Between time and eternity / nothing was fixed

Between time and eternity / nothing was fixed

The centrality of the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection

The salvation of creation, through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the defining tenet of Christianity. It is the most challenging, fascinating and vital part of our faith. Without it, Christianity is a moral code, based on the teachings of an itinerant preacher. But a moral code does not a way of living make. A moral code is not the foundation of a transformative faith.

No, it is through the decision of God to be man, to die and to make new life of that death, that we are made new. Our faith, our lives as Christians are rooted in the Great Three Days. That is the still point of the turning world. The atonement is the eucatastrophe of humanity.

This transforming moment is beyond comprehending – it is the working out of the Divine Will on earth. Yet it is also fundamentally important – because it is the cornerstone of our relationship with God. So we try to comprehend the incomprehensible.

The injustice and lovelessness of atonement theologies

Theologies of the atonement range hugely. At one extreme, Penal Substitution holds that the sins of humanity are so severe that they demand the ultimate punishment. Eternal punishment is the just punishment for sin. Only through Christ standing in place of humanity to receive that punishment is the righteous anger of God satisfied, giving humanity the hope of salvation. Other variants on this theology hold that Christ’s death comes in place of human death to Satan, or that it somehow does God the honour which humanity has, through sin, failed to do.

Such a view, however, has many flaws. First, it implies a time before the debt was paid  – the language of debt and payment is inherently temporal. It follows that part of humanity is beyond the hope of salvation. This cannot be a moral choice of a God who is love.

This theology is also rooted in the deeply problematic concept of original sin. Christ’s death does not, it is held, automatically win humanity the right to eternal salvation. We still rely on either living a good, moral life, or on God’s grace (depending on your tradition). All Christ’s death wins is the possibility that we might not be eternally damned. It wins the hope of Glory, yet the means of grace is still necessary. If we do not hold that humanity is ‘fallen’, there is no justification for an act of atonement – God’s grace alone would be sufficient.

Worse still, this atonement theology is rooted in an idea of justice, or worse of wrath and appeasement, which ignores the role of love altogether. To forgive without demanding reparations is surely a greater act of love than to demand the payment owed. Surely the divine love must be able to encompass such infinite generosity? Indeed, Christ shows that God can make sins as nothing, and not demand the punishment required by the law: Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. Is that not the definition of grace?

Indeed, if we are made free, then human failure is an inevitable result of our humanity. Only the Divine can meet divine standards. To be human is to fall short of the Glory of God. How, then, could God demand punishment for what is the essential fact of how we are made by Him – our imperfection? To condemn, to demand retribution, would be neither just not loving.

The deficiency of moral influence

At the other extreme, Christ’s willing death for sins committed not by Him, but by the world, can be seen as the ultimate moral exemplar, an example of what the Divine nature is, and what we should choose to be. Christ died, not to change our relationship with God, or to win us the chance of salvation, but to show us how to live.

Yet this moral influence theory seems to fall into the trap of ignoring the vital (in all senses of the word) importance of the crucifixion and resurrection. There must be something more to this moment than a mere exemplar, or exposition of God’s love for us. Something bigger must have happened.

The timelessness of God, incarnate in time

God is eternal and unchanging. To be otherwise would fall short of perfection. Again, God must be outside time, which He created. God cannot create Godself, so He cannot be bounded by time. Nor can He change, as it is the passage of time, of before and after alone, which allows for change. To God, there is no before or after; no before or after creation, no before or after incarnation.

“Thou art always the Selfsame and thy years shall have no end.” Thy years neither go nor come… All Thy years stand together as one, since they are abiding… Thy “today” yields not to tomorrow and does not follow yesterday. Thy “today” is eternity.

– Augustine, Confessions

Yet, this leaves God cut off from His world. While God experiences all existence as God, it is only through Christ that God is able to be human. The incarnation anchors God in time. Through the crucifixion, Christ lives out human suffering. Through the resurrection, He embodies human joy.

The choice of incarnation

And this is the heart of it. Through the incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection, God gives Godself to die. It is true that in this moment, we see God’s love for us enacted, as the moral influence view holds. But more than that, through the incarnation, which is eternally present to God, God continually makes the active choice to be part of the world and to inhabit our suffering and our joy. This is not simply a revelation of God’s nature, it is a fundamental part of His being.

