The Church of England and women Bishops: hope’s terrible beauty

Hope should be a beautiful, simple word. Hope, the Bible tells us, does not disappoint. The Shawshank Redemption told us ‘Fear can hold you prisoner, hope can set you free’. That resonated with a lot of people.

There’s another side to hope, though. One that’s also true, and altogether more painful. It’s encapsulated in a saying that springs from British football culture. ‘It’s the hope that kills you’. It’s a way of saying that when you feel your team finally has a chance of achieving something unlikely or long dreamed of, it’s all the more painful and frustrating to have that hope dashed. That fits well today.

Yesterday the Church of England’s governing body, General Synod, voted down some legislation which if passed would have paved the way for women to become Bishops. Although Synod actually agreed to women Bishops some time ago, what was up for debate was how that would work legally – how to allow it to happen, but still allow space and provision for those English Anglicans who feel that in all conscience they cannot accept the ministry of a woman Bishop. There are 3 ‘houses’ at Synod; the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy and the House of Laity (people who aren’t ordained). To pass, legislation needs a two-thirds majority in each house. This was achieved easily in the Houses of Bishops and Clergy. In the laity it fell short. If 5 laypeople had changed their votes, it would have gone through,

Pain was inevitable. If it had gone through, there would have been men and women feeling deep pain and anguish today about their future in the Church of England. This morning that pain is for those who long to see women allowed to be Bishops. There is hope, but it’s a hope that today hurts. Hope that women Bishops are effectively agreed to in theory, but the pain that this is not so in practice. Hope that this legislation was approved by most of the individual dioceses (a diocese is a Bishop’s geographical area of responsibility), hope that so many yesterday voted in favour, but pain that because of five the answer is still ‘not yet’. Hope that women are priests, but are not yet legally allowed to be Bishops.

Today it feels like never. I feel heart sore for those denied the possibility of what I and they believe is their God-given calling and right. There’s lots of hope, but this morning it’s precisely that hope which hurts. It’s the same hope which spurs us on and inspires as we wait for Jesus to return and remake creation to a place of no more pain, giving us glimpses now of what that will look like. It’s the same pain too – that causes us to carry on now, aware that pain and apparently unanswered prayer is also a reality.

I and many others are Anglicans partly because being one calls me to be part of something bigger, to challenge me to live in family and in relationship with those with whom I disagree. This morning some of us were always going to wrestle. Wrestle with what God is saying. Are we who advocate for women Bishops wrong? Was this the wrong legislation in the wrong way? Is it the right thing at the wrong time? What is the the Spirit saying to the church?

I don’t know, yet. I was born and raised in the Church of England. It frustrates me, but I also believe God has called me to serve from and within it. Currently I serve many miles away, in another expression of Anglicanism where women can be Bishops, where one was consecrated last week and another will be next year. But still I ache and cry and fear and pray for the Church of the England.

There is hope, but today it hurts, and threatens to kill.The time for discernment will come. It starts, though, with sitting in the dust awhile and feeling hope’s terrible beauty.

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3 thoughts on “The Church of England and women Bishops: hope’s terrible beauty

  1. Wrestling with the same questions as you. Part of me is angry that the debate hasn’t been conducted on proper grounds – it is all about ‘feelings’ and ‘valuing women’. One woman priest said on the BBC yesterday – ‘for “women”, read “black”, it’s as simple as that’ – that’s the level at which the debate has taken place, in the media at least. We do ourselves no favours that way. The real debate is about how we interpret what God is saying in the Scriptures and by his Spirit. Is God telling us to discuss the issue properly…?

  2. Thanks for that Dave, we needed a voice of reason, the pain remains but the anger must be set aside.Our eyes must turn to God and our support to the women, many of whom have played a large part in my life, who deserve better than this. We must move on and hope.

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