On the 14th July 2014, something amazing happened. Something beautiful and reassuring. Something well over two decades in the making. Something which, for some people, will be unbearable.
A group of people accepted that they were wrong.
For those of you who haven’t worked it out, what I love about that date, (apart from the symmetry of 14/7/14), is that it was the day the General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England, voted to accept women to the episcopate. Of course, the first women bishop in the wider Anglican communion, Barbara Harris, was consecrated in 1989, before I was born, but that does not diminish the power of yesterday’s vote.
I cannot remember a time before the Church of England ordained women. The first priest I knew was also one of the first women to be ordained, and looking back now, I realise how lucky I have been in never experiencing a church in which the ordination of women has been a problem. Every church I have regularly attended has included women in the leadership team, either during my time there, or (in the case of St Catharine’s College Chapel) shortly before my arrival. I have never had to be a part of a community which, as a whole, could not accept the validity of the vocational call felt by women.
And yet, for over two decades, the possibility that women could have equal authority in the service of God has been an issue of debate.
Talk about mixed messages.
It is perhaps surprising that the typically more conservative USA was so much ahead of England in this, but that is one of the perils of an established church – ties to the official order tend to slow down change, as does the General Synod itself. In 2012, the last time Synod voted on the question, a small minority of the laity (that is, the people with the least authority to speak on behalf of God’s church) blocked the legislation. A two-thirds majority was needed from each of the separate houses of bishops, clergy and laity. Only in the house of laity was a two-thirds majority not reach, and there by half a dozen votes, out of some 200. This time round, three quarters of the laity voted in favour of the legislation.
A change from just under 66% to about 75% may not seem like much but it represents something important. It represents a view of how our Church should be, and, as Christians, what we aim for in the world. A world which recognises and embraces the gifts of everyone, rather than shutting people out because they don’t fit our preconceptions. It speaks of a church which sees itself as increasingly inclusive, recognising the needs of the communities which it seeks to build and support. Of course, some of this change will come from changes in the membership of Synod, but some will result from people changing their views, or recognising that, while they still disagree with placing women in the episcopate, their views do not reflect those of the majority of their fellows. This is a brave action, which will have elicited criticism from hardliners, but it is one which will have been taken after deep prayer and consideration. It therefore reflects the kind of Church we want to be – one which can admit its own failings, and tries to move forward, rather than remaining stuck in our out-of-touch ways.
Women are finally being recognised as people made to love and serve God in the same ways as men. And yet, a quarter of the elected laity on general synod oppose this recognition. This is heart-breaking. It is true that the house of laity tends to be populated by people of an older, more conservative generation (a generation which one day the current revolutionaries will join), simply because they tend to have more free time, and this slightly skews voting. After all, the bishops and clergy – a closer reflection of prevailing demographics of Anglican society because general synod takes a more representative sample of the clergy, and all of the (non-retired) bishops – have been, as a whole more favourable to the new legislation.
But this is only one step down a long, little-travelled path.
The fact remains that there are some people so at odds with female headship, that they will not accept a bishop who supports it. I know people from the same tradition as me, who, even today, feel certain that amazing people – people who I love, and who are proud to exist as God made them – are eternally damned, because of who they love, or what they believe. How can I, as a Christian of conscience, who professes a faith which holds at its core a message of radical love, do anything but condemn such views? And yet, I cannot condemn those holding such views. I may believe that they are wrong, but how can I be both inclusive and assert that my faith is correct? It is not the place of humans to make judgements as to what is possible through the grace of that love which is all in all.
All I can do is love.