What makes Christ’s death and resurrection so vital then, is that it changes our relationship to God. It does not do this by paying the price for our sins and satisfying divine justice, nor by simply helping us see what God is like. It does this by defining what it is to be God, altering God’s very being compared to a conceivable god which is not incarnate, or compared to the partial knowledge of what it is to be God which humanity held before we experienced the incarnation of Christ in time.

God is the god who chooses to share in the very worst of what it is to be human. It is played out, in its ultimate form, in Calvary. It breaks His heart, as it does ours. And it goes on.

Our relationship with the Divine is rooted in who we are, and in who God is. It is at the still point of God’s cross that we meet in the dance.

Between time and eternity
nothing was fixed.
One gaped at the other
across an unbridgeable void…

…nothing was fixed
until a workman took
a hammer and a wrist
and with one whack nailed down
eternity screaming into time.

Godfrey Rust


Overlit by Joy

Overlit by Joy

Last weekend, once again, innocent people were killed on British soil, by people driven by an ideology built on hatred and division. Lives were ended prematurely, and others were irrevocably changed.

I have written before about how we respond to acts of terrorism, and after three attacks in three months, it feels like I can say little which has not already been captured by others. I can share stories of people helping out, of little acts of resistance, whether fleeing pint in hand, or returning to settle up the next day. I can point out that acts of terror do little to increase the risks we all face in modern life (though this is no comfort to those directly effected). And I can reaffirm the importance of standing together. Of living boldly.

But there is one thing I can say, which has not, perhaps, been said before.

You see, London Bridge is somewhere I spend a lot of time. I sing at Southwark Cathedral, so this attack felt, in some ways, far closer to me than even the Westminster attack (which led to my boss being stuck in Whitehall). Indeed, just last week I enjoyed a curry and drinks with friends in exactly that part of town.

But on Saturday night I was nowhere near London Bridge. Instead, I was in the Cumbria, at the wedding of two people I love well, Matt (who followed me as an intern at Coventry Cathedral), and Ellen (who lived with us when she came to Coventry, and who was there through some of the worst frustrations of job hunting).

Matt and Ellen are people who live out, perhaps better than any couple I know, an example of love and service. Matt devotes his time to working with Refugees and Asylum Seekers, while helping churches in Coventry improve their interfaith relations. Ellen spends her days supporting children with lives far more complex and painful than I can imagine, as a learning support mentor. They do all this, while building a life together in Coventry, a city which neither of them knew before two years ago. And yet somehow, they always have time for their friends and family.

Their wedding was, then, an occasion which spoke of love at every turn. It spoke of their love, and of God’s love for them and for the world. It is fitting that they met each other as they met God in the waters Baptism. They are from a far more evangelical tradition than me, which meant their wedding was more openly fervent than many I have seen, and everyone I met at their wedding was clearly aware of God’s love for them, and of God working through them.

Put simply, their wedding overflowed with love and light and life. I did not expect to be named as a surrogate brother, nor to feel so very welcome and comfortable, though surrounded by people I didn’t know.

It was shortly after my mum and I got back to our B and B that we heard about the attack at London Bridge. I could barely comprehend the sorrow, full as my head was with love. And that is a great blessing. If, somehow, the joy of that wedding had been pushed aside by the London Bridge attack, I would have lost something immeasurably precious.

For me, the 3rd June 2017 will always be Matt and Ellen’s wedding day. And when other people speak about the London Bridge attack, I will remember their love, and their importance to everyone who is touched by their lives. Their wedding will not be overshadowed by the deaths of innocent people at Borough Market. Rather, those deaths will be made a little less dark by the light they cast.

Because light will always outshine darkness.

Sorrow is overlit by joy.

On Wrath – Holy Week 2016

On Wrath – Holy Week 2016

The following brings together on my responses to a series of addresses on the subject of God’s wrath, given by Rev’d David Stone, Canon Precentor of Coventry Cathedral during Holy Week 2016

Whether we like it or not, the bible says a lot about Wrath. It is alluded to often in both the old and new testaments, and while it does make me squirm, to deny its existence would be to ignore a significant part of what the bible tells us of the nature of God. Yet what it doesn’t do to any great extent is explain what God’s wrath is like. We see it in action, but, like so much of the nature of God, it is to some extent beyond our knowledge. We can only try to consider what is written in a wider context of what we understand about God and the world, and try to piece together a clearer picture of what God might actually be like.

