Saturday, July 5, 2008

Face to Faith

It is odd that the opponents of women bishops should now adopt the language of 'pain', says Judith Maltby

Judith Maltby The Guardian, Saturday July 5, 2008

In the coming days the general synod of the Church of England will again be debating the subject of women bishops. No one could ever accuse the church of moving with undue haste, although most agree that the debate has shifted from the "if" question of women bishops to the "how" question.

Anyone with some knowledge of Anglicanism might be forgiven for thinking that the answer to the "how" question of women bishops is quite simple. The first woman to be made a bishop in the Church of England will receive the laying on of hands from one of the archbishops and at least two other bishops at her consecration. The Archbishop of Canterbury or York will pray to God for her to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit for "the office and work of a bishop in your church". It is a solemn, holy and profound moment. We Anglicans are fond of saying that the way of praying is the way of believing (lex orandi, lex credendi). So, by our own reasoning, the answer to the "how" question couldn't be more straightforward. We've done this thousands of times before; we have, one can say confidently, a certain competence.

But the actual "how" at the centre of the debate concerns the safeguards (a revealing choice of words) of the minority opposed for a variety of reasons to women serving as priests and bishops. These range from continued provision of bishops uncompromised by close association with women priests and bishops to the creation of entirely new separatist, non-geographical dioceses. The language is emotive and at times frankly manipulative, as is often the case when positions are strongly held.

What is striking, however, is the adoption of the language of "pain" by those opposed to an ordained ministry in which men and women may both serve - striking because before the church approved women as priests in 1992, opponents constantly told supporters that the pain of women excluded from the priesthood must have nothing to do with our corporate decision-making - that would be to give in to mere feelings. The debate should be fought on theological grounds; pain is not an "argument".

In the 1980s I agreed with this view, and I largely still do. My pain is my own responsibility, not anyone else's. Profoundly helpful to me back then was a 1984 essay by Rowan Williams, Women and the Ministry: A Case for Theological Seriousness. As he rightly observed: "The theology of Christian ministry is an area in which we are too readily tempted to avoid discussion of first principles. It is too complicated, too generally unsettling and too distracting when we are hard pressed by practical urgencies ... 'Pastoral' means more than 'consolatory', 'prophetic' more than 'unsettling'."

Now, however, pain is in the driving seat of the church's deliberations. To raise this is not to trivialise the considerable pain that is about in the church. I know I am not alone in finding it increasingly difficult as an Anglican priest to be a public representative of an institution seemingly determined to appear as bigoted and ridiculous as possible to many reasonable and moral people outside of it, so much so that the very good work we do achieve is obscured or obstructed.

But it is my choice to stay in the church I love; and I must acknowledge my own responsibility and culpability and not push on to others my decision to go or to stay. The church is a painful place to be for all sorts of people, not only the opponents of women bishops. But if pain is to drive our corporate decision-making and the ordering of our common life, and therefore the way we minister to society, we must privilege the hurt of some more than others; how do we decide whose pain is more authentic or important?

All relationships of commitment and consequence involve pain. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ reveals and redeems that truth about our human condition in the profoundest way. What pain is not (yours, mine, anyone else's) is good; nor is it, quite simply, an "argument".

Canon Dr Judith Maltby is chaplain and fellow of Corpus Christi College and reader in church history at the University of Oxford