Richard J. Hilton

Equality in the Church

Wednesday 21st November 2012

Yesterday I surprised myself by listening to the live feed of General Synod debating women in the episcopacy for about two hours. Why was I surprised? Partly because I was listening to it in the first place, but partly because I found myself split between the “yes” and “no” arguments. Whilst many of the arguments on both sides were a little ranty and filled with some quite appalling sermon-style illustrations, there were a sufficient number of well-reasoned “no” arguments that I wondered which way I would vote in good conscience if I were a member of synod.

So have I suddenly stopped supporting women bishops? No. Quite the opposite. I still believe that the episcopacy of the Church of England should be fully equal – no men nor women, no straight nor gay, but one equal episcopacy. However, I found myself becoming increasingly concerned that Synod was about to pass a measure that, in years to come, it would regret.

And yet, when I heard the results of the vote, I found myself weeping. The result was a very bitter pill to swallow; doubly so for those brave souls who have been working towards a solution on this matter for decades. Was this measure a flawed compromise? I don’t know, but I could sense the devastation of those in the chamber, even through a low-quality audio stream.

But we have to be patient. Perhaps God is moving us towards something better, but in the Spirit’s own time. On Sunday at 10:05 we discussed Mark 13.1-8. The conclusion can best be summed up in Stephen Cherry’s sermon at the following service:

As we know, Jesus was very astute about events and very astute about people. He knew that they derived a certain kind of spiritual solace from the very stones of the Temple. And he knew that this was misplaced. Time and again he told people not to trust in that which is ephemeral. He warned people against the wrong sort of spirituality and the wrong sort of treasure. He warned people to be very careful in the assumptions that they make about the true scale of values. He was ahead of Oscar Wilde’s famous quip about the man who knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Both might have saved their breath for all the notice that most people take. For to discover and hold fast to the truth, worth and value of things is a spiritual quest – a demanding and a very lengthy one.

And that is what I read in Mark 13 – when taken as a whole and translated locally. The past is a poor guide to the future. God is preparing for us a kind of living which we can no more imagine than a chick in a shell can imagine soaring in the sky or diving into the sea to catch a fish. And yet we have heard an advance report, we have been encouraged and warned. Not one stone will be left on top of another, not one red brick, not one barred window. All shall be changed. And all shall be well: by God’s grace and in God’s time.

The argument here is that we must focus on the end-game (which the Church believes to be unity with Christ) if we are to be in any way successful in our vocation as Christians. It may seem perverse to say this, but Amazon’s success has lain in a similar mentality (if we switch spiritual treasure for fiscal treasure). They focus on the end-game (which is, in their case I think, to be the dominant processor, controller, and provider of data[1]) and don’t let any minor hiccups (such as bad press or a few disgruntled retail customers) bother them any more than would a gnat on a hippopotamus. Putting to one side, for a moment, the perception that Amazon is not behaving ethically in many of its dealings (and switching back spiritual for fiscal treasure), the Church must adopt this very same mentality – the message of Mark 13 – if it is to be faithful to its calling.

Mud-slinging on Twitter and knee-jerk reactions by both the faithful and the media are exactly the wrong thing to do right now, but in any case are irrelevant. What should we do? We should pray that God will inspire his universal church to do whatever is necessary to fulfil the Gospel. If admitting women to the episcopacy is part of God’s “plan” (whatever that means), it will happen.

We must have faith that this is not the end, but rather the beginning. If we are patient something bigger and better will happen. Perhaps even full equality, with the Church leading, rather than following, society.

[1] Why not “to be the dominant retailer”? That is, to my mind, only one small part of their masterplan. Hidden from our eyes, they provide vast resources that power large chunks of the Internet; they slurp data from wherever they can obtain it; and they are beginning to control the flow of information directly from the producer (such as the author) right to the consumer (the reader).

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