Conference Speech: Church in all its Fullness

Prophets of the Kingdom

Conference Address 16 March 2013

Church in all its Fullness #WB16Mar

by The Ven Rachel Treweek, Archdeacon of Hackney

Index to Conference Page for other addresses


Let me start by saying that I’m trying to make a conscious effort to stop speaking about ‘women bishops’. We don’t talk about men bishops – we simply talk about bishops! A bishop is a bishop. So I’m trying to talk about a process that will bring us to the day when bishops will be both men and women and on equal terms.

I also want to remind us of the General Synod motion passed in July 2006 which said that “admitting women to the episcopate in the Church of England is consonant with the faith of the Church as the Church of England has received it ...”.  Therefore our present journey is not about trying to make a case for women being bishops - we’ve done that - Instead we are trying to find the process for making that happen.

So having said all that, how do we live the path ahead to reach the day when bishops will be both male and female?

Over the next 20 mins or so I want to make a few comments in 3 main sections:

  • The Kingdom of God & hopeful imagination
  • Where are we now?
  • Living the path differently

The Kingdom of God and hopeful imagination:

The issue of bishops being both male and female is a kingdom issue.

The reality that bishops should be both male and female stems from nothing else but who God is and who we are in Christ.  And Jody has focused us on all that in her talk this morning.  Read Revelation ch. 21v.1-5: Even now we experience the Kingdom of God breaking out among us and around us and within us.... and yet not yet...  Those verses from Rev 21 invite us to imagine the future yet to come and to live in the light of that hope.

Some of you who heard the debate in General Synod last November will have heard me say this already, but in the months and weeks leading up to the Olympics, excitement was in fairly short supply in some parts of East London.  In the preceding months there were endless discussions and plans about potential disaster, transport nightmares, and local people facing crises...... And at times it felt as if the default position was fear and resentment.  Thank God there were those whose nerve didn’t fail, who kept with the hope and the vision - who kept imagination alive...

I think you’ll agree that the overall landscape of the Olympics and the Paralympics was not one of problem but one of joy and hope.

I said all that in my speech at General Synod - And I said that whilst it’s a weak analogy I think it captures something of the journey we’re on in reaching a place where women can be bishops in the C of E.  As we look to what will be, is the Church’s default setting one of fear and anxiety or is it one of hopeful and joyful Kingdom expectation?

There will be a day when men and women can each fully exercise the gifts God has given them whether as priests, laity, deacons or bishops.  Each called by God to use our gifts for the flourishing of all as we share Christ’s good news and wait for the final fulfilment of God’s Kingdom.

I wonder how many of you have seen the film version of Les Miserables? Whether you loved it or hated it I doubt you’ve forgotten the singing on the barricades in the scenes of the unsuccessful Paris uprising of 1832:

Somewhere beyond the barricade
is there a world you long to see?
Do you hear the people sing?
Do you hear the distant drums?
It’s the future that they bring
when tomorrow comes...

In our situation, there are no barricades and we are not fighting for a longed for dream that‘s an IF...

However, the similarity is that the music of the Kingdom is playing and we need to catch it on the winds and join in - Do you hear the people sing? Do you hear the very real drum beat of the ‘not yet’ which is on its way to greet us?

Hopeful imagination leads us to be joyful about what will be and to live the now with confidence.....Hopeful imagination also allows us to weep because what will be is not yet.

I really want to encourage us to keep our God given imagination alive and well.

Imagine that day when both men and women are bishops, and live confidently knowing that it is coming. Express your hope and joy even now..... And yet also imagine that day and weep – for there is a place for lament - To cry out with longing, ‘How long oh Lord’? That’s very different from cynicism or despair – It’s lament held within a hope-filled assurance.

So with the kingdom of God writ large and our imaginations inspired let’s pause to look at exactly where we are in the process:

Where are we now?

I assume that everyone's aware that in November last year the General Synod declined to give final approval to the legislation that would have allowed women to become bishops?! The measure fell by just 6 votes in the House of Laity.  We know the effect that had both on the Church and in the country more widely. There was therefore a sense of urgency to find a way forward.  [A week later the Archbishops’ Council concluded that “a process to admit women to the episcopate needed to be restarted at the next meeting of the General Synod in July 2013.]`” 

In December the House of Bishops committed itself to bringing fresh proposals before the Synod in July this year. It established a Working Group of 10 drawn from all three Houses of Synod to help the HoB in its task.  The working Group met twice in January and then invited 15 others to join them for facilitated discussions in the first week of February. At the end of those days the working group then reported to the HoB and a public paper was circulated (GS Misc 1042) – and people were invited to respond to the paper by end of February. [Before I return to the paper I want to remind us of the HoB’s decision that 8 senior women will attend the meetings of the HoB until such time that there are 6 bishops who are women, in the House - That’s a good example of hopeful imagination – Living confidently in the light of the future reality!].