God loves us. This is our indisputable starting point. He is deeply invested in our world, and our shared life. That means that our sins will inevitably elicit what we would think of as an emotional response; to suggest that our failures do not pain the Divine Will is to create a God at one remove from our lives, in place of one who shares in our suffering. Of course, God does not feel emotion as we do. Rather, what we recognise as an emotional response is something like what happens to the Divine Being when we do anything which damages our relationships with one another or with God.

There are two natural responses to such damage. As a child, when I misbehaved, when I was unkind or rude, my parents’ responses were typically divided between anger and sadness.  The latter feels to me more understandable, but they are two sides of the same coin, resulting from the same failures. The question is not if our actions upset God (though upset feels too weak a word), but what happens as a result of this, especially what happens after our brief span of days. The problem is that wrath seems to me to be inextricably entwined with punishment, with God taking out his anger on us in a way which is petty or capricious.

Consider – none of us can ever be perfect. If we were, we would be divine. This means that we can never earn God’s love, yet it is freely given to us and all forgiveness is an act of grace. Salvation by grace alone is a central tenet of the Protestant reformation. Thus punishment from a Being so much greater than us is inherently petty. If we are punished, we must either be punished arbitrarily, or on some remunerative scale, or we must all be forgiven. It is pretty clear that there is no remunerative scale in action in life – no Divine karma. Put simply, bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. So then, either God doesn’t normally intervene in this life (except as part of some bigger narrative), or He enacts punishment, in a way which is fickle or arbitrary. If the latter is true, then frankly He is not worthy of our worship. Last year we marked 800 years since the signing of Magna Carta, a document written to curtail the arbitrary abuse of power by kings. If we don’t accept it from our monarch, we shouldn’t accept it from our deity.

This picture is even clearer if we look towards death, when, accepted protestant teaching tells us, God makes an all or nothing choice. We are either damned for eternity, or granted never-ending bliss. If we are paid according to our sins, then why should those of us who have been a bit bad suffer the same punishment as those who have been very bad. Any eternal punishment is arbitrary, especially when one considers that we can never be perfect in the eyes of God. Any decision to grant some people grace and not others is frankly appalling. Eternal punishment suggests that God has abandoned someone, has given up all hope of their salvation, which defies the idea of an all loving and all-powerful God with eternity to act.

So, punishment by God is either obscure or arbitrary, and whichever of those it is, eternal punishment is logically incompatible with the nature of God. Yes, of course God is hurt, upset, angered by the times we fail him and each other. But He does not, He *could* not take it out on people who are never able to meet his standards and still be what we mean when we say God. A being like that would be known by an altogether different name. No, any punishment we suffer is self-inflicted. There is no time cut off from God (since outside life there is no time), but a movement, a dance around the Still Point, now closer, now farther away, but always in its presence. Sometimes we draw others in, sometimes we turn away ourselves.

As for me, if I am wrong, if there is eternal punishment for our finite sins, well, that is a God not deserving of our worship. If there is a hell, that is where we should all seek to be, because anyone condemned to that needs all the love and support we can offer. That would be a ministry worthy of our loving energies.

Except of course, that Christ already covered that part of the relationship, eternally and universally. His response to our failings was to suffer, to be hurt by our sins, directly and personally. And in so doing, to make them as nothing. His wrath lead not to punishment, but to embrace.

St Anselm thought that human sin inherently elicits, even requires some form of retribution from the Divine Being. The abhorrence of sin, to Love itself, so damages the relationship between man and God that it cannot be repaired without some act of reparation, some punishment. In that light, God’s death on the cross is a paying of the bill, which allows our forgiveness. A way to clear a debt which we automatically owe.

But that seems to misunderstand what love is, and to place to great an emphasis on a human view of cause and effect. Love does elicit anger or sadness when it is abused, but it remains love, which “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things”. To love is to accept failings (particularly when one party cannot but be perfect, and the other cannot help but disappoint). It is thus to forgive those failings, to be there waiting with open arms for the return of the prodigal son.

