Friday, 23 November 2012

An Open Letter to the church I love

There is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him. For, ‘Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’  (Romans 10. 12)

Since I woke this morning, I have felt compelled to write this letter.  I sat through the whole debate on Tuesday but not once did I feel moved to speak and offer a chance to engage in debate.  I never had a sense that I could reveal a fresh aspect to the struggle in which we remain engaged.  However, I now feel completely different and am convinced that in my own journey and personal struggle there maybe something that all those who share my love for this our church could recognise. 

The verse above has just ‘popped’ into my email inbox – it is our Patronal festival next week and those will be the first words I read at our Mass to celebrate the occasion.  The timing and their inclusivity leapt out at me and, with that in mind, let me share my journey with you… I hope you will be able to stick with it through to the end.

I had a shock when I turned up my first hustings as a naive candidate in the autumn of 1990, everyone was only interested in one thing – how would I vote on the issue of the ordination of women to the priesthood?  (And why hadn’t I referred to it in my election address!)  For me, personally, women’s ministry has never been anything other than obvious.  I am not a feminist and I don’t particularly like inclusive language; I’m happy to be called a son of God.  I was fortunate enough to spend my formative faith years in an open evangelical setting where our Vicar encouraged me to take an active role in leading worship and the decision-making process that is the PCC.  I was standing for General Synod because God had called me to that role and I was testing it.  My address spoke of the numerous issues that motivated me – principally how to spread the gospel to our nation. It was a BIG shock!

I was successful and joined Synod in November 1990 and have been a member continuously since the.  I was there in 1992 on the day when we approved the Measure to allow women to become priests.  I wrote a report for my deaneries after that was titled “No Joy” simply because for me there was none.  How can you rejoice when anxiety is etched on the face of your neighbour? 

As I approached this week, echoes of that day twenty years ago crowded my mind.  I tried to recall whether it had been as dull and miserable on that day too.  I walked into Church House and the tension was palpable. There were moments of great beauty on Tuesday – starting with our worship.

It is hard not to play “compare and contrast” when I’ve had the privilege of being present for both those debates and I now see that in that very exercise I may discover the potential of finding a little kernel of truth that might unlock the gate to a way forward.

In 1992 there was a real sense in which the debate grew during the day.  The speeches were traded across the floor in a respectful manner, of course, but the arguments were developed and built on.  A true debate ensued and by the end of the afternoon when we all agreed the time had come tens of people sat down and there was a sense of grace and generosity in the room.  Some brave people changed their minds that day and their response to the movement of the Spirit through our midst meant that we managed just to attain the two thirds needed in each House.  Though there was no electronic voting, and therefore no public access to how everyone voted, we each walked through a door in full view of our colleagues and friends.  I knew two of those who ‘moved’ in the House of Laity, both were women and both came into that chamber that morning thinking they would vote against the Measure.  The price of their listening was costly.

Fast forward twenty years and I have to admit that I was impressed by the level of speeches that we heard in the morning and again very early after lunch.  However, as the afternoon wore on the speakers become more robust and I detected a sense of entrenchment.  By late afternoon there was something that almost verged on ‘competitive applause’!  The atmosphere “hardened” perceptibly, which was illustrated by the fact that several people, a dozen or more, felt unable to sit down and tried to say something lucid and fresh within a thirty second speech limit.  I failed to pick up that grace and generosity I had sensed all those years ago.  It felt more like the battle lines had been drawn and my heart felt heavy.  The inevitability that we would not pass this Measure hung in the air as the debate drew to a close.  I should mention here though that in many ways we failed to debate the Measure as people stood and gave prepared speeches; there was none of the frission of the verbal sparring we’d experienced before.

So, we are where we are.  As a Synod we are divided; that is the reality.  As a Church we are, at best confused and puzzled.  How could the will of the Dioceses be countermanded?  As a nation we are perplexed, angry and increasingly distanced.  How can gender cause such a furore?  What next?  Where next?  How can we begin to pick up the shattered pieces of the church I love?  Of the church that we ALL love?  And therein lies the kernel of the problem…

We are where we are because we all love this church.  This crazy, broad, colourful, frustrating, annoying, inspirational, national church.  It’s in our blood. It’s formed our lives.  It’s shared our special moments – celebrating our joy and mourning our sadness.  We are all here because we want to be.

