absence of women’s voices, she hadn’t intended to speak. Only two other women spoke, one against, one for. The final vote was 70% in favour in both Houses.

Speakers focussed on the absence of a Code of Practice – how could they vote in favour, not knowing what the Code will contain. The Anglo-catholic priest speaking first against women in the episcopate focussed on scripture, tradition and reason. No-one had a vision for the Church and for our Christian life and witness that extended beyond the need of the church to defend and protect a minority who live in the past.

The layman chairing the meeting made a point of describing himself unapologetically as the ‘chairman’ in his concluding remarks. I took him to task about this after the meeting. He claimed that the women in senior positions in Salisbury Diocese are happy to be called chairman – it includes women, he said.

The language we use defines our thought and ideas. The language of the church enshrines sexism, attitudes to human sexuality, images of God and creation which no longer work for people, and theological ideas which encourage dualistic, judgmental thinking. The vision of the faithful in the Church of England is so small, narrow, sectarian and defensive.

Reflecting on the meeting, I thought how isolated and out of touch those present were, living within the culture of the Church of England without the tools of self-examination or reflection which might shed light on the distance between the Church and the God who, ever present and ever self-revealing, is doing a new thing in creation.

A number of women approached me afterwards to thank me for intervening in the way I did. All said they felt too intimidated to speak and unsure of what they could contribute. This is what the Church of England does to women, which allows men with big egos and arrogant views to dominate it’s deliberations about the place of women and LGBT people in the Church. Colin Slee’s memorandum reveals the shocking dynamics in the CNC meetings and these are repeated in the House of Bishops.

The revelations about the House of Bishops deliberations about gay priests becoming bishops (or not) have incensed those around me, and a number of Changing Attitude trustees have written to express their disgust. One writes:

“I am so disgusted that I don’t know how to begin to say what I feel. It coincides with an invitation to supper at the bishop’s which is only addressed to me and totally ignores the fact that I have a partner. I am SO pissed off with them all I don’t know what to do. I am so close to giving up on the Church of England.”

And another:

There is a huge gulf between the community of God’s folk who meet in our parishes across the land who seek to live out their discipleship by loving God and neighbour. I too live a real daily tension … should I stay or should I go? The male leadership of our church are looking increasingly ridiculous and on the back foot. Thus yesterday’s flurry of activity is good for the cause of inclusion even if we do nothing, as it shows what a mean vindictive and hugely hypocritical spirit pervades their deliberations. Stay or leave? … so hard a question, and so painful.”

And a third:

“Yesterday’s brouhaha is objectively good news for our struggle and is a cause for celebration. It has made our opponents look contemptible. It has made the hierarchy look simultaneously weak and cruel. The main gay victim, Jeffrey John, has been made to look almost Christlike in his dignified silence in the face of such barbarous prejudice and persecution. The bishops and the archbishops will be despised by the passengers on the Clapham omnibus. The authorities are on the back foot.

“Whilst personal disaffection and alienation are totally understandable, and in the end anyone can reach the limit of what can be tolerated, it is nevertheless possible that this may be a key moment in the campaign we are fighting. Yesterday’s news was dynamite. The campaign needs good troopers to take advantage of the collateral damage which that dynamite has brought about.”


  1. Kate says

    The full text (near as makes no difference) of the memo here:


    Colin Slee, like OB1Kenobi, more powerful than ever before… I agree with the third commenter – surely this will be a game changer and the whole situation has become untenable.

  2. Erika Baker says

    So who is supposed to bring this change about? This blog post shows very clearly that it’s not just the top that’s fossilised in the CoE but that the mindset reaches through all decision making bodies into local synods.
    What, precisely, is the process for change going to be?
    I’m afraid, all I can see is business as usual, a bit more insularity but they won’t even notice, a few less churchgoers, a further drift to the right.

  3. Sapphire says

    Erika, that is exactly the problem.
    Men debate whether to “grant” these “privileges” to women. People (usually men again) who are not LGBT debate whether to “allow” us into full participation.
    They think they own the Church and for all practical purposes they do.
    They may have delusions of adequacy but their delusions always trump reality.
    And if those who disagree leave the remainder are merely confirmed in their position and, as you say, drift farther to the right.
    There are two ways to remove physical concrete – chip away with a jackhammer or dynamite.
    The problem with this kind of mental concrete is that it re forms as fast as the chips fly off – maybe faster.
    But dynamite is indiscriminate.
    If we knew the answer we’d be there already.

  4. Colin Coward says

    The process for change was in action at the local level last night, Erika. People like me introduced ideas and questioned or challenged assumptions about language, who felt confident enough to speak, process, and ideas about theology, women and power in the Church. The outcome of the meeting would have been different if I hadn’t been there. When the priest opposed to women in the church tried to get an amendment passed and then tried to smuggle it into the report being sent to the diocese, enough confident voices were raised to defeat him. I don’t think that would have happened otherwise. The metaphor of chipping away at concrete doesn’t really work for me, but chipping away at the edifice is what all of us are doing, at local or national or international lecvel, with some help from the unseen, dynamic presence of the Spirit blowing wildly through the CNC and Lambeth Palace and all of creation.

  5. Erika Baker says

    I’m glad you were there, Colin, and that your presence and your voice had some effect.
    I sincerely hope it will be a catalyst for change.

    I find it very hard to be as optimistic as you. It’s unbelieveable that we are still discussing the value of women’s contribution in church, after decades of that debate and after almost 2 decades of women priests.
    And the situation for lgbt people is, if anything, getting worse, although the grassroots are largely liberal about this issue and only a very few people really oppose it.

    This isn’t just about women and lgbt people, this is about a very outdated, strange culture in which complex and thoughful men like the Archbishop of Canterbury can be turned into a flat-theology creature bending to the wishes of the most extreme right, in which secrecy and smoke-filled room dealing is seen as acceptable, standard behaviour. It’s inconceivable that these tactics should just be employed against women and gay people and it’s highly likely that they are employed against anyone who doesn’t “fit”.
    But unpleasant as it is, it looks to be a system that is highly resilient.

  6. David says

    I thought changing attitudes was about changing attitudes to gay people and not a forum for feminism? It is perfectly possible to be against women bishops on grounds of Catholic order and be gay. To worry about someone being called a chairman is a joke.. I suspect this is why I find organisations like this there own worse enemy.

    • Colin Coward says

      David, Changing Attitude is part of an inclusive network in the Church of England. We stand with our brothers and sisters who are campaigning to end discrimination in the church, whatever form that may take. We most certainly stand with our sisters and brothers in WATCH, Women and the Church, and campaign with them for the ordination of women as bishops and for dignity and equality for women at every level of church life. It is of course possible to be gay and against women bishops on the grounds of Catholic order, but that is not Changing Attitude’s position. We do not accept churches as Welcoming and Open to LGB&T people if they are not equally and catholicly welcoming to women in all orders of ministry.

  7. Richard Taliaferro says

    The hypocrisy described in the Slee memo will become more enshrined in the Church of England, and probably elsewhere, if the churches in the Anglican Communion adopt the Anglican Covenant.

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