That raises the question of where the cross is in all that. Something about the cross feels like a truer reflection of the Divine Nature. God can be found elsewhere, but He is most Himself on Calvary. And it is more than just an example, an illustration of what God is like. For an eternal God, all time is co-eternal. Time and cause and effect fall apart, and all time is present to God. And thus, Christ’s life on earth is constantly happening to God. The incarnation and crucifixion are eternally part of God’s experience, of His very being. God is eternally choosing to be human, and to take the very worst of that humanity to himself, in the ultimate act of inclusive love. In that light, it is clear that He forgives through the Cross, not because the cross allows Him to pay off a debt that is owed for sin, but because the cross makes his very nature one of forgiveness. He could not be other than merciful. He can be nothing other than that Himself.

“…Our Lord descended into Hell

And found his Judas there

For ever hanging on the tree

Grown from his own despair

So Jesus cut his Judas down

And took him in his arms

“It was for this I came” he said

“And not to do you harm

My Father gave me twelve good men

And all of them I kept

Though one betrayed and one denied

Some fled and others slept…”

            Ruth Etchells

You shall possess the gate of your enemies

You shall possess the gate of your enemies

Being a upstanding Christian and a singer (actually, lets be honest, mainly being a singer), I have sent a lot of the last few weeks at carol services. During the many hours spent in candle-lit cathedrals and parish churches, most of my attention has been focussed on the music. But occasionally, I have been awake enough ‘read and mark in Holy Scripture the tale of the loving purposes of God’.

The ubiquitous Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (reworked at Coventry as the Dean’s Carols by Candlelight), from which I quoted above, does an excellent job of providing a summary of the Bible’s key events, from the Fall to the Incarnation of the Word, mixed in with some of the most beautiful parts of the prophecies of Isaiah. Yet this beautiful service, almost unchanged since its inception in 1918, leaves something to be desired. Its draws heavily on scripture but leaves no space for a sermon, for a chance to unpack what is spoken. That role falls instead to the music, which often offers allegory and commentary on scripture. Neither is there any space for the ritual which those of us from a more High Church tradition benefit from, to help us inhabit and live the experience. The result is that the scriptures themselves become ritualised, and there is a risk that we accept them without thought.

Such unquestioning acceptance is always likely to lead to error. I am not suggesting that the Bible is not divinely inspired, but I do take issue with the idea that it consistently, literally true. For one thing, to suggest that there are no translation or transcription errors is simply absurd, especially given that much of the Bible existed in oral tradition long before it was written down. But my greatest problem with the idea that the Bible is literally true, is that the presentation of God it offers seems to contradict itself, depending on what you read. Just contrast ‘God is Light, and in Him is no darkness’ (1 John 1:5) and ‘I will take vengeance on my adversaries, and will repay those who hate me’ (Deuteronomy 32:41).

Such contrasts are common – the general trend is that where the old testament God is one of wrath and vengeance, the new testament God is one of love and forgiveness. I tend to take the view that the understanding of God’s love which was most useful to building loving communities shifted. In an era before strong government, social relations needed regulation to prevent the fragmentation of an already marginalised, and frequently exiled people. A God of war and anger provided justice and defended the interests of a group which saw itself as isolated and alone, and in that way, was loving. He provided the kind of legal paternalism which, by the first century AD, was being provided by Empires and powers (what have the Romans ever done for us…). This meant God’s love could be more fully realised in other ways – in shaping community and human relations, in caritas et amor. 

But amid the hawkish appeals to the power of the Lord, there are still passages which reflect a truer vision of the kingdom of God. Isaiah is awash with them ‘The leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and the little child shall lead them.’ ‘They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain’ (Isaiah 11:6, 9). More interesting, though, are those passages which take a second listen, which make your ears prick.

When God and Abraham establish their covenant, Abraham is promised that his children will be a great nation, more numerous than the stars. He is also promised that ‘[his] seed will possess the gate of [their] enemies’ (Genesis 22:17). At first reading, this sounds militant. They will win sieges, and defeat their enemies. But that is only one interpretation. To possess the gate of your enemies means having control, yes, but it need not be warlike. If you control the gate, you control the city, but you need not have taken it by force. I could have given it to you. And in giving it to you, I have placed my life and freedom in your hand. I have put you in a position of trust, giving you the chance to break the cycle of violence, and allowing enemies to become trusted friends.