To all ordained women and those whose vocation has been tested and are in training I want to say that I share your anger and frustration, your deep pain and shock. It’s only human to feel all those raw emotions and much more.  I want to thank you for the new perspective you have given to our church, your ministry has been a breath of fresh air.  But equally, I want to urge you not to vent your disappointment in a way that fails to acknowledge the cornerstone of our Christian faith – to love our neighbour as ourselves.  Hold fast to the truth that our church, your church, wants to see some of you in the servant role of bishop.  That is undoubted and has been passed with a great majority.  I know many who voted against the Measure who long to see you take your rightful place alongside your brother bishops.  The biggest challenge I face in my life is genuinely to show Christ’s love to those I find instinctively unlovely.  To search through the haze of distaste and see God reflected in their eyes.

To all those who voted against the Measure this week I want to say you can trust our church, your church.  I know you feel marginalised and under threat, unwanted and misunderstood.  But, I heard the reassurance I needed to in the debate from those who lead us.  Their promise to continue to welcome, nourish and cherish your ministries was clear to me but obviously not to you.  I don’t want to be part of a church that loses its inclusivity.  I recognise that you have actively chosen to stay within our church, not to deliberately thwart women’s ministry out of spite but because this is your church too.  It formed you as it formed me as it formed our ordained sisters.  I completely recognise that in many cases it would be easier to walk away (as some have done) but I want to thank you for staying,  It’s the harder road to take but it does mean we have a chance of retaining our distinctive rainbow church that is the envy of many.  I believe that you have listened but I want to urge you to engage with those you currently can’t trust; to revisit the theological issues that are proving a stumbling block for some and to work through why the law of the land feels more secure than the word of your father’s in God.

To the House of Laity not just in General Synod but for all those who faithfully sit in our pews I want to say that I know we all feel perplexed, possibly even embarrassed.  I hear people all around me asking ”how did it come to this?”.  Recent history has shown that our House has always been on a knife edge when it comes to all the ‘big issues’ so this should come as no surprise.  What I would say to everyone in our parishes and deaneries is that we must learn to value and use our votes carefully when it comes round to the next election in three years time.  Take an active interest, challenge the views of those who stand.  We need  a robust House of Laity.  What we must not do is rush into anything precipitate or look for a scapegoat.  We must start to listen to and engage with one another in a different way.

To the House of Bishop’s I would beg you to remain firm, continue to show leadership and model acceptance of one another’s difference in love.  I think the Measure is a hair’s breadth away from being acceptable.  I would urge you to think about how we can bring it back in the life of this Synod, we must finish what we have started because we hold the collective memory of what has already been said; we have the responsibility to see it through.  I firmly believe we have time.

I want to end on a personal note because in the act of penning this letter I have been rather presumptive in assuming that I have anything distinctive to say to you all.  However, I feel that I personally encapsulate this struggle.  I’ve already shared my place of birth and formation as being from the very evangelical wing of our beloved church.  But, I’ve been on a journey, especially in the last fourteen years when my job moved me to London to live and work through the week.  My instinctive reaction was to find a church that I could join, that would be a locus in the week and provide me with a group of like minded people to meet.  God led me to a wonderfully eccentric church that has expanded my experience of being church and allowed my faith to deepen; even blossom.  This year, having been an active member for eleven years, the annual meeting agreed that I should shadow the current wardens with a view to potentially becoming a fully-fledged one next spring.  I know it has no legal meaning but I feel proud to be their ‘deputy’ warden, maybe even their warden ‘designate’.  That church is very much from the Anglo-Catholic tradition but in it I have found my spiritual home.  To say we are an eclectic bunch would be a big understatement but we share a deep love for our God and a profound love of our church, the Church of England.  It was to that church I went on Wednesday evening feeling drained and deflated.  It was there I sat next to my dearest friend who had voted against the Measure.  There, together united in our pain, we sought the balm of the sacraments and the comfort of hug of peace.  I love and cherish my fellow pilgrims who gather in that place.

I do not want to be part of a church that does not cherish those fellow pilgrims; it would be a paler reflection of God’s immeasurable diversity.  I truly believe that “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him”.  I urge each and everyone of us to call on His generous love that we might begin to see one another as He sees us and learn to humbly live out that love to those we find unlovely.

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