Tuesday, 17 September 2013

A wobble over women bishops

It suddenly struck me with all the force of a battering ram as I was praying this morning, that I don't think I can agree with last week's decision by the Church in Wales to consecrate women as Bishops. Not because theologically it is wrong - although there are some good arguments to consider on both sides - or because I hate women. I don't - ask my wife. Not because women cannot do the job as well as a man can - in fact in many cases I think they can and do do it better. Not because men are better, greater or stronger than women - they aren't. Neither is it because I am prejudiced or misogynistic - although some may want to label any prospective detractors as such - or because I have habitually, traditionally or politically been against women in leadership roles of any sort. In fact when the measure to ordain women to the priesthood was first voted on in Governing Body I voted 'for'. None of these are true or the reasons behind my concerns. What did made me sit up and reconsider are a combination of the following which all seemed to cohere together in one bright instant:

First, it was something both G,K,Chesterton, a Roman Catholic and Bishop Kallistos Ware, an Orthodox Bishop, have written and said that started the ball rolling. Let's begin with G.K.Chesterton. In his 1929 book, "The Thing", in the chapter entitled, “The Drift from Domesticity”, he wrote:

"In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it."

For two thousand years the 'fence' prohibiting the ordination of women to the priesthood and therefore to the episcopate has stood strong and firm with no one giving any great thought of moving it until now. In all the concerns that have been raised, I cannot recall one that asks why this particular fence was erected in the first place?

The second quote is a similar one, and it is by Bishop Kallistos Ware. Although the Orthodox Church is against the ordination of women, Bishop Kallistos has admitted that he is not against the ordination of women per se. His concern is that the Church in the West should not have moved so quickly in reaching the decision on its own without the benefit of the wisdom and consideration of the whole Church worldwide, which includes the majority Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. In a talk he once gave he says that whenever considering any major changes in doctrine and practice, great care should always be prayerfully taken before deciding. He says:

“....it’s better to find out why a beam is in a certain place in a cottage before you go pulling it out because you've smacked your head on it a couple of times.  It was obviously important to whoever built the cottage, but maybe not to you.  People have gotten taller over the years.  The original builders never bumped their heads on that beam.”

The exclusion of women from the priesthood may be, to some, an irritating and rather painful beam that they keep hitting their heads on, but before removing it we need to ask serious questions as to whether it was actually playing some important, if yet unknown, function like "holding the roof up" over our heads.

The second thing that struck me arose from something a friend of mine shared with me over a cup of coffee. We were talking about the spiritually moribund state of the Anglican Church in the West in general, as well as the Church in Wales in particular. Things are not looking good for the Church I was ordained into over 25 years ago with a 50% drop in membership over the last 20 years and no sign that the decline is slowing down. Hopes of a recovery at present are poor as there seems to be very little spiritual life or vitality in the majority of our churches as we move further and further away from the teachings of the Bible and the traditions of the Church. Add to that, that many clergy are confessing that their own prayer lives are almost non-existent, and things are looking worrying.

Is this the right context - a spiritually bankrupt, unorthodox and failing Church - within which to consider a decision overturning 2000 years of teaching and tradition?  How can we know the mind of God in this when we no longer know the will of God for the Church as it now stands? With so very few people listening and praying how can we be sure that we have discerned the right answer?

Speaking for myself I know what a daily struggle it is to pray let alone listen to God. In fact the longer I continue as a follower of Christ, the more I wonder if we have not lost the art of listening in silence and prayer. As I read stories of the saints and the great works of spiritual masters, what strikes me is the hige contrast between then and now. Looking at the dearth of monasteries and convents around - an all time low in the West - we have so few resources available to teach us the lost art of discernment and spiritual wisdom and yet we expect the decision made last week to be the right one, reflecting God's will for the Church! How much was listening to God and how much listening to the world?

John Stott in his writings calls for God's people to practice double listening. To the world - through newspapers, TV, art and culture - and to God through prayer and reflection on the scriptures. But do we? I suspect that the first - the dominant voice - is allowed to speak far louder and longer than the second.

And what about the sinfulness of the human heart in all of this? As Jeremiah says about the heart?  "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked." Jeremiah 17:9  Can we be sure that there has been purity of heart in relation to the reasons for the decision made last week?

Third, and last, Jesus said: "When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth." (John 16:13). Who is the "you" Jesus is addressing here? Is the "you" the Roman Catholic, the Orthodox, the Anglican, the Baptist, or the Pentecostal churches etc? The Church has fragmented into over 28,000 denominations all claiming to be the one true Church. They can't all be right. For one small part then of the fragmented body to make such a huge decision on its own, and without any reference to the rest, is surely rather presumptive if not downright arrogant. Can we claim the truth for ourselves in opposition to others?

So I am concerned about where last week's decision will lead us. Or indeed if this is the last one made by the Church in Wales in isolation from the rest as it systematically removes fence after fence on the basis of its own rather arrogant claim to know the truth. In fact as I write someone I spoke to recently tells me that same-sex marriages will may be on the agenda of next year's Governing Body. If that is the case then we are in for difficult times ahead.

In closing I must reiterate what I said at the start, that the giftedness and capabilities of women are not in question. In fact without them I doubt the Church would still be here at all. What I am asking is if this really is the right decision given my above concerns? I have very real and sincere doubts that it is.

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