Like the Wideness of the Sea: Women Bishops and the Church of England (Paperback)

 

This slight book is a personal reflection on the debate in the Church of England over the ordination of women to the priesthood, and more recently as bishops.

It is bang up to date: it was finished in December 2012, just a month after the vote by the House of Laity in General Synod which brought the current plans to admit women as bishops to a juddering halt.

You won’t find a detailed explanation of the objections to the ordination of women in this book. It doesn’t set out to re-examine and answer the main objections from the ‘Catholic’ wing (that the priest is an ikon of Christ, and a woman cannot be such an ikon because she is not male like Christ) or the ‘evangelical’ wing (that the Bible declares that in the Church and the home the male must be the ‘head’ of the female, so no female can exercise authority over the male).

In the first part, Maggi Dawn describes the way that the Church of England arrived at the impasse of the November 2012 vote, and suggests a way out, using the same process of ‘reception’ that was advocated in 1992, when women were admitted to the priesthood. In the second, she shares some reflections on the theology of waiting, including asking why there is a cultural expectation that women will ‘wait politely’, and questioning whether doing so can be, in effect, colluding with injustice.

She ends the second section by speaking about the ‘silent exodus’ of talented women ministers who are no longer prepared to continue to work in a church that excludes or devalues women. In the third section, she describes her own experience of feeling called to ordination, theological college and working as a deacon and priest, which led her to join this ‘exodus’. So much of this is painfully familiar to any woman, not just the ordained, who ministers in the Church of England.

If you don’t believe that women can be ordained, or exercise leadership in the church, there is no point in you reading this book, since you are unlikely to be convinced by Maggi Dawn’s gentle arguments. If you do believe women are called to be priests and bishops, then read it; it will annoy you, frustrate you, and inform you about the true cost of the interminable delays that women called to ordained ministry have had to suffer over the last 30 years since the Church of England decided “there were no fundamental theological objections to the ordination of women”.

Read it particularly if you are among those many people in the Church of England who feel that if only further steps are taken to accommodate those people who object to women’s ordination, the Church of England will be able to sail on happily into the future, even if, as one of Maggi Dawn’s contacts remarked, it is “like a world-class ocean liner powered by the engine of a lawn-mower”. I believe that Maggi Dawn’s passionate writing should convince you that to delay further, and to undermine the authority of female bishops in this way, is to incur too great a cost .Like the Wideness of the Sea: Women Bishops and the Church of England

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A Question of Bishops

Women Bishops of the Anglican Communion.Lambeth 2008

I spent most of Tuesday listening to the live audio feed and following the Twitterfall of the General Synod debate on the Ordination of Women to the Episcopate Measure. When the result of the vote was announced I was bitterly disappointed. The C of E decided in 1975 that there were no fundamental theological objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood. I expected that to be properly affirmed on Tuesday, and full equality of women and men in ministry to be achieved, but it was not to be.

Much has been written about the vote, which affirmed the wish of the vast majority of both bishops, clergy and laity for female bishops, but which was lost by the failure to reach the required two-thirds majority in the House of Laity.  I just want to make two comments on the debate.

I was disturbed at how inward-looking the contributors to the debate were. It was all about the Church of England, as if we were not part of the Anglican Communion and Churches Together in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Ecumenical relations were mentioned by some speakers, but with one exception that I heard, only with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  These speakers were concerned that the ordination of women as bishops would place further barriers to unity with these churches.

However, the prospect of unity with these churches is light years away! They don’t recognise the orders of our male priests and bishops as valid; the Roman Catholics don’t even officially believe we are a proper church. To ask the Church of England to delay making a change in its orders because it might obstruct unity with these churches is living in cloud cuckoo land!

I was amazed that no-one mentioned the many churches with whom the Church of England does have close links, which already have women in the episcopate or equivalent leadership roles. Bishop Nick Baines hinted at this, but by the time he spoke, speeches were limited to one minute, and there was not enough time for him to elaborate, so the point was not strongly made.There are the many churches in the Anglican Communion, in the USA, Canada, New Zealand for example; there are the Lutheran and Evangelical churches in Scandinavia, Germany and France to whom we are linked through the Poorvoo and  Meissen Agreements and Reuilly declaration; and there is the Methodist Church, with whom we have a Covenant. These agreements pledge us to welcome clergy of each other’s churches to share ministry, worship and pastoral care. The Anglican/Methodist Covenant pledges us to work for full visible unity. How can we do that when we can’t acknowledge their women in authority as bishops?

More worrying than the lack of attention to real ecumenical considerations was the failure to address the theological issues behind the vote, particularly the Biblical and ecclesialogical ones.

No-one challenged the repeated assertions that ‘male headship’ was Biblical. John Walker has written at length on why this interpretation doesn’t stand up.

What particularly struck me during the debate was the way those who could not accept female bishops were demanding oversight by ‘a bishop who thinks like us’. This seems to me to be a distortion of the role of a bishop. Bishops are called to be signs of unity: the introduction to the Ordination and Consecration of Bishops says “they are to gather God’s people and celebrate with them the sacraments of the new covenant. Thus formed into a single communion of faith and love, the Church in each place and time is united with the Church in every place and time.”

I know that our present bishops come from different traditions in the church; but when I have watched them in the Cathedral or in the parish church, I have never been able to tell, from the way that they exercise their office, which tradition they come. Good bishops are able to become all things to all people, and to rise above the relatively unimportant differences of tradition and churchmanship.

It is alien to Anglican ecclesiology for a bishop to say he won’t minister to a particular parish because their theological tradition differs from his; and no parish is able to reject the authority of the diocesan bishop over them.

The Act of Synod after the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood in 1992 opened the door to this fundamental change in the understanding of episcopacy by allowing parishes to petition for alternative episcopal oversight; but they had to ask their diocesan bishop to nominate someone, they couldn’t pick and choose. The demand to have a bishop of their own theological persuasion is simply one step further to schism. If they don’t accept the authority of their bishop, if they will only obey a bishop who shares their theological approach, how can they be said to be in communion with the rest of the church?

What next? Obviously when the church comes to debate the question of whether gays may be bishops, people who object will feel entitled to bishops who object. Will we than have parishes who believe in Creationism asking for bishops who believe the same; and those who don’t refusing to accept the authority of bishops who do? This can only lead to further fragmentation.

Sarah Coakley has written that “we cannot compromise on the historic theology of the bishop as locus of unity”.

I am coming round to the opinion that, in spite of the pain and hurt that the vote on Tuesday caused to women in the church, both ordained and lay, and the men who support them, it may well have been a good thing, since it gives the Church of England the chance to think again, and to bring in a measure which does not redefine the role of a bishop in a way that can only lead to more and more division and fragmentation in the church.

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A book for my granddaughter

Lucy and Sam and the cars

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Christianity under attack?

There’s been a lot of talk over recent weeks about religion in general, and Christianity in particular being under attack.

A number of events have contributed to this contention.

There was the decision by the High Court that it was not lawful for Bideford Town Council to include prayers on the formal agenda of meetings which all councillors were summoned to attend. In spite of the fact that the judges decided that having prayers didn’t breach anyones human rights or discriminate against non-Christians, and was decided on the technical interpretation of a clause in the Local Government Act, it was hailed as a victory by the National Secular Society and an attempt to outlaw religion in public life by some clergy and politicians.

It was neither. Many councils still have prayers at the start of meetings. Most have them before the formal agenda business starts, so that attendance is voluntary. I was invited to say prayers before the meeting of our local district council once, when a parishioner was leader of the council; I tried to do so tactfully, so as to include members of other faiths. Those who didn’t want to pray entered after prayers. I gather from a current councillor that ministers of different world faiths are invited to take the prayers these days. That is how it should be.  The Bideford case seems to me to be a case of two groups each trying to impose their beliefs on others. The only people who have gained from this case were the lawyers, and I hope the people of Bideford will decline to vote for both the councillor who brought the action, and the councillors who chose to defend it (and may appeal) when the next elections come round.

Christianity has a very privileged position in this country, and the Church of England is particularly privileged. The monarch must belong to our church, and bishops are part of the legislature, with the power to delay or amend legislation. Collective worship must be ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character’ and the C of E administers many schools supported by the state. Although the majority don’t belong to the Anglican Church, very few actually want to change this state of affairs. When it comes to the crunch, people like to have the church there, particularly at times of personal or national tragedy and rejoicing. Those who believe the Christian faith is under attack really ought to look abroad, to places where Christians are unable to follow their religion openly, or evangelise, and who are in constant danger of being imprisoned or killed.

A second event which prompted headlines about religion being under attack was the publication of a survey carried out under the auspices of the Foundation for Reason and Science led by Richard Dawkins, which tried to prove that the people who put down “Christian’ as their religion in the 2011 census weren’t really Christians at all. This was because they didn’t know certain facts, or believe certain things which Dawkins had decided were what made a ‘real’ Christian.

When I heard about the survey, I immediately thought of that episode from the classic comedy “Yes, Prime Minister’ when Sir Humphrey demonstrated that it is possible to get any answer you want from an opinion survey if you ask the right questions in the right order.

This should be compulsory viewing for everyone who argues for any change based on survey results in my opinion!

All that the survey demonstrated is that people who call themselves Christians have a wide variety of believes, and some have very little knowledge of the Bible or even of the core doctrines of the creeds. Anyone who belongs to any Christian congregation could have told them that! But it is not up to Richard Dawkins to say that someone is not a proper Christian because they don’t know that Matthew is the first book of the New Testament, any more than it is up to me to say that Richard Dawkins is not a proper evolutionary scientist because he couldn’t quote the full title of ‘Origin of Species’ or a true atheist because he exclaimed “Oh God!” when he couldn’t.

I really think it’s time for religious believers, and Christians in particular, to become more relaxed about challenges to their faith or to their privileged position in society. The Queen  demonstrated with her speech at Lambeth Palace earlier this week the important place that all religions have in the life of this country, and the special role that Christianity and the Church of England have in protecting that place. If  religion didn’t have such a strong position, it wouldn’t be worth non-believers attacking it – especially not when they are a small minority like secular atheists.

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Rainbow descendants of my grandmother.

Today via Facebook, I got the news of the birth of a granddaughter to one of my cousins, who lives in Tasmania. This was her second grandchild, but her first granddaughter – and since, like me, she only gave birth to sons, a particular joy. The new baby is the child of her son and his girlfriend, who is of Australian Aboriginal descent. Welcome into the world Nakeisha Maree!

That made me think about my own grandmother, and to wonder how she would have reacted to the births of her great, great grandchildren, who come from such varied national and racial inheritances.

She was born in 1892, and had many of the attitudes typical of a person born at that time. Nowadays, she would be regarded as racist. Soon after we moved to the London suburbs, she came to visit us, and I can remember being acutely embarrassed as she remarked loudly as we travelled on the Underground, ‘There are lots of blacks up here”. She wasn’t very keen on Germans (her father’s fishing  smack  was probably blown up by  a German mine off the Kent coast in 1914 and he and his entire crew were lost and two of her brothers were injured and gassed during that war). She was nominally C of E and didn’t much like Roman Catholics (though she did attend her daughter’s wedding in an RC church).

Of her great grandchildren, one is  part Australian Aboriginal, one is part Punjabi Sikh, one was born in Germany of a German father and English mother, one has Lebanese grandparents,  three were born in Australia, one has been baptised Catholic and two have dual Canadian and British citizenship.

 

What would she have thought of her ‘rainbow’ great-grandchildren? I hope she would have approved!

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Given the PIP

I’ve followed the news stories about the faulty PIP breast implants with something of a personal interest.

After I was diagnosed with breast cancer 5½ years ago, I had first a lumpectomy (WLE); then when the cancer was found to be diffuse and more widespread, a mastectomy six weeks later.

The surgeon was very concerned that I opted for a mastectomy, rather than a further series of lumpectomies. After I had told him my decision, he came out and took my husband and me back into his consulting room again, to make sure that was really what I wanted. When we asked him why he was so concerned, he said he was aware of men who divorced their wives after mastectomies. Eventually he was reassured that I did know what I was doing, and it was a decision we both agreed on.

Before the mastectomy, I was offered breast reconstruction on the NHS. There were three options: silicone implants which would involve a series of operations; and two different sorts of reconstruction using flaps of tissue from elsewhere in the body, both of which would involve long operations.

The lumpectomy was the first time I had been in hospital since the birth of my children. It taught me that I didn’t cope well with surgery. Anaesthetic made me sick, and I was  bruised  for some time afterwards. That made a decision against the major ‘flap’ operations easy. I researched the implant option, and discovered they could rupture and leak gel into the body; that they had a limited life, so I would probably have to have them ‘renewed’; and the implants might also conceal a recurrence of the cancer. So I decided against that too. Nevertheless, every time I’ve been back to the hospital for my regular check-ups, I’ve been asked about reconstruction again. Some of the surgeons really don’t understand why I don’t mind having only one breast. Actually, I was much more concerned about the possibility of chemotherapy (which, thankfully, I didn’t need) and the loss of hair, which I thought would be much more difficult to disguise.

I didn’t like the experience of surgery, but it was necessary for my health. I find it really difficult to understand how anyone would undergo surgery voluntarily for cosmetic purposes, especially when (as with breast implants) the operation may have to be repeated.

