This weekend at General Synod I had intended to try to speak in one of the debates, on the report of the Implementation and Dialogue Group. For various reasons, involving quite a lot of Life and a fair bit of Stuff, I wasn’t able to engage as fully in the prep for Synod as I usually would, and I was very late in writing my speech and putting in a request to speak. (In fact I raised my ‘blue hand’ slightly before the speech was finished, which could have led to an interesting outcome if I had been called!). In the end I wasn’t called, which is probably for the best, as I’m not sure I’d have made much sense. (Incidentally it happens also to be the only time in six years of Synod that I’ve tried to speak in a debate and not managed to do so – my normal strategy of ‘stand right in the eyeline of the chair, to my full 5.11 height, plus heels, and wear bright orange’ doesn’t work quite so well on Zoom! I was delighted that my friend Esther Prior was called to speak first – she made an excellent speech, said some similar things to what I would have said, only better, and set just the right tone for the rest of the debate.
I woke up this morning with my head full of all of the things that I would have liked to say if only I could have got the thoughts together more quickly and clearly. Therefore, I thought I would share those thoughts here. I won't focus so much on the IDG report (which you can read here), as on the whole concept of mutual flourishing and the 5 Guiding Principles. I won’t explain the background to them, but if you’re unsure you can read more here).
Sometimes when I write a blog it is cheery and light and I press ‘post’ in the confident hope that people will receive it with enthusiasm and all will be well. At other times I press ‘post’ with fear and trepidation, knowing that it is quite possible that I’m about to upset everybody everywhere, from every possible point on every possible spectrum, all at the same time, and slightly holding my breath for the backlash. I’ll leave you to work out which is true on this occasion…
The thing is though, that I believe we need the 5 GPs, and I also believe that mutual flourishing really matters. For a start, the 5GPs state extremely clearly that the CofE has come to a decision on this issue. The matter has been decided. Women can be deacons, and priests, and bishops. This is important to me, and I am delighted that it is so. There are now, joyously, so many women ordained bishop that I cannot tell you the total number without googling it. If I tried to name them all, I would certainly forget some. I consider that to be rather wonderful, only 7 years since the vote that enabled it. But, secondly, and also very importantly, the 5GPs clearly recognise that not everyone is able to “receive the ministry of” ordained women. This is also important. People have the right not to believe in or agree with the ordained ministry of women (whether those objections relate to the issues of priesthood, or of leadership, or of preaching).
Very clearly, it is hard to hold those two things in tension. It can be painful and complex. It certainly requires huge amounts of grace and generosity from everyone involved. And in this area (as in literally every single other area of the life of the church and of the world) we could do with a huge amount more grace. Grace is just about my very favourite thing, but there can never be enough of it.
There are a few key moments in my own ministry when I’ve really experienced mutual flourishing and the 5GPs in action. Just a couple of weeks ago, for instance, I was privileged to lead the priests’ ordination retreat for the Edmonton Area of the Diocese of London (a Diocese which I think many others could learn from in terms of how they navigate this stuff, with the London Plan). There were six deacons on the retreat. Five of them were ordained priest on the Saturday, at a service at which I preached, and Bishop Sarah ordained (and also, joyfully, at which the female vicar of the church we were in sat opposite me). I found myself tearful on a couple of occasions, for all sorts of reasons to do with covid, and worshipping together with others, and ordinations simply being wonderful, but also for the privilege it was to preach at a service where a female Bishop was presiding and ordaining. However, I’ve mentioned six, and then five – the other candidate wasn’t ordained that same day, but two weeks later, by the Bishop of Maidstone. He was part of the retreat, we all spent that whole time journeying together, but his decision was that he couldn’t be ordained by Bishop Sarah. I obviously can’t pretend to know what that must feel like as a bishop. But in its practical outworking, during the retreat, it worked. I received nothing but respect and kindness from the candidate, and I hope he would say the same of me.
Several years ago, I was invited to give a seminar at the Word Alive conference, and I was delighted to do so. (I did spend much of the rest of the day explaining to people that I wasn’t the wife of any vicar, there or elsewhere, but that’s another story. Never before have I wished I’d worn a dog collar to a summer festival. Even more ironic when you consider that the seminar was on singleness!).
More recently, I was invited to give the morning sermon in the chapel at Oak Hill College. What an extraordinary privilege that was. I don’t take such invitations for granted, but am honoured to receive them, and treasure them.
