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A hope of flourishing

29 November 2013

A KEY word in the latest round of discussions about women bishops has been "flourish". This is not the magician's flourish, with which a live, fluffy deal has been produced from a seemingly empty hat, though it might well be. It is the word that has given more hope and reassurance to the opponents of women priests than any other. It came from the working group set up under the Rt Revd Nigel Stock after the legislation failed in November 2012: "Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests will continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England will remain committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures." The word "remain" has helped, too.

Lying behind the remarkable concord within the General Synod last week was a reawakened respect for difference. When the extremes in the debate were antagonising each other, none could admit that their opponents had any justification for their views, much to the frustration of those who sought some sort of accommodation. Traditionalists were stuck in the past, conservatives were misogynistic, and liberals were thoughtlessly conforming to the mood of the times. After November last year, an element of realism returned to the debate. A representative working party was set up (admittedly not the first), and Synod members were invited to participate in various listening processes. What emerged was an appreciation of what would be lost if the "spectrum" of Anglicanism were narrowed.

Anglicanism is not a homogenised brand of Christianