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Momentous month

16 November 2012

FOREMOST in the mind of Justin Welby, Archbishop-designate, will be the tasks that lie ahead. There are the political demands, of course, both internal, about which more below, and in relation to society at large, presenting Christianity as integral, yet distinct, challenging, yet attractive. Then there are the financial ones. The C of E is not a secret society, where the inmost mysteries are revealed only after initiation to the top post. Every interested observer can know the constrictions on ministry caused by the shortages of priests, youth workers, administrators, etc., and the money to pay them. The Archbishop-designate is diffident about his business acumen, but this will have been one of the attributes that recommended him to the selectors.

The financial demands on the Church in the UK will appear minuscule when compared with the balance sheet of the worldwide Communion. As the dream of a body unified by a covenantal agreement recedes, new ways must be found to reforge the bonds that have sustained the Communion from its beginnings, in a world where an affection for England in general and Canterbury in particular can no longer be relied upon. Generosity is the key, and Bishop Welby's intimacy with Nigeria is clearly an asset in relations with the Global South.

His inexperience as a bishop could also be seen as an asset when contemplating these tasks. He knows from the start that he will have to rely on his colleagues. Having spent his formative years outside the clergy, he will have no inhibitions about looking beyond the bench of bishops to able laypeople. He is sincere and honest. They are already hard at work in the Lord's vineyard, and the Archbishop-designate has much experience and affection to draw upon.

First, though, comes next week's General Synod vote about women bishops, in which Bishop Welby's opinion will be just one among 477. There are many reasons for voting against the Measure: the provision for those opposed to women bishops is insecure, particularly for the laity; the ministry of future women bishops might be compromised by the legislation; there is, for some, insufficient agreement for such a significant change. There is one reason to vote for it: a belief that it is profoundly right to open the whole of the ordained ministry to women, and that, after more than three decades of debating, there is nothing to be gained by delaying further.

It is not difficult to share the view, held by both sides for different reasons, that the present Measure could be improved upon. But the issue for those contemplating a vote against it is not whether better legislation could be devised, but whether it could ever be agreed. If the present Measure falls next week, both sides are likely to put forward tougher, simpler, less compromising proposals. We see no greater prospect of agreement, and this is the view of roughly half the readers who responded to our question on this matter last week.

Whatever the outcome of the vote, the conduct of the Church over these next few days is all important. Moderation, sincerity, respect for those who disagree, trustworthiness - with these qualities in evidence, the Church can work towards a future when the ministry of men and women is appreciated equally.

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