I understand, and share, the disappointment. Having taken the step of allowing the ordination of women, it seems strange – to a relatively uninvolved outsider such as me, at least – that the natural progression to the role of bishop has caused so much heartache, and has ultimately been rejected. And it appears all the more strange when 42 of the church’s 44 dioceses had already given the move their backing, it meets with the approval of the majority of church members and 75% of the General Synod voted in favour. (Who said electoral reform was only needed for Parliament? Representative democracies, it appears, do not always reflect the wishes of the people.)
Naturally, there are those on both the Anglo Catholic and conservative evangelical wings of the church that reject women in such positions of authority – albeit for different reasons – who are pleased with the results of the vote. Perhaps the negative vote will prevent a minor exodus by those who fundamentally disagree to the Roman Catholic church. (About 60 clergy, including 5 bishops, have already taken that road, along with some 900 individual members.) But the majority remain hurt, confused and deeply dismayed.
We will never find agreement within the church on this issue, that much is clear. However, I cannot help but think that this decision has been taken with purely internal perspectives on the table. Little thought would seem to have been given to the potential impact of the vote on the 95% of the UK’s population who are not church-goers. What of the good shepherd, who leaves the 99 in the fold to devote his attention to the one outside? Decisions within the church cannot be taken solely with the good of their members in mind; they must cater for those yet to come to Christ. We are called to be a missional community, the body of Christ, the Christ who was not afraid of offending the religious establishment or even his own disciples in order to demonstrate the love of God to outsiders.
The internal debates of the established church are of utter irrelevance to the vast majority of this country, not to mention equally unintelligible. But the results, and the media coverage, of this vote are not; these will only serve to cement in the minds of most that the church does in fact belong to a bygone era and is unable to move beyond its own petty wranglings to engage with what the country actually needs at this point in history. Any doubts about the church’s irrelevance will have effectively been resolved and bishop Julian Welby is left a difficult legacy with which to start his stint as archbishop. God help him preserve his missional commitment whilst navigating the tensions he inherits.
In that vein, I can only echo the words of James Jones, bishop of Liverpool: “I fear the next decade will envelop the Church of England in a mist which will make us more and more hidden from the rest of the world whom God has called us to serve.”
I pray he may be wrong, but right now, it does not look like it.