Back to the paper GS Misc 1042: Personally I think the paper has brought helpful clarity to where we are now and what we’re not going to do in any new proposals:

We are not going back to the rejected measure to start playing about with it again - that one is dead in the water.  It’s also reassuring to know that we’re not going to be revisiting questions around jurisdiction and the position of the diocesan bishop. Equally, we are not going to revisit the idea of new formal structures separate from existing dioceses; and we’re not going to revisit proposals for transferring the diocesan bishop’s authority.  It is agreed that all bishops should have the same powers and responsibilities regardless of their gender.   For me, all of that is a cause for celebration.

It is also agreed that as far as is possible, Synod should be assessing a complete package of proposals -  (You may recall that in November we did not have the code of practice before us - only the Measure and a draft code of practice. That allowed for too much suspicion and a lack of trust about what the code of practice might end up looking like).

So all of that brings us to what the paper states as the two things we need to satisfy with any new proposals: 

Firstly, it says there needs to be a shorter, simpler measure than the one that was defeated; and secondly it says that the package needs to provide a greater sense of security for the minority as having an accepted and valued place in the Church of England while not involving the majority in any new element of compromise.

Personally, I do indeed want simple legislation – something akin to a one clause measure that simply enables bishops to be both men and women; but I’d also like the legislation to encompass a commitment to sacramental and pastoral provision for those who cannot accept the authority of a female priest or bishop (based, of course, only on theological conviction)......But I want all that to be worked out not in convoluted legislation but primarily in relationship and trust... That’s what is lived extremely well in other parts of the Anglican Communion in which there are bishops who are women.

In terms of the package needing to “provide a greater sense of security for the minority”, I am utterly committed to accepting and valuing the minority and making it clear that those people have  a place in the Church of England....But my attitude towards the people who form the minority is very different from my attitude towards the theological convictions held by those people. I am personally not willing to say ‘yes’ to anything which means that I am endorsing theological convictions about sacramental assurance or male headship. For me that’s a matter of personal integrity.

Equally those who hold different views from me would say that they don’t want to endorse my views and that’s a matter of integrity for them. I understand that.  And so we’re back to the squaring of the circle. The way ahead has to be built on trust and genuine respect for difference.

Interestingly there has been no official communication since the Working Group met again in March and I suspect that’s because the issue of squaring the circle has once more come to the fore.  The House of Bishops will meet in May and they will have to take decisions on what proposals they bring to the Synod in July.

One of the tensions for me is that we need to find a pragmatic proposal that will achieve the required vote in Synod and yet we must not lose sight of the need for a permanent solution that will enable us to be the Church reflecting the Kingdom of God.

Personally I want to have a Church in which we not only have bishops who are male and female but also some bishops who reflect those theological convictions regarding sacramental assurance and male headship. That’s not because I endorse those views but because if the way forward is going to one of trust and respect, then we need bishops who can be invited by fellow bishops to be involved with the pastoral and sacramental care of specific churches.

Having said that, I don’t want the same diocese or Episcopal Area to always have bishops of the same flavour; But if every time someone who won’t priest women is rejected as a possible Episcopal candidate simply on the grounds of their theological conviction about women priest and bishops (rather than how they’d live it out), then I think we have a problem...

But back to next July: Personally, I can’t yet see how new proposals can come to the current GS and be acceptable to all such that a 2/3 majority could be achieved in each House in the life of this particular General synod - but I will never say never - God is God.

What I do strongly believe is that at the moment we are all missing something crucial... And that brings me to my third headline:

Living the path differently:

Amidst the noise of anxiety, frustration and indignation, I have a sense that we are in serious danger of ignoring the still small voice of God imploring us to be prophetic in the world.   I believe that God is asking us to live our conflict differently in a world which desperately needs to understand how to live with tension and difference.

Conflict is normal – It’s part of everyday life. Conflict is not what’s going on over there in far away places - Conflict is in the warp and weft of our life together as people on this earth, and so it will be until the fulfilment of that glorious picture in Revelation ch 21.

The key thing is how we live with conflict.

Transformed conflict is at the heart of our Gospel and it’s what we live out in our Eucharistic worship: we move from a place of confession to a place of absolution; we share Christ’s peace; we receive the bread and wine and recall Christ’s death in a place of deep conflict and we celebrate his resurrection = conflict transformed.  At the end of our worship, we are blessed and sent out as people of difference - equal members of Christ’s Body.

