“Well, and which way did you vote?” The lady who asked me was sitting with an elderly friend in the High Dependency Unit of the hospital where I work. It was her first remark to me as I introduced myself as a hospital chaplain, the day after the General Synod’s recent vote on women bishops.
People are angry at the outcome – and rightly so. I explained that I hadn’t had a vote – not at the Synod anyway, but that as a member of a deanery synod I had voted in the clergy elections: ‘and it was passed in the House of Clergy’ I said encouragingly. She seemed to calm down then, knowing that I was ‘on side’. I think that it has probably shocked many women to see television clips of women arguing against the consecration of women as bishops. This lady clearly needed to check me out.
It wasn’t the place or the occasion though to talk about me, or my credentials as a supporter of women’s ordination, which go back a long way. I was there in my role as a chaplain and we quickly moved on to the needs of her friend.
Prior to transition I was a member of Priests for the Ordination of Women, and, of course, the ordination of women in the Church of England enabled me to remain a priest when I transitioned. Most of my working life, though, has been about pastoral care. It’s only in the last six years I’ve become an activist for LGB&T inclusion, and now that I have it’s probably too late to stand for General Synod, even if I wanted to (and I might not be elected anyway).
In any case I’ve felt very ambivalent about the General Synod since 1987, and the personal morality debate initiated by the Revd Tony Higton, which basically set the scene for the marginalisation of LGB&T people in the Church of England.
That catastrophe, combined with the painfully slow progress of the legislation on the ordination of women to the priesthood from the late 1970s onwards, means that I’ve never felt wholly confident in the processes and ethos of the General Synod. Perhaps I should have taken time to observe it at close quarters, but each time the Synod is in session I’m either working or elsewhere. Back in July, when the General Synod was meant to have voted on women bishops in York, I was at General Convention in Indianapolis, networking with the TransEpsicopal delegation.
What a contrast between General Convention 2012, where the three transgender inclusive resolutions were passed overwhelmingly by the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, and the defeat, last week, of the women bishops’ legislation in the House of Laity of the General Synod!
On the other hand, the failure of the laity to meet the required two-thirds majority by just six votes was not a complete surprise. It had been evident for some time that this could happen. The legislation had been drafted, redrafted and amended several times, and it’s claimed that there was an orchestrated campaign in the last election to the House of Laity by those opposed to women bishops. If that’s true, it shows just how political the Synod has become, and how the moderate middle need to be more politically aware in future.
In many ways this was not so much a vote about women bishops but about the creation of a measure that could accommodate those – Conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics – who, for different reasons, would be unable to accept the ministry of a woman bishop. From the General Synod vote, and the voting by the dioceses (42 out of 44 in favour), it would seem that those opposed to women bishops are a minority; but the Church of England tries hard to hold on to its conservative minorities. I find that slightly uncomfortable when the Church of England seems to treat other minorities as expendable, though the principle is sound and could, and should, be extended.
What has shocked people about the latest decision is that a truth that has been hard won, and is now widely experienced in society in general, the equality of men and women, cannot be embraced by the church because of its tenderness to those with conscientious objections. Such tenderness is the Christian way set out by Paul in relation to dietary regulations in Romans 14-15.1 and 1 Corinthians 8, but not when it challenged the inclusive character of the gospel (Galatians 2.11-21). Parallel jurisdiction, which some of the opponents to women bishops appear to want, would likewise compromise the oversight of a woman bishop, leading to a two-tier episcopate.
This is the so-called ‘circle that cannot be squared’ which is plunging the Church of England into crisis. Since the Church of England is the Established Church of the land, the General Synod’s legal decisions are subject to scrutiny and ratification by Parliament and there is serious concern within Parliament about the Synod’s inability to progress the legislation in favour of women bishops.
There is talk of making the government’s experience in promoting equality available to the Church of England. Some MPs, and even bishops, are keen for the Church’s exemptions to equality legislation to be lifted. If this were to happen there would be a huge outcry from conservatives but it is something that I have longed for. Back in the late 1970s, when I was lamenting the Church of England’s slow progress towards enabling the ordination of women to the diaconate and the priesthood, the priest who was training me said this: ‘It was scandalous that the Church of England was granted exemption from the Sex Discrimination Act (1975).’
How right he was, and how important now for us, as LGB&T people, that ALL the Church’s exemptions should be removed, not just with reference to the Sex Discrimination Act, but to all the equalities legislation the UK Government has enacted in recent years. Only when the Church of England has finally embraced the principle of equality – which, after all, lies at the heart of the gospel – can it with integrity minister to the tender consciences of those who find such strong meat too hard to swallow.