Women bishops: A lesson from Joseph

How should we respond when we find ourselves in a painful situation that we just cannot understand?

Published 21 November 2012  |  

I do hope my Anglican brothers and sisters do not behave like spoiled children in the aftermath of the Church of England General Synod's decision to reject the ordination of female bishops.

I fear this is a possibility though, given the depth of their despair and the sense of frustration they are clearly feeling. But it would be wrong to challenge the outcome on the basis of the rules. The debate was conducted under those rules and the Church needs to move forward with a sense of charity and purpose despite the clamours of the secular press and suggestions that Parliament should intervene.

This is not a matter of equality and the appointment of bishops should never be seen as a case of job promotion whether for "the boys" or "the girls". Many of those who have difficulties with female leadership are so persuaded because of serious theological issues and their consciences need to be respected, not to mention their stated desire to see their needs met in any future settlement.

The Archbishop of York may well be right to suggest that he will see a female bishop appointed in his lifetime and he did well to tell the Today Programme that "The principle has already been accepted by the General Synod. It has already been accepted by all the dioceses. So what we need to do is find the legislation - 99.9% of the legislation is there," he says.

But I would question his use of words when he went on to suggest: "It's this little business of provision for those who are opposed." Matters of conscience are from being "a little business". Both sides of the debate need to be aware of this.

The world will be watching whatever the Church thinks and the whole Church's credibility (not just Anglican credibility) will be affected by the tone and the progress of the debate in the coming days.

Those who welcomed yesterday's verdict need to avoid any sense of triumphalism. Indeed I am sure that if the apostle Paul were with us he might well suggest that they should avoid any hint of it. But those who were bitterly disappointed need to avoid any sense of bitter recrimination too. And it might help them to re-read the well-known story of the patriarch Joseph (See Genesis 37ff).

Joseph always knew that he was very special but God allowed him to go through a period of intense difficulty and hardship before he was able to realise his dreams. He may not have understood it at the time. Jesus words "what I do now you know not but afterwards you will understand" could easily have been written over Joseph's life. Looking back now we can understand why the years to come could be described as a "rigorous training programme". But hindsight is always easy. The Scripture is quite clear: even when other peoples' motives are wrong God can still ensure that things turn out right for us in the end.

And Joseph was able to see that, eventually, although he must have been quite confused at times. Instead of climbing high he was thrown into a pit. Instead of being someone important he was given a menial job, falsely accused and thrown into prison. And he was forgotten too. I wonder how many times we would have asked God 'What on earth are you doing?'

Jacob had been turning his favourite son into a bit of a creep but God was intent developing his character and his faith. And so, somewhat similar to Jesus, Joseph had to learn to deal with disappointment and rejection while trusting God at the same time. And he did, which is why he continued to serve his God even when he was in prison. Like Jesus he had to learn what it means to trust God completely – when all the chips are down and everything seems to suggest that we should give up.

And so through honest hard work, suffering and consistency Joseph was being prepared for his great calling and in so doing became a man who changed history as well as showing us what true faith is all about. We would all do well to ponder on that.

Reprints

More News in Comment