It is nearly two years ago since the first manifestation of the Arab Spring was marked by demonstrations following a self-immolation in Tunisia on 18 December 2010. A revolutionary wave of demonstrations, protests, civil uprisings and wars erupted across the Arab world. I speculated with friends as to whether or when a similar revolution might erupt in the Church of England. C of E revolution seemed an unlikely scenario at the time, however much some might long for such a dramatic turn of events.
Tuesday 20 November marked the beginning of the Church of England’s Autumn Revolution and we are now witnessing the first out-workings of a movement which will have unforeseen, revolutionary consequences, not only for women in the Church, nor only for LGB&T people, but for the mission and ministry of the whole people of God, our vision of the Kingdom and our relationship with God.
The impact on WATCH
The Revd Rachel Weir, Chair of WATCH, has blogged about her personal reaction.
Rachel is “…ashamed that we in WATCH, the campaign group whose very purpose is to advocate the full equality of women in the Church of England, have strayed so far from our deepest principles. Little by little, month by month, we have given more and more ground to traditionalists, in a vain attempt to create a generous space for our brothers and sisters in Christ. As a result of this we have ceased to speak out against theological views that are fundamentally antithetical to the flourishing of women both in the church and in wider society.”
“…the emergency debate in the House of Commons just 36 hours after the vote [reminded me] of simple truths that have been obscured by layers of theological rhetoric in recent months. [A] contribution particularly stood out:
“Just as discrimination in the wider community is wrong, as it keeps the talents and abilities of all from flourishing, so it is important in the established Church that the talents, experience and skills of both men and women are used”.
Diana Johnson MP
Rachel comments: “It is almost too obvious to say that the exclusion of women from the episcopate and indeed any form of discrimination against women either in or outside the Church is morally wrong. We must name discrimination for what it is: an affront to God. The established church should have no truck with it – no matter how traditional it is.”
In a guest blog, Anne Stevens said: “It has been painful for the church as a whole to see itself in the mirror that the rest of the world has held up to us. Who in their right mind would want to join this church? It is absolutely vital to break the pattern that has brought us to this point. The scorn and derision that has come our way this week has been an important reality check. The nation we serve is no longer prepared to accept gender discrimination in its Established Church.”
Practical revolutionary outcomes
There have been a number of practical outcomes of a revolutionary nature for the Church of England
- The House of Bishops was angry
- The House of Bishops was almost united in voting yes
- The Archbishops’ Council accepted that “a process to admit women to the episcopate needed to be restarted at the next meeting of the General Synod in July 2013”
- The House of Laity have tabled a meeting to discuss a vote of no confidence in its Chair
- Bristol Diocesan Synod passed a vote of no confidence in the ability of the General Synod of the Church of England to effect the clear will of the majority of Church members in relation to the consecration of women as bishops
- Recognition of an urgent need to consider how it might be possible to expedite the introduction of any new legislation within the Church
- A review of how the decisions of individual dioceses are represented in the General Synod
- A review of the election process for General Synod
Whether or not any of these initiatives results in reformation of The General Synod is anyone’s guess, but no-one could have predicted that all this would result from a marginal no vote in the House of Laity.
I prayerfully and hopefully predict there will be two additional outcomes as a result of the Church of England’s Autumn Revolution.
Impact on the LGB&T debate
Parliament has questioned Church exemptions from equality legislation following the no vote. MPs and Lords have linked Church of England exemptions and attitudes to the role of women in the Church with attitudes to LGB&T people, including our visible place in Church leadership, the recognition of lesbian and gay covenanted relationships, civil partnerships in church and equal marriage. Changing Attitude will meet with MPs to explore how equality for us in the Church can make progress in the immediate future.
There are key differences in the dynamic of working out the place of women and the place of LGB&T people in the Church. Women are visible as women, gay men and lesbians are not so easily identified. On the other hand, gay and bisexual men are already in positions of leadership as bishops, women, lesbians and transgender people are not.
Visionary revolutionary outcomes
I predict that nothing is going to be quite the same again. Some believe that tinkering about with the legislation or making stronger provision for those unable to live with women in authority in the Church will achieve success. It won’t. It’s tinkering with something that is now well and truly broken. People indulge themselves, as on a current Thinking Anglicans thread, with worries about whether or not Ebbsfleet is a See. This obsession, so absorbing for some, is not going to build the Kingdom of God. Interest in ecclesiological detail and structure in the Church is fine for a minority of geeks but not for those of us who yearn for spiritual transformation and renewal.
Order will eventually be restored, but not before the current structures are subjected to more thorough examination and change. The Church may eventually not look so very different from the way it looks now. This might be reassuring to those who value tradition and continuity but it’s deeply depressing for those who know the Church of England is deeply flawed and inadequate as God’s instrument of mission and evangelism in the twenty first century.
Energies, visions and suppressed frustration have been released. Rachel Weir expresses this well in her WATCH blog. An unfolding into a radical new paradigm has been taking place for two decades and more. It has been painfully slow and has become more and more detached from the values held by the majority in British society. It is never right simply to adopt secular values and the fashion of the age. Christian wisdom and teaching are rooted in two millennia of development in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been both evolving and corrupted. I am confident that changed attitudes to women and LGB&T people in western culture are an outworking of Jesus’ new paradigm and not a corruption of his teaching. Jesus taught radical equality. His empathy for people always confronted and transcended the orthodoxy of his day.
Revolution is an unstable state
I believe part of the art of being a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ, a spiritual seeker, however you choose to identify yourself, is to live in a permanently revolutionary, unstable state, rooted in the mysterious, ineffable stability of God’s infinite love and tenderness. Those are the unchanging qualities of God – all else is open to change. The falsehood which many Christians try and sell to the insecure is that reality is unchanging, God is unchanging and the Church should be unchanging in its reading of scripture and its attitude to women and gays. Impoverished, mean-spirited, literalist, fundamentalist images of God underpin conservative theology and attitudes in the extreme conservative evangelical and the extreme Anglo Catholic wings of the Church (and the Vatican for that matter).
Dreaming of even more radical change
Changing Attitude’s campaign goal is the full inclusion of LGB&T people in the Church of England. WATCH’s campaign goal is the full inclusion of women in the life and ministry of the Church of England.
Changing Attitude has a bigger vision, shared, I know, by many brothers and sisters in WATCH, by individuals in congregations in every diocese, and by those who in despair now follow Jesus the Christ beyond the boundaries of the Church.
The Spirit is breathing new life into those whose hearts and souls and bodies are open to new visions and transforming energies. The potential for a more radical revolution is bubbling away with a passion in many people. Tragically, few find their way to worship with congregations that are capturing and living the Holy Spirit’s revolutionary energy. I’m not going to name churches where I experience this happening, but those that immediately come to mind are all LGB&T friendly, grant equal place and dignity to women – and are often led by partnered gays and lesbians. Let the Church of England make of that what it will.