Today as I was listening to the speeches at General Synod I had a dawning epiphany. It was simply this – we need to vote yes and we need to trust that we can make the Code of Practice work as a Church. I thought the speeches by Justin Welby and Stephen Cottrell in particular were to the point – not only do we need to exercise grace (and let it be exercised towards us) but we also need to realise that this is a chance for us to live up what it means to be a community in theological tension.
And then we had the shock of the result. Although I had wondered whether it would be tight I hadn’t counted on such a failure to reach the necessary two-thirds majority in the house of laity. By six votes (which is actually quite a bit as a proportion of the House) the measure failed and with it apparently the hopes and dreams of men and women all across the Church of England. It is a very weird night this evening.
It’s worth just reflecting on a few points in the midst of the emotion that is flying around. First, the fact that we have a two-thirds majority ceiling for legislation like this is a good thing. It means we have to build consensus, that when we move forward we do so together. This is not a flaw in the system but in fact one of its strengths. In that regard we have to view tonight’s vote as the right thing – like it or not (and I have moved towards not over the course of the day) it indicates that we do not have a consensus to move on just yet. It’s a sobering thought, but it’s reality.
Secondly, this was not a case of men or conservatives voting against women. As the roll call of votes will show, many who voted no were either women, “liberal” or both. For example Tom Sutcliffe of Southwark Diocese, a notorious progressive, gave a passionate speech saying he was going to vote no because he didn’t feel the provision for traditionalists was sufficient. Others were like him. We need to take these voices very seriously- we need to listen to why they voted against the motion and see what it would take for them to switch.
And that brings me to the topic of moving forward. I do hope nothing hasty happens – we need to honour the processes that are in place and let things happen at the right pace. That means that it’s very likely that we won’t come back for a vote until after the next General Synod elections (and probably a few years after that). Unfortunately the downside of that is another decade of pain for those who feel their ministry is second best. There is no easy way around this though. Sometimes gristle has to be chewed and paths through the dark night walked.
When the legislation does come back it could take one of two forms. The first would be a single clause motion, no provision for traditionalists, just a simple “take it or leave it” approach. This would be a disaster dwarfing the catastrophe of tonight. Such an approach reeks of vengeance and intolerance. It has already been rejected by both Synod and the committees looking at shaping the measure. Just bringing such a motion, let alone passing it, would be a signal that liberals were actively trying to push traditionalists out of the Church of England. Forget the nonsense being written by journalists as we speak about “civil war” – we are not there now but a single clause measure would cross that threshold.
So what alternative? There has to be a way of providing a place for traditionalists whilst having women bishops. We have months and years to think about that solution, but may I offer one tiny suggestion for thinking about now? One of the key concerns I heard today was that without sight of the Code of Practice many conservatives could not support the motion as it stood, even if they wanted to compromise to move forward. So what’s stopping us drawing up the Code of Practice before the vote? We now have several years to do it and to do it well.
But that is for the future. Tonight is pain and grief and puzzlement and lament. Perhaps in the morning I will head across the Thames and join the Eucharist at St Paul’s Cathedral. It will be good to sit with men and women, probably a good mix of people I agree with and disagree with, and just do a simple Anglican thing. If we can share the representation of Christ’s sacrificial victory for us, surely it is not beyond our grasp to work out how to walk forward together?
Before the ending of the day,
Creator of the world, we pray
That you, with steadfast love, would keep
Your watch around us while we sleep.
From evil dreams defend our sight,
From fears and terrors of the night;
Tread underfoot our deadly foe
That we no sinful thought may know.
O Father, that we ask be done
Through Jesus Christ, your only Son;
And Holy Spirit, by whose breath
Our souls are raised to life from death.