And that is what God is all about. Helping those of us who struggle with each other to get along, to build communities. Those of us who identify as Christians believe we have been entrusted with that duty. God has given us the gate of our enemies – the chance to change enemies to friends – and it is our duty to make good on His trust in everyone.

Unfortunately, as the lead image for this post illustrates, trust is something we continue to be rather bad at. From Mexico to the Middle East, we build walls to keep people apart. We have a tendency to emphasise the opposite of trust. We emphasise how people differ. What divides us. He looks different. She speaks a different language. They known God by another name. 2015, has seen these divisions emphasised again and again, from a refugee crisis, to foreign wars, and I fear 2016 will only see them grow. But hopefully, together, we can turn fear into trust. We have the power to change the narrative, to make the coming year better.

We may not succeed. The odds are stacked against us. National politics, personal power, community self-interest, all argue against global unity. But we must try. The city of Paris has defined the year, bookending it with divisive attacks in January and November, attacks which sought to heighten divisions, and emphasise the incompatibility of identities. But it also witnessed one of the greatest moments of unity seen for a long time. Less than a month after the city was left in fear and trembling by terrorism, 195 countries met in Paris, and agreed to a convention which would reduce carbon admissions as soon as possible, and limit global warming to well below 2 degrees. While the agreement leaves much to be desired, it is a sign of what we can achieve when we come together. It is not an easy path, but we must try to walk it.

Paris II – Finding Hope

Paris II – Finding Hope

As-Salamu Alaykum

On Saturday 14th November, 2015, I stood looking on the Cathedral of St Michael of Coventry, ruined and rebuilt, 75 years after the Luftwaffe raid which brought about its destruction. It was raining.

Those who don’t know Coventry’s history would be forgiven for noting the pathetic fallacy of such weather. The irony of a city coming together to mark 75 years since its destruction, the night after grave acts of terror had been wrecked upon Paris was not lost on any of us. There was a sadness in the air as we gathered. Every soul mourned for the 129 people killed less than 300 miles away and 24 hours ago.

But in Coventry, sorrow did not win the day, just as it had not won the 15th November 1940, when people had climbed out of air-raid shelters, or returned from beyond the city limits to find their homes and lives destroyed. The people mourned, but were left ‘not little, nor yet dark’, because they chose to look to the light.

I spent much of the weekend in and around the Cathedral of New St Michael’s, which stands for all that Coventry city upholds. For hope, for peace, for the healing of old wounds. These ideas lie at the heart of Coventry, of its Cathedral, of its people. It is a place which has realised that ‘the opposite of war isn’t peace… it’s creation!’

On Saturday, it was hard to hold on to hope. But everyone there knew the price if we lost hope. Hope, the theme of a global peace forum which had concluded only hours before the first bullets were fired in Paris.

There is a theology to that hope – a theology rooted in love stronger than death, and a God who shares in our suffering. But there are times when strict theology is only a hindrance. You do not need to be a Christian to bear witness to hope in the face of madness and destruction. Indeed, to suggest that only reinforces a polarised view of the world as good or evil, western or foreign, christian or heathen.

This was the way President Hollande of France felt when he called for a ‘merciless and pitiless’ war on those who carried out the attacks. It was that feeling which led 430,000 British people to call for the closure of all UK borders immediately.

But the world is not painted in black and white.

The world has shadows and sunlight, colours and depth. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said ‘the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.’ If Albert Einstein had known this, he ‘should have become a watchmaker’, but I would make no such choice. I would have the world no other way than that which it is. Without the uncertainty, the fear and the hatred in our hearts, the conviction, the trust and love would be meaningless.

We do not start with a perfect white canvas, and paint it black, nor with perfect black and hope to scrub it clean. We live, as humanly as possible. It is humanity which allows us to rebuild hate to love. To create what seemed destroyed. It gives us art and music, poetry and love. And that humanity, mixed with the means of grace, affords us the hope of glory.

So on Saturday, night we held up torches and phones, illuminating the night. ‘And the darkness comprehended it not.’

The Problem of Prayer

The Problem of Prayer

My thanks to David Neaum (Chaplain and Fellow, St Catharine’s College, Cambridge), for offering a sounding board for another aspect of my slightly weird theology. A good chaplain is an invaluable thing.

As a good Anglo-Catholic, I feel I am long overdue a confession, so here goes.

I have a problem with prayer.

I don’t just mean I am bad at it. I do struggle to keep focused – I end up either wanting to go and do something substantial (which is unhelpful half way through a Eucharist), or find my mind wandering to what’s for supper, or the mistake I made in the anthem. But far more than that, I am honestly not sure prayer has an impact, at least, not the way most people think.

The idea of prayer is that it allows one to develop a relationship with God. What people believe about the extent of that relationship varies – some people think that God sends signs as direct answers, or that they feel moved to act in a certain way. Some people believe in divine healing in answer to prayer, or even that praying will help them find their keys. But in all of these conceptions, prayer is reciprocal. It is a conversation.

Now, if we accept that God is transcendent (which is pretty much fundamental to the definition of God), then any relationship relies on God choosing to reveal something of His nature or will. But this suggests our prayers make God react. Indeed, in many cases, our prayers seem to be asking something physical of God – some miraculous intervention to bring peace, healing, winning lottery numbers, good weather for a wedding. Well, if God chooses to answer some prayers, why not answer all prayers? Perhaps some prayers are somehow not ‘good’ enough – in which case why is my prayer for a friend with cancer less valuable that someone else’s prayer for a successful driving test? What metric is God working from? The alternative is that God answers prayers on a purely arbitrary basis (since He could answer all prayers). We haven’t accepted that shit from our kings for 800 years, why on earth would anyone worship a God who behaves in such a way?

I can only conclude that God does not directly respond to prayer. God is bigger than that. All times and experiences are present to God, and part of what God is. He shares in all our experiences from, every mother hugging a daughter, to every three-year-old washed up on a Turkish beach. God constantly suffers and rejoices as we do. This is embodied in Gethsemane, Golgotha and the Easter Garden. But more than that, all our lives are constantly present to God, so to think of God replying is to misunderstand his nature. God will always act as God, because all eternity is present to him. We only experience God as responsive because we exist in time, and see cause and effect. Where there is no time, there is no cause and effect, only being. God is constantly giving Himself out of love for us. It is not just an experience for God, it is His nature. What we experience as a relationship is His very being.

So if prayer doesn’t change God, what is its purpose? He does not intervene directly as a result of some prayers because they are somehow better, nor on some arbitrary basis (though all prayers are present to God’s existence). Prayer does not reap some physical response, where God miraculously removes cancer cells. There is no divine voice from the clouds.

+Justin Welby, who we must assume is relatively authoritative on such matters, recently tweeted that “Prayer changes us and it changes the world around us, because it makes us more like Jesus Christ.” This may well be true. Inasmuch as Jesus was human and divine, He embodies the perfect ideal of wisdom, justice and love, and prayer allows us to cultivate such virtues. But it is not clear exactly how +Justin thinks this happens. If prayer simply offers the chance to focus our minds on what we should be thankful for, or what we need to work on, it is not clear to me how prayer is any better thank any other meditative practice.

If I want to encounter the divine, I am most likely to manage through poetry, art or music – something with a magic which can’t quite be explained. Such things are a way of catching a snippet of what God is, in an allegorical way. That seems to be what prayer is really about. Augustine believed that there was no meaningful distinction between the natural and the miraculous since every moment is founded upon the divine will of God. The music of John Sheppard, the poetry of George Herbert, the art of Hans Memling, the very buildings of Durham Cathedral, are all glimpses of, and responses to the Divine will. Prayer is an opening of the self to notice God in everything, and to make all that we are a part of this pattern.

G.K. Chesterton wrote:
“You say grace before meals. Alright. But I say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and the pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”

Every moment is an act of divine will, so all moments are miraculous, and every interaction with each moment a chance to participate in the unfolding of God’s nature. Prayer isn’t sitting back and waiting for God to answer. It is seeking the better answer in a world crammed full of God. That sounds like something I can get behind.


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.