Is there room for trust?

I’ve been following the Church of England’s General Synod, meeting now in York. If you made it this far into the post, you’re probably a church geek, so I’m going to use some insider language. If you are the odd ecclesiastical curiosity seeker, this will give you the basics of what’s happening with Synod’s debate about women bishops. This contentious debate, as interesting as it is, is actually an outward manifestation of some deeper problems, including a massive trust deficit.

Saturday brought some stunning news, in that Synod narrowly voted down an amendment that had been proposed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. As it is worded, the provision for women bishops would allow a parish to request pastoral care from a male bishop if their diocesan bishop is female. This is unacceptable to many conservatives, who do not want to have to request delegation from their female bishop; they would like to deal only with male bishops. There were various amendments to deal with this in different ways. The archbishops’ amendment was perhaps the most subtle, but it was unacceptable to many, including a bare majority of the House of Clergy, which voted it down on a vote by orders.

Some saw this as a defeat for +Rowan Williams as a leader, but I don’t know enough of the situation to gauge that. For Synod as a whole, there has been a fairly consistent desire to enact the ordination of women bishops in a way that provides for those who do not accept the ministry of woman while also ensuring that there are no second-class bishops. The defeat of several amendments to weaken the measure as it emerged from committee is largely, I think, in line with what Synod has been saying for some time now.

Listening to the debate, it seems to me that General Synod is infected with a pretty serious trust problem. Absent clearly prescribed legal protections, conservatives do not trust progressives to make space for them in the Church. Liberals do not seem to trust conservatives’ word that their concerns are principled theological objections, not mere sexism. It wasn’t expressed in Synod debate so much, but many members of the church no longer trust that +Rowan is leading faithfully, believing that he has sold out to (depending on who you listen to) liberal or conservative interests.

As a progressive, the most noticeable trust gap to me is the conservatives’ unwillingness to accept a code of practice in which their space within the Church would be ensured. To read the press releases from the far right, you’d think that Synod had voted not to care for them in its rejection of the archbishops’ amendments. That’s just not true. The original measure provides for pastoral care and sacramental ministry for those who cannot accept women bishops. It’s just that conservatives are either unwilling to accept delegation by a woman bishop (headship?) or they fear that liberals in power will further push them out by unspecified means.

I am fortunate to live in a diocese where my bishop, who is a woman, has been arranging delegated episcopal/pastoral care for some parishes since she was ordained bishop in 1996. We have no legal requirement for this, but she graciously works with the clergy and lay leaders to ensure that their pastoral and sacramental needs are met. Her legal jurisdiction as bishop is preserved, but she permits other bishops to exercise episcopal functions as needed. It seems ideal to all parties. I cannot imagine why another arrangement would be better. This is just the Christian thing to do.

This arrangement also requires a good deal of trust. Vestries (PCCs for you Brits) have to trust that the bishop will approve their choice of clergy when it’s time to call an incumbent. Clergy have to trust that the bishop will say “yes” to delegation when it’s time for confirmations, visitation, or an ordination. The bishop, for her part, has to trust that none of this is an affront to her personally and that these parishes are not seeking to undermine the unity of the diocese.

Now some people will object that it doesn’t always work this way. It’s easy to point to a litany of offenses: liberal bishops who have refused to yield their authority, vestries who have been unable to call the priest of their choosing, and parishes who have been forced to welcome a visitation from someone whom they weren’t ready to welcome. But we live in a broken world. Despite widespread divorce, I continue to believe in the goodness of marriage. We can’t let sinful shortcomings define our hopes and fears.

The church could rise above this. Could we live in a trusting way? Could long-time opponents set aside years of bitter division? To do this would be to proclaim the Good News with startling clarity and boldness. If everyone behaves as if this isn’t possible, then we might as well say the tomb was never empty. Where is our faith? Where is our belief in God’s power to turn fear into hope, hatred into love, and scarcity into abundance?

I would love to see General Synod pass the measure as it was presented by the Revision Committee, with a code of practice to come later. This would mean lots of trust. Synod would have to trust that the Revision Committee considered every option and that this is the best one available. Synod would have to trust that the forthcoming code of practice is going to be something with which everyone can live. Conservatives would have to trust that they are loved, that their presence in the Church is valued, and that they will receive sacramental and pastoral care in a way that they can accept it. Liberals will have to trust that women bishops will receive the respect of their office and that those who have difficulty with this are people of good faith struggling to live the same Gospel as every other Christian.

C of E insiders will read this and probably point out that I’m hopelessly naive. Fair enough. But I’ve seen the terrible cost of mistrust and bitter division in the Episcopal Church and in the Anglican Communion. It has to stop. We have to learn to live as if the Gospel we proclaim is really true.

Imagine, for a second, a couple of worst case scenarios. What if we progressives are wrong? What if women really can’t be validly ordained as bishops? It seems impossible to me, but part of trusting another is the willingness to confront the possibility that one is wrong about contested matters. Surely then, in that case, the Church would benefit from the witness and the presence of conservatives.

On the other hand, what if conservatives are wrong? What if the Holy Spirit has been pushing the Church forward on this for years and we haven’t been acting quickly enough? Perhaps that seems impossible to some. Here’s the thing: not everyone has to move forward at the same pace. Surely there is room for a few stragglers while the vanguard presses on.

Either way, isn’t the Church big enough for comprehension on this issue (and some others)? A reading of the New Testament suggests there was variety of practice in Paul’s time. I’ve been reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s History of Christianity, and there has been considerable variety in belief and practice in the Church throughout its history, especially in the first few centuries. Moreover, there have always been heretics and there have always been those on the vanguard of doctrinal change. Why should this not be the case now?

My hope for Synod and for our whole church is that we can learn to trust God in our deliberations, that we can learn to trust those with whom we disagree, and that we can trust ourselves to have the courage to admit our own sinfulness — our imperfection, our need of one another, and our need of God.

If there’s room for trust, there is room for women bishops. If there is room for trust, there is room for those who do not accept the ministry of women bishops. If there is room for trust, there is room for grace.

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2 Responses

  1. Eric Gregory says:

    Fantastic thoughts, Scott. It remains my hope (as a “conservative” on many issues – though not of the validity of women bishops), that unity will happen. Not unity of thought (or maybe even of practice, given how vast the geography and anthropology of the Anglican Communion is), but unity in Christ whereby we cease pointing fingers (I am the chief of sinners, here) and embrace others.

    In fact, while my parish was in the beginnings of what turned out to be a split between those who could not remain Episcopalian and those of us who stayed, I made virtually the same claim that you make here. The “what if we’re wrong” stance is a mark, I believe, of great humility, allowing us to recognize that God’s ways are not our own much of the time, and allowing for our perceptions to change given new information and a quickening of the Spirit. I’m comfortable with hovering in the tension of “what if I’m wrong” as it constantly forces me to engage more with God and with those with whom I disagree.

    I look forward to much more engagement as I am thinking through many issues (especially those about which I lean towards the “conservative” side) with fresh eyes, and expecting to be challenged to do so even more at divinity school.

    Thank you.

  2. Chris H. says:

    I think you have stated the current problem exactly and it would be wonderful if both sides could still find a home in the church. How do you rebuild trust when everyone knows, or experiences problems like those you listed? And how long could/should allowances last?

    Second, how would you answer the “What if I’m wrong?” question. Whenever I ask myself that, I never really give a definite answer.

    Eric, blessings and prayers as you go to school. As someone from an area desperately short of priests who also knows someone who dropped out of seminary because he was afraid of losing his faith altogether, God grant great and wonderful things to you.

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