It so happens (unsurprisingly, given my own tradition) that all of those examples relate to the evangelical world. But just this morning I had a conversation with a friend, a traditionalist catholic priest, for whom I have nothing but respect and admiration. We discussed General Synod, and I was enthusiastic in my encouragement of him to stand. He will, if elected, bring much wisdom and grace to the chamber. He was also kind enough to express to me his thanks for my own ministry on General Synod, and his support of my campaign for re-election. We’re interested in each other’s flourishing, and it’s mutual.
I’m very pleased to be able to call the Bishop of Burnley a friend (it’s true – some of my best friends are bishops…). Together we’ve been part of an only averagely successful, but extremely entertaining, online lockdown quiz team. But even before we were friends, I had invited him to speak at a New Wine event that I was leading, because I’d heard him speak about urban mission and ministry, and it had moved me to tears. His passion and clarity and wisdom continue to inspire me. We’re interested in each other’s flourishing, and it’s mutual.
Now please understand me, I am not naïve. I realise that this stuff doesn’t always work out well. But I genuinely believe that isn’t enough of a reason to give up trying. I have had my fair share of rude, unkind and unhelpful comments. In fact I probably haven’t had my fair share – I know some women who have suffered with this far more than I have. In no way would I wish to downplay or minimise what they have been through. Sometimes those comments, or reactions, or behaviours, come from a place of ignorance and prejudice. Sometimes they come simply from a place of not having engaged the brain and the mouth at the same time. When I preached once at evening prayer in the chapel at Wycliffe Hall while I was training for ordination, someone told me that it was the best sermon they’d ever heard by a woman. The thing is, I genuinely think they meant it as a compliment! (For the avoidance of doubt, it is not!).
I understand – of course I understand – that these matters can be intensely hard. I have found the pain of knowing that someone has stayed sitting in their seat, rather than coming forward to receive communion, because I am the one who has presided, to be a moment of unique and deep pain. When someone belittles or dismisses our ministry it is hurtful, painful, difficult – deeply so.
It is my belief, though, that scrapping the 5GPs, ditching the concept of mutual flourishing, announcing that from now on everyone who is a candidate for ordination must assent that they are in favour of women’s ordination and ministry – these things wouldn’t (necessarily) help. Of course, where there is bad behaviour, it must be challenged. Online abuse, hate mail, nasty comments, ignoring/blanking female colleagues – these things are totally unacceptable, and they must not be allowed to continue. I know that many of my friends from traditionalist catholic and conservative evangelical backgrounds would challenge these behaviours if they witnessed them, and we need more of this. We need too to learn from examples of good practice, such as we see in the Dioceses of London, Blackburn, and Chichester, among others.
The Bishop of Rochester said during the debate yesterday that perhaps we needed some of this work to have been done on 2014, rather than now, and I think he is probably right. I hope that we can learn from some of the good practice around, as well as from some of the bad experiences people have had, so that we can all get better at this.
I want to try hard to recognise and acknowledge that the need for grace isn’t only one sided, and nor is the potential for pain. It isn’t that I must summon all of my grace in order to cope with the views of these people who don’t accept my ministry, and the pain that may cause while they just merrily continue with their views. There is grace too in their interactions with me, with us. There will also sometimes be pain in the outworking of their ministries. I don’t know, maybe on the morning that I preached in the chapel at Oak Hill, some people stayed away. It’s pretty likely, I guess. But some didn’t. Some came, and listened, and received my teaching – and I recognise and give thanks for the grace that some of them will have needed to exercise in doing so.
The point at which I differ, I guess, from some of my colleagues, is that I don’t believe that for someone simply to hold the view that women can’t (or shouldn’t) be ordained, or lead, or preach, is in itself harmful. It is only the behaviours which sometimes arise out of that view that are harmful. The theological and ecclesiological opinion is, I believe, entirely valid, and what matters is how you then live with and behave towards your colleagues. We’re right back round to grace again.
Inevitably this blog has become very long. I don’t want it also to become waffly (you may consider that ship to have sailed…). I’m sure there will have been points at which I have expressed myself clumsily. If I have misrepresented anyone’s point of view, or offended anyone, I ask for their forgiveness. These are, of course, only my own views. I’d welcome further discussion on what I’ve written – but please, be kind!