Why then as followers of Christ do we so often move away from each other and not towards each other?

If this whole issue of bishops is a Kingdom issue; and if daily we pray ‘your Kingdom come’; And if we go on to pray ‘forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us’ ...  then I believe we all have a lot to answer for before God about how we live this walk and witness to the world for which God gave himself so generously.

The living of the process by which we reach a place where men and women are bishops is as important as the outcome. Sometimes it seems that we are so focused on the outcome that we fail to hear God’s voice about how we walk the walk.  I believe that this is a time to commit to building relationship and trust with those who have different views from us.   I’m not talking  about ‘niceness’,  and I’m not talking about a commitment to a  grey fog which lacks clarity as everyone holds out to find some golden trophy of consensus. This is indeed a time for stronger definition and clarity - But that doesn’t exclude a commitment to building relationship within which there’s challenge and robust conversation...and hearts of flesh.  God promised to give his people a heart of flesh not stone (Ezekiel 36v.26) Hearts of flesh experience hope and joy. Hearts of flesh also experience pain.

It’s important for each of us to go on discovering who we are and what we believe and to live it, and speak it – It’s part of what we call self-differentiation. From that place there can be a gracious commitment to staying connected with those who are different from oneself.

Be willing to be vulnerable. Don’t let that which is different become that of which you are fearful. Don’t back off or lose nerve; Be open to robust conversation...but with a fleshy heart.

I mentioned the barricade scenes in Les Miserables. This is not a time for building barricades or retreating to them, and this is not war. And the language of winning and defeat doesn’t shape the right landscape - I would love to encourage every one of us here to take a conscious decision to build relationship and develop conversation with one or two people who have very different theological views on this matter from you. And not to simply meet to talk over this issue but to meet and to share your story – To dare to be vulnerable with one another.

How can we walk this path as one in which story and human encounter increases and articulating theological positions in ever louder voices, decreases?

Some of the conversations I have engaged in with others have been very precious encounters.  It’s not about trying to persuade one another . It is about meeting as human beings and endeavouring to build trust and gracious relationship whilst still holding passionately different perspectives.  It’s time consuming; it’s costly; it can be frustrating and painful for all ... but I believe it’s the stuff of the Kingdom of God.

Before I finish a few practical challenges:

Think of your church community:  Which girls are you identifying now as future leaders as you recognise their God-given gifts? And how are you mentoring them? How are you exciting them about the reality of the future?

Incidentally in this path of hopeful imagination, who is mentoring the black, asian and ethnic minority young people? It’s no good wondering why we don’t fully reflect God’s glorious diversity in our leadership if we’re not all taking responsibility for nurturing it as we imagine the future with hope.

What roles are girls and women fulfilling in your churches as you live with hopeful imagination?

Having said that, may I say that I hate it when I go to churches when all those upfront are women. OK so it’s no different from what we had for years with men doing everything -  But that’s the point: It’s no different and it still doesn’t look like Kingdom.

If we are not going to get legislation through in the life time of this GS then how are you thinking strategically?

The Deanery Synod members are the ones who vote for the GS members so who in your church are you beginning to encourage to stand for Deanery Synod next year, in 2014? There are mission-minded and big-picture people who serve on Deanery Synod - we just need even more of them.

And which lay people are you identifying to stand for the next GS which will begin in November 2015? Anyone can stand if they are on an electoral roll.

Obviously, we don’t want it to be a one issue Synod. We want people who will engage with the Church’s mission and ministry across the board, but we also need people who long to see women in the episcopate and who won’t lose their nerve simply because they can’t square the circle.

And most importantly, when people stand for Deanery Synod in your church, and when people stand for GS in your diocese, do you question them about what they mean when they say they value the ministry of women?  Do you ask them direct questions about how they understand the ministry of women as priests and bishops?

Do you have hustings in your diocese when it comes to those standing for GS? If not, push for it, and if you can’t get hustings, then do your homework and go and interview the candidates and let those on Deanery Synod know what you discover.

And please make sure that your Deanery Synod members actually participate in the voting process for GS.

Let me end by stating the most obvious thing: We need to be praying.

Lent is a very appropriate time for this conference today. In Lent we walk the pain of the way of the cross but with the hope of resurrection on the horizon. For me, Holy Saturday, the day after Good Friday, is one of the most powerful days of the year because it reflects where we live our lives:  between the pain of death and the confident joyful hope of resurrection.

This journey towards a Church in which bishops are both men and women is a Holy Saturday walk. We need to live it well, with hopeful imagination, praying for God’s Kingdom to come and God’s will to be done on earth as in heaven.



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