Sunday, 13 July 2008

....And From the Bishop of Durham, Good News!

The Bishop of Durham, Tom Wright, proclaiming news of happiness.

Thanks to the seven people to email me this, it is excellent, good news. Letters are also available on the Bishop of Chichester and the Bishop of Balckburn's websites as well as many others, echoing the wrongness of what happened on monday night. We live in hope guided by the Spirit of God, as always, as ever.

To the Clergy of the Diocese of Durham

Dear brothers and sisters,

So much has happened in the last three weeks, and so much is about to happen in the next three weeks, that there is no chance of me being able to describe or comment on all of it. But I do want to write briefly now, (a) to clarify certain matters about recent events in Synod and (b) to solicit your prayers for Lambeth as other bishops arrive from around the world to be with us for this weekend. I know that not all clergy and interested lay people are on the ‘Forum’ e-link; please, if you receive this and know of some who don’t, pass it on to them in whatever form.

First, I always thought and still think that it was a monumental piece of bad timing to schedule yet another debate on women bishops the week before Lambeth. It isn’t only that it was bound to be difficult and divisive at a time when we need to be getting together to support +Rowan in all that is coming up. It is that the press, and hence the general public, including sadly many church members, are simply unable to get their heads round the complex and slow pathway by which an item like this crawls its way through synodical processes. More than once before we have been told ‘we are now deciding whether or not to have women bishops’, and votes have been reported in that fashion. So when we reinforced that decision (which as you know I have supported all along) there was really nothing new.

Nor was the vote for a ‘code of practice’, and Synod’s rejection of any attempt at a single-clause motion on the one hand or a ‘new dioceses’ clause on the other, either totally new or completely final. It is indeed apparent that a considerable majority in the present Synod has no appetite either for a measure that gives no protection at all to continuing traditionalists or for a measure that effectively creates new structures, a church-within-a-church situation which might easily tip over (or so it is thought) into a church-outside-a-church. The trouble is of course that, as I well know, just as the strongest supporters of women’s consecration have said that they were opposed to any ‘code of practice’, seeing such a thing as enshrining ‘continuing discrimination’, so the (so-called) ‘traditionalists’ have said loud and clear that a ‘code of practice’ is not enough, so that for Synod to resist virtually all amendments, and then to vote for the ‘code of practice’, was perceived by many, especially in the light of the tone of the debates, as a kick in the teeth, a way of saying ‘we don’t need you’.

I am equally well aware, of course, that many of those who are eager for women to become bishops believe that this ‘perception’ of the ‘traditionalists’ is simply a ploy and must be disregarded. As a bishop committed to the unity of all our flock I cannot take that line, any more than I can disregard the pro-women-bishops position on the grounds that it is a mere compromise with secular culture. I have done my best to resist the all-or-nothing, black-and-white positions on these issues. There are some issues which are make-or-break matters. I believe (and successive Lambeth Conferences have affirmed this) that the question of women’s ordination should not be regarded as one of these. Knee-jerk adoption of easy slogans do us no credit as a church that officially at least still believes in thinking as part of the God-given path to wisdom.

The reason I proposed an adjournment to the debate – it was nearly ten o’clock at night – was twofold: (a) my frustration and sorrow that, having spent several hours debating complex amendments, we had only just got back to the main motion when everyone was tired and fractious; (b) my sense that the Synod was hardening in frustration against those who were trying to salvage what to them appeared a safe place to stand with integrity, and that this was producing exactly the wrong atmosphere in which to take a serious and meaningful vote. The fact that nearly half the Synod supported me – 180 votes to 203 – indicates that these arguments were not unpersuasive. A Synod which works in the way ours currently does is capable of getting into ‘moods’, some of which are less conducive to wise Christian decision-making than others, and we were in one of the less conducive moods at that point. But Synod voted narrowly to continue to a vote on the motion, which was then won in each House quite comfortably.

The irony is that the motion was substantially the one that had come from the House of Bishops. The Bishops, meeting in May, had devised it as a way of testing the mind of Synod, and I suppose it did that. But the Bishops also knew that, since they themselves were not at all of one mind on the matter, it was probable that Synod would reflect the same range of opinion, and so it proved. This brings me back to my belief that we were not yet ready to take a vote on how to proceed to women bishops: we have now several times voted that we should take that step, but the means are not yet clear – and Monday night’s vote does not get us all that much further towards clarity. It has created alarm and anxiety just when we didn’t need it, without actually drawing a real or final line in the sand.

This is not an exhaustive treatment of what happened then or what it means. But I hope it does clarify one or two things, if only making it clear how unclear everything still is! And as a result I do want to say very strongly to those who in conscience cannot accept the consecration of women as bishops: you know that I do not share your particular view, but I hope you also know that I do not believe this is something over which we should divide the church. The Lambeth Conference and our other Instruments of Communion have said there must be room for both opinions on this matter, and the Church of England made promises to people who hold those views, back in the early 1990s, which I do not believe we should break. I am not going back on that. There are many of you in this diocese and elsewhere who are enormously valued members of our team and I want to continue to work with you to find ways forward. Thus, though I simply don’t yet see how we can do it, I continue to hope that a way will be found to square the circle (as some would put it) and move towards the consecration of women while retaining the goodwill and loyalty, within the Church of England, of those who disagree. I should be utterly appalled if that should prove impossible, and I ask you all, on all sides of this debate, to join me in praying and working for a larger unity and the retaining of theological and pastoral integrity and wisdom. And please, while this process is going on, remember that in all these things we are absolutely bound by the basic Christian demands of charity and patience – which are not the same as ‘tolerance’ or ‘fuzzy thinking’.

The same goes, of course, for Lambeth. As I write, the bishops we are hosting in this diocese are arriving and being welcomed. I do hope that all who can do so will give them a great sense of how special they are and how privileged we are to meet them. They come from vastly different places – imagine the contrasts between the Yukon and Lesotho, between Texas and Tanzania, between Australia and Chile! – but are all leaders and shepherds of God’s people in challenging times. Please pray for and with them and let them know that you will be continuing to pray in the next three weeks.

We none of us know ‘how Lambeth will work out’. There are huge issues on the table, as we all know. The unity of God’s people is massively important in the New Testament, far more so than the western church has often realised. But it is never ‘unity at any price’. The ideal of Anglican comprehensiveness has meant seriously different things at different times and places; I hope we won’t be bombarded with people suggesting that Richard Hooker and the Elizabethan church believed that ‘anything goes’. Why would they have taken so much trouble over the Articles and the Prayer Book? It isn’t enough to say, with any new proposal on any topic, ‘we Anglicans are called to live with difference’. The question is, as I have said a thousand times, how do we tell the difference between the differences we can live with and the differences we can’t live with? The quest for an authentically biblical and Anglican comprehensiveness that will take us forward into this new century in worship, mission and ministry is what the Windsor Report and the Covenant Proposals are all about, and those are the markers that Archbishop Rowan has said, several times, must pave the way ahead.

It isn’t yet clear to me how the day-to-day process of the Conference will enable the mind of the church to emerge clearly on these complex issues. We need not only wisdom in discussing the actual subjects on the table – of which there are many (see the website, for full details) but for wisdom in knowing how to have the key discussions both inside and outside the official sessions. Please join me and millions round the world in praying for all of this, that we may not be derailed by urgent or angry voices from whatever angle, but together may find the way of wisdom, of holiness, of mission and above all of love.

Your friend and brother in Christ, and servant for Christ’s sake,