Perhaps it’s my age! Now I’m in my sixties, I don’t feel I have to try to compete any more with the young and glamorous. But then I never did. I’ve never felt defined by what I looked like, and I find it really hard to understand those who do, especially those who spend out large sums of money and undergo surgery in order to make themselves look ‘better’.

So when I hear the demands for the NHS to replace the faulty PIP implants, I have mixed feelings. I can sympathise with those who had them inserted after surgery for cancer; I can understand it may be necessary for women who were younger than me when their cancer was diagnosed. But I really struggle to have sympathy with those who had them for cosmetic purposes, especially when the NHS is so short of money, and there are many more worthy demands on its funds.

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A Blog post for Mark Driscoll

Dear Mark,

I can’t comment on your interview  with Justin Brierley, since it hasn’t been published yet. All we in the UK have to go on is Justin’s account of the interview  and your own account in the latter part of A Blog Post for the Brits. As Justin says, we can only judge when the article is published.

But I would like to respond to some of your comments about the Church in Great Britain.

(1) You address your comments to British evangelicals only. Does that mean that you don’t believe that the other approaches to the Christian faith contend for the Gospel or are fruitful? If that is your opinion, a good many of us who know and appreciate the breath of Christian traditions in the UK would beg to differ.

(2) You state very positively that in Great Britain we live in a context that is more non- or anti- Christian that cities you know well in the USA. I don’t think this is the case. As our Prime Minister has recently affirmed, the Christian faith and the Bible are basic to our culture and our values. Christian bishops sit, as of right, in one of the chambers of our legislature; our monarch must be a Christian; many of our state schools are controlled by Christian organisations; a daily act of worship, which is ‘wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian content’, is a legal requirement in maintained schools. Christianity is still in an  immensely privileged position in this country.

(3) Some of our media organs may contain people who are not Christians and who ridicule any sort of religious faith. But there are other media which are very supportive of faith. That sort of environment keeps us all alert, and encourages us to study and to find ways to counter the arguments of the sceptics, which is a good thing. Some believers may have developed  paranoia about some legislation, and believe themselves to be persecuted, but in reality there is freedom of religious belief and practice in this country, so long as that doesn’t involve discrimination against others on the basis of their faith, race or sexuality, or infringe the rights of others. Here again, religious organisations actually have a privileged position, since they are exempt from some provisions of equal opportunities legislation. The courts are independent and judge when there are disputes on the basis of the law, which is passed by Parliament.

(4) You ask the British not to compromise on essential doctrinal issues. Your selection of what are ‘essential doctrinal issues’ seems very strange, and not everyone would agree with you that these are essentials, end especially not in the particular way in which you express them. Penal Substitution as the only explanation of the Atonement, and the way you interpret Hell are just two of the ‘essentials’ which I and others would dispute. In the Anglican Church, to which I belong, we base our faith on a combination of Scripture, Tradition and Reason, which leads some us to come to quite different conclusions from yours about what is ‘essential’ to our faith. Sometimes we even disagree about what is essential among ourselves!

(5) I don’t think you need to be concerned that churches are not doing enough to reach people, especially young people, with the Gospel. Every church I know about is constantly doing ‘mission planning’. Many are exploring new expressions of church. However we do recognise that in our cultural context, different sorts of worship, preaching and teaching may be required to reach different groups of people, and the traditional sort of worship in an historic building, may be the thing that brings some people to an encounter with the living God.

(6) Your penultimate point urges us to do more to encourage men, especially young men, into mission and ministry. I believe the majority of church leaders and preachers in the UK are men, but the balance between men and women leaders is gradually becoming more equal, which most UK churches see as a cause for rejoicing. In our cultural context, discrimination between men and women is not generally acceptable, and in many of the mainstream churches, men and women are equally acceptable as preachers, pastors and church leaders. I don’t know what a ‘substantive Christian man’ looks like, but I don’t think many in the UK church are going to sound alarms if we don’t see them, or regard this as a crisis situation as you urge us to do.

(7) I don’t think there is a lack of courageous preachers in the UK, young or old. I would suggest that perhaps you don’t know as much about the British religious scene, in all its breadth and richness, as you think you do.

As you will see from my blog name, I am both female and a preacher, so perhaps that will mean you don’t feel any need to take notice of what I say.

But I remain

Yours in Christ

Preacherwoman.

 

P.S. I don’t actually like being referred to as a ‘Brit’. Do you like being referred to as a ‘Yank’?

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