The deeper (mis)understandings which divide us

Many people have been busy investigating and analysing the reasons which led to the defeat of the women in the episcopate measure last week. The two conservative blocks represented by Reform and Forward in Faith provide the bedrock of opposition to the measure. They were supported by people who voted according to personal conscience or prejudice (you decide) and ignored the votes of their own diocesan synod in many cases.

What happens next? Some want to abandon the attempt to achieve a compromise which enables the majority to stay and women to become bishops, pressing for a single clause measure next time. Some want to delay reconsideration of the measure to allow a period of reflection.

In response to the hostile political reaction William Fittall, the General Secretary, is reported to have recommended to the Archbishops’ Council which is meeting today that the measure is brought back to the July Synod meeting in a single clause form, overcoming the rules which prevent the legislation returning for several years – unless the group of 6 decide otherwise. Who knows whether it would pass? Lobbying and campaigning would continue on all sides which could well harden positions.

I think the root of the problem lies much deeper. I don’t think it’s possible to construct a form of words that will enable everyone to feel reasonably accommodated and for a two-thirds majority to be achieved.

I think the problem has to do with people’s vision of God, out of which attitudes to authority, the Bible, catholicity and ritual arise on one side, and attitudes to spirituality, human flourishing and emergent, creative wisdom arise on the other. To readers of this blog it will be obvious where I am rooted.

For two centuries we have been emerging from an awareness of God to which Reform Evangelicals and Forward in Faith Catholics are addicted. I know what the addiction is like because I inherited a comprehensive dose of guilt, unworthiness and anxiety about being myself, being gay, being orthodox or unorthodox in my theology and practice, misusing Scripture, failing in general to the acceptable ‘norm’ (there’s no such thing as normal – that’s what I learnt from my psychotherapy training).

Thank goodness I had enough independence of spirit to dismantle my addiction over the years. Most of us still carry remnants of internalised, unexamined traps that provoke guilty feelings. The ability to take them out, have a good look at our assumptions from every angle, question whether the feeling or idea is authentic, and engage our independent mind to decide whether or not to retain this particular assumption, is a hard-won skill.

Anyway, back to the problem of people’s vision of God. I think the difficulty the conservatives who are protecting their enclave in the Church have is that they live inside a very tall fence, a fence of their own addictions and attachments. Attachment is a much better psychotherapeutic word. From inside the fence which is too tall to see over, thanks to its construction from so many planks of ritual and Biblical interpretation (aka literalism), it is impossible to gain even a glimpse of what things can look like over the fence.

When evangelical priests who start off in a more conservative mode become bishops, something happens that reduces the height of the fence. They are introduced to intelligent sets of people who hold other ideas about God. The selection process works well enough so that these bishops have the capacity to take their ideas out and give them a good examination. The result – over time, they begin to revise and modify their conservative mind set, thus becoming traitors to the cause and no longer acceptable to Reform, which is why Reform is complaining that no bishops from their position are ever appointed. I think they are, but they change.

And back again to people’s vision of God. This Reform model of God worships (or is obedient to) a God of rules and literal interpretation of scripture (which always looks profoundly ignorant to me, but then I’ve never inhabited their mind set).

When you are locked within this mind set it’s impossible to see that there’s another vision of God, a vision which is described in the Bible, from the first to the last page, in the Gospels, and in the teaching and ministry of Jesus.

This God can only be seen once you have lowered the fence enough to see what lies beyond. This God is infinite in love, goodness, self-giving, creativity, beauty, wisdom. She is often elusive, met in life’s crises, neither a rescuing God nor a God of the gaps, but the origin of everything, the light and the dark, intimately woven through the fabric of creation, the life force, energy, inspiration, vision, passion.

 I think the crisis that hit the Church last week arises from the inability of the conservative group of lay members of Synod to see over the fence. Their very concrete world is circumscribed and even if they have a description of the world beyond the fence, nothing will convince them that it describes authentic reality.

The majority of people in this country (and in parliament) however, have had their eyes opened. They know God cannot be like the ‘orthodox’, ‘traditional’ God of Reform and Forward in Faith. They rejected such ideas of God as impossibly immature many years ago. In truth, a creative, dangerous vision of God has always been around, held by the Mother Julian’s of the Church.

Last week the split between those unable to see over the fence and those living beyond the fence was dramatically exposed. I don’t think (and I have never really thought) that an accommodation can be reached between the majority of Church of England members who don’t see the problem with women priests and bishops or LGB&T priests and bishops and those who think these things are banned by God.

So long as the Church of England goes on trying to accommodate these people, so long will we get nowhere, mission and evangelism in the Church will be fatally constricted, the majority in the country will turn its back on the Church (they already have) and it will continue to shrink and become ever more irrelevant to the country and unable to reveal God’s infinite love in creation. That is the real scandal of our age.

Back to the question I asked at the beginning – what happens next? Do the gang of 6 have the courage and wisdom to bring a single clause measure to Synod in July? I doubt it, since two of them live inside a very tall fence.


  1. David Cavanagh says

    I’m not sure that a single-clause measure will do much good unless both sides are willing to listen to each other and take each other’s concerns seriously, and I don’t think it is only the conservatives who live inside a pretty tall fence…..

    Without a commitment to taking each other seriously, attempts to force through a single-clause measure will only harden positions. If a number of waverers voted against last week because they felt inadequate provision was being offered for those who cannot accept women priests and bishops, why should they shift position when presented with a starker measure?

    The only hope is that a new measure can be accompanied by a Code of Practice in final draft, with a strong accompanying commitment not to change it unless the drafting group are unanimous. Such a Code should strongly state a moral duty to provide alternative oversight where requested, but equally strongly deny any guarantee that the “alternative” bishop be not only male but of the same theological “hue” as the parish requesting.

  2. Rosie Bates says

    Wonderfully crafted truth.The very least they could do is stop funding Creationists and the havoc they cause. Damage limitation time. This theology should also carry a government health warning ‘Not to be swallowed by children’

Join the discussion