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Without theology, there is no hope

30 November 2012

TEN days after the women-bishops vote, the reactions show no signs of diminishing in number or intensity, even though they contain predictably few new ideas. What has been unexpected is the degree of astonishment expressed by the general public. This was partly at the C of E's inability to get its act together, despite years of debate, but largely, it must be said, at the suggestion that there might be something about women that disqualifies them from a particular post. However convinced traditionalists and conservative Evangelicals are of their cause, there is little sign of their having persuaded others.

In the light of this adverse publicity, it would be good if the Church could come up with a solution sooner rather than later. Many of the reactions we have heard, however, focus on the 2015 General Synod elections, which will, we are told, be all about women bishops. There is a surprising lapse of memory here, given that the 2010 elections were contested precisely on these grounds. The secretary-general is reported to have warned the Archbishops' Council that the Church faces a constitutional crisis. Internally, at least, we have what might be termed the opposite of a crisis: a reliance on the mechanisms of the Church's constitution to redress what people see as an imbalance in representation. This is not a bad approach: as in secular politics, elections have the benefit of capturing the electorate's attention, encouraging interested parties to discuss issues openly and cogently. But there is a better one, that acknowledges that the Church does, indeed, face a crisis in its relations with the public and with Parliament. The luxury of ignoring public opinion is not an option for an Established Church.

It is too soon to know what a solution might look like; but we can describe how the solvers might appear. First, the traditionalists and conservative Evangelicals need to think seriously about backing the sort of provision that they might realistically expect in the present climate. Second, the supporters of women bishops ought not to be satisfied with engineering a few more votes here or there. The Church has been proud of the way it accommodates minorities. The challenge is to provoke from onlookers the words overheard by Tertullian: "Look, how they love one another!" For this to happen, theological conversation is essential (as once attempted by the Rochester group), covering such issues as sacramental assurance and biblical views of gender, and simple justice, with an awareness of the social and cultural influences at play. Too many discussions of late have failed to rise above the level of politics; so there is little wonder that hearts have hardened. Theology need not be slow, although it does require a depth of engagement that we have failed to see in recent months. The worst thing that could happen now is for the opposing sides to retire to lick their wounds, vowing to fight harder in the next elections.



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