Bishop of Wakefield: Why Christians need to find ways of generously living together

After an independent review found that the Dean and Chapter of Wakefield Cathedral did not do enough to accommodate the views of a traditionalist worshipper opposed to women's ordination, the Bishop of Wakefield responds.  

Generosity is surely essential to following Jesus. Indeed all that Jesus expects us to do in life cannot be done without a generous attitude. Generosity is required to trust God at the depth that produces a life of sacrifice, serving others and even forgiving in the same way we are forgiven.

When Christians disagree, it can be very confusing and frustrating for believers and non-believers alike. How can the Church stay united and Christians continue to be known for their love while also disagreeing?

Wakefield Cathedral is considering its position after a CofE independent reviewer ruled against it.Wikipedia

If we are honest disunity has always been a major problem for God's people. Even the Old Testament records the civil wars and family fights among the people of Israel, and almost every local church mentioned in the New Testament had divisions to contend with. The Corinthians were divided over human leaders, and some of the members were even suing each other. The Galatian saints were 'biting and devouring' one another and the saints in Ephesus and Colossae had to be reminded of the importance of Christian unity. The believers in Rome were divided over special diets and special days. Some of the members thought it was a sin to eat meat, so they ate only vegetables. Other members thought it a sin not to observe the Jewish holy days.

If each Christian had kept his convictions to himself, there would have been no problem, but they began to criticise and judge one another. The one group was sure the other group was not at all spiritual.

Unfortunately, we have similar problems today with many grey areas of life that are not clearly right or wrong to every believer. Some activities we know are wrong, because the Bible clearly condemns them. Other activities we know are right, because the Bible clearly commands them. But when it comes to areas that are not clearly defined in Scripture, we find ourselves needing some other kind of guidance.

In the lengthy discussions about the ordination of women as bishops the Church of England produced some guidance given in the form of the Five Guiding Principles and a commitment to 'mutual flourishing'. These were all agreed by large majorities in General Synod. They have enabled both those who were for the ordination of women as bishops, and those who disagreed with this on theological grounds to have an equal place at the table – whether they be lay or ordained. I trusted that those who voted for the legislation in the General Synod did so in good faith, and in full acceptance of its terms. It is a poor reflection on those who describe themselves as 'progressive' or 'liberal' when they engage in double-speak by taking actions that not only fly in the face of these Principles but are also profoundly ungenerous to a minority in our Church who hold to a valid theological position.

In 2018 The Faith and Order Commission of the Church of England published The Five Guiding Principles: A Resource for Study in order to give some theological commentary to the principles. There are many positives in this document. The commitment to mutual flourishing is defined, and spelled out: 'The fourth Guiding Principle asserts that those who dissent for theological reasons from the "clear decision" of the Church of England on this matter are not simply to be tolerated on the margins of the church, or respectfully accommodated within parallel structures that keep them at arm's length, but are to be enabled to "flourish in its life and structures".'

To 'flourish' has connotations of to prosper, to thrive, to grow – not to shrink out and die. It means prayerfully encouraging all within the Church of England, that they might prove fruitful in proclaiming the kingdom of God, not wanting any to dwindle or fail. It means not corralling some within the boundaries of their own parishes or networks, but providing space generously for all to flourish in its common life and in structures shared by all. 'Equal treatment, for example in relation to resource issues and the discerning of vocations to the ordained ministry, is essential irrespective of convictions in relation to gender and ministry' (page 29).

Ultimately, the Five Guiding Principles need to be credible. There need to be actions, as well as words, if the Church of England's commitment to 'flourishing' is to bear any fruit. Clarity of intent needs to give rise to definite action. For although we can give without loving we cannot love without being generous.

Rt Rev Tony Robinson is Bishop of Wakefield.