THIS week, the General Synod met in York and finally passed legislation to enable both women and men to be bishops in the Church of England.
For many it is a cause for celebration; for others it creates a time of uncertainty.
In December 2012, I wrote in The Yorkshire Post that the previous attempt at such legislation fell down on the failure by those who wanted this to happen to ‘hear’ those who needed a continuation of the provision for those whose consciences made it impossible for them to accept the ministry of women as priests due to their theological convictions.
On that occasion both sides had become polarised in their positions and over a quarter of members of General Synod, including more than a third of the lay members, voted against the proposals – a group that included myself.
There followed an outpouring of disdain and derision for the Church from Parliament and some media as it was clear they didn’t understand that the Church is both in and for the world but not of it. Ours looks to spiritual forces in the form of Jesus Christ, whereas a lot of the world believes and promotes the secularist and liberal agenda.
I remember having a particularly hard time explaining ‘what and why’ to Vanessa Feltz in a BBC interview. Other than reading the headlines, she clearly had done no preparation before our interview and was more interested in expressing her own views rather than hearing mine.
This week, however, it was a very different atmosphere in the debate, which was chaired with great sensitivity by the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, with most people signed up to reconciliation and a desire to show the world that these Christians really do love each other. This time I voted in favour of the new legislative package.
So what’s changed? In that same article nearly two years ago, I wrote that “the mission of the Church and the teaching of Christ have always been on the side of minorities and the marginalised in society. How much more then should it be practised in bodies such as General Synod and our churches”.
On March 21, 2013, the Bishop of Durham, Justin Welby, was enthroned as the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury and to me this was to mark the turning point in the way we as a Synod do our business, as well as relate to each other in disagreement. The Church is a family and all families fall out at times.
Archbishop Welby has a track record in reconciliation and has helped people in some of the most war-torn countries of the world find solutions to their problems. Out of that work came the idea of facilitated conversations for members of Synod with the help of professional mediators led by the highly experienced Canon David Porter, the Archbishop’s Director of Reconciliation.
The atmosphere in the Synod changed almost overnight as we recognised that we had allowed the legislative programme to dominate and polarise our positions instead of caring for each other in a Christ-like way as we struggled to find agreement.
Unusually, the steering group set up to find a way forward included both those against as well as those in favour of women bishops, whereas normally they have been made up of only the latter. I believe this was another factor in this week’s success.
Crucially, the new legislation includes the opportunity for parishes, as before, to pass a resolution to ask their diocesan bishop for the pastoral care of a male priest and male bishop on grounds of theological conviction. In the event of any disputes, the matter can be referred to an independent reviewer, a sort of ecclesiastical ombudsman.
The key point is that there is now a desire on all sides to establish a climate of trust within which all members of the Church of England can flourish in an acceptance of each other’s theological positions – this is not a monochrome church.
As Archbishop Welby put it to us: “To pass this legislation is to commit ourselves to an adventure in faith and hope... it allows us to move forward together, all of us faithful Anglican Christians and all of us committed to each other’s flourishing in the life of the Church. If I did not think that was likely, I could not support this legislation. You don’t chuck out family, or even make it difficult for them to be at home: you love them and seek their well-being, even when you disagree.”
• Martin Dales is a Lay Member of General Synod for the Diocese of York