18 January 2014

Women Bishops - the battle for the Synod

Today's news reports (Guardian, Church Times) describe the possibility of the first female bishop in the Church of England being appointed by the end of 2014. In November, the General Synod voted overwhelmingly to welcome the new women-bishops proposals, by 378 to 8, but the opposition hasn't been as obvious there. Instead the House of Laity, comprising members of the deanery synods or chosen by and from the lay members of religious communities, has managed to stop it happening so far. Legislation narrowly failed to gain a two-thirds majority among lay representatives at the synod.

Why did this happen? Because evangelical pressure groups are doing their best to swing the vote their way by encouraging their supporters to put themselves forward, first as PCC (church council) members, then as deanery synod members, and then finally as House of Laity members. This was very obvious in November when I wrote to the Guildford Diocese members, who replied that they would vote the way their conscience led them, not in the way the majority of the congregations in their diocese felt.

This is like an MP having overwhelming feedback from her constituents on a policy issue, and a free vote in the House, and still deciding to put her own personal point of view across.

We received two letters this week about the Church of England. The first was a very exciting one about the appointment of the next Bishop of Guildford.
The Crown Nominations Commission (CNC) will meet twice this summer to discuss and propose potential candidates for the role. As part of its deliberations the CNC – made up of the two Archbishops, six members of General Synod, and six diocesan representatives – will consider views from the diocese. If you have a candidate in mind or a view you would like to express you are invited to write to these diocesan representatives. Members of the public are also invited to take part in a public meeting in Guildford where everyone is welcome to express their thoughts on the needs of the diocese.

The really encouraging thing was the diocese’s Statement of Needs drawn up by the diocese’s Vacancy in See Committee to provide a description of the diocese and set out a desired profile for the new bishop. It is written in entirely gender-neutral language:
Person Specification
We seek a diocesan bishop who will lead us and work with us to ‘Grow Communities of Faith and Engagement’. We believe such a person will have and be able to demonstrate the following qualities:
4.1 A deep and confident personal faith Our new bishop will have a presence which makes the living God real. Love of God, humility and a life of prayer will equip the bishop as a godly and courageous leader. Theologically literate, and confident in scripture, our bishop will be a clear teacher of the faith, valuing and delighting in the differing traditions within the Church of England.
4.2 A clear commitment to mission and growth The new bishop will have demonstrable experience of leading effective mission, characterised by sustained new growth. The bishop will be committed to working with and building on existing initiatives, as well as offering fresh insights, challenging where necessary. An understanding of and empathy with parish life is seen as essential; experience as an incumbent is desirable. The bishop will affirm and encourage the development of the work of schools, chaplaincies and other sector ministries.
4.3 An ability to lead and to manage change creatively
We are looking for a creative leader, ambitious for the gospel, who will seek to inspire and enable rather than to direct, and to work collaboratively, sharing episcope. The bishop will have the breadth of vision to engage with those outside the ‘walls of the church’, as well as recognising how the diocese and the national church can reinforce and enrich each other. The bishop will be able to think about mission strategically, with experience of turning thinking into effective action. Senior staff experience (not necessarily as bishop, dean or archdeacon) is desirable.
4.4 A confident and competent communicator The bishop will be comfortable engaging with a wide cross-section of people, at ease with new forms of technology (including social media), and able to connect with young people and the 21st century world. Able to communicate in a compelling way with those who worship regularly, as well as those of other denominations and faiths or none, the bishop will need to work with the media and be a clear thinker with a warm and engaging delivery. Experience in working with the media is desirable. The bishop will be able to engage in dialogue across difference and to interpret one to the other.
4.5 A gifted pastor to clergy and laity A person of wisdom and integrity, the new bishop will be able to listen to and get alongside both laity and clergy. We look for a bishop who will encourage, motivate and empower others, building up confidence and self-esteem, and affirming them in their ministries, whilst expecting high standards and challenging complacency. The bishop will be able to recognise and utilise the talents and significant abilities of clergy and laity, supporting and encouraging vocations to all forms of ministry, fostering innovation where appropriate.
4.6 In favour of women’s ministry The diocese will welcome a woman as bishop when that becomes possible, although a small number of people and parishes would find this difficult to accept. The majority of people in the diocese hope that our new bishop will be unreservedly in favour of women’s ministry at all levels of church life, whilst maintaining the highest possible degree of communion and contributing to mutual flourishing across the whole Church of England.
And that final paragraph is heart-warming. I'm so pleased to belong to a diocese that may well have a male bishop later this year, but clearly wants one who is open to a successor being female, and is a diocese committed in favour of women's ministry.

Which makes the other letter we received all the more worrying.

This is from the Chair of the General Synod's Evangelical Group (EGGS):
Dear friends
The Church of England is often described as ‘episcopally led and synodically governed’. So it is in the Synodical structures that evangelicals must champion evangelism, advocate good strategy and contend for the gospel.
It is likely that – in the next couple of years – decisions are going to be made in synods of a magnitude which may either threaten or fracture both the Church of England and the Anglican Communion. It is therefore imperative that evangelicals participate at every level in the Synodical structures.
In April 2014 at APCMs in each and every parish lay representatives for deanery synods will be elected. They in turn will elect the lay membership of General Synod in 2015. On behalf of the EGGS committee can I therefore encourage you to nominate and support good evangelical candidates for these forthcoming lay deanery positions and thereafter encourage those elected to consider standing themselves in the 2015 General Synod elections.
Synods may not have the obvious ministry appeal of running Christianity Explored or praying for healing on the streets, but Synodical decisions do have the potential to build a church and culture in which these things are both supported and expected to be part of normal church life. It is also through involvement in the Synodical structure that evangelicals can influence the planning for and financing of church planting, the future shape of ordination training and the election of Crown Nomination Commission representatives who appoint diocesan bishops. In other words, there is much to be gained by full engagement with the Synodical system.
If however standing for deanery, diocesan or General Synod is not for you, we nonetheless ask for your prayers for those for whom it is appropriate to do so.
Yours in Christ
The Rev John Dunnett
Chair of EGGS (Evangelical Group on General Synod)
On behalf of the EGGS committee
(emphasis added)
So as a "good evangelical" I would need to push the candidates that would be against women's equality, against women bishops, and against anything else that doesn't fit their narrow worldview. Because if you don't, the Church of England will fracture, and who will be doing the fracturing? Yes, evangelicals.

I'd be very interested to hear your point of view on both of these letters.