Change for the right reason

If the Church of England changes what or how it is doing things, it should be because it is the right thing for the Church to do.

Published 24 November 2012  |  

The process to bring in women bishops has often been painful for the Church of England and there was probably no moment more painful - for all concerned - than Tuesday's vote bringing down the legislation that would have brought women bishops a short step from reality.

A bitter pill is having to be digested by the supporters who worked so hard over the years to allow women into the episcopate, but neither are those who feel unable to accept it celebrating. It is genuinely painful for all.

It is of course easy for politicians and the world to look on and point the finger with the expected accusations that the Church of England is outdated, irrelevant and discriminatory. To some extent it is important to consider the views of the society in which the Church serves, but its first concern must always be God's will for God's Church.

As such, the direction the Church takes does not always follow what the world thinks, regardless of how silly it may look. The Church may well be outdated, irrelevant and discriminatory but this should be assessed on the grounds of whether or not it is reflecting biblical standards and living out its calling to be Christ in the world, not the opinions of finger-wagging politicians who have another agenda in mind entirely.

The Church has undoubtedly lost credibility in the eyes of the world, but this is to be expected from a society that is increasingly detached from the Church. People simply cannot understand the enormity of what the Church is undertaking after 2,000 years of male headship. They also cannot understand the biblical case for complementarity - where men and women are regarded as having equal worth while fulfilling different roles according to their special giftings from God.

Strong disagreements over biblical truth on this issue are one of the reasons why the voting threshold in Synod was so high – a two-thirds majority in each of the three Houses. The frustration felt by many that the legislation fell by just a handful of votes is understandable, and it is also tempting, as the Archbishop of Canterbury noted, to feel that Synod is being held hostage by a minority. After all, the majority of Synod members voted in favour and had the vote required but a simple majority, the legislation would have passed.

There may be a case for reviewing how lay members are elected. When it comes to major changes, however, there are several reasons why the Church sets the required level of consent so high. One of the more obvious ones is the need to get it right. Many of those who voted against the legislation did so because they felt that the legislation or the provision being made for traditionalists was not the right kind.

There is also the fact that very few want to see the Church disintegrate over this issue. The challenge at hand is not about whether women should be bishops; that principle has already been agreed. Rather it is about finding a way forward that everyone can live with. As the high threshold of 66% has shown, sometimes taking the next step altogether is difficult. This, it would seem, is the high price to be paid for unity.

Some political leaders may relish the opportunity to take the high horse over the Church of England right now, but they would do better to examine Parliament's own inconsistencies. While things may move frustratingly slow at times in the established Church, the almost undemocratic way in which the political system can be tweaked to push through unpopular legislation does not recommend itself either. The Church will be thinking hard in the coming months about what it wants, how it works and what it can live with. Among all the competing voices, may it be God's voice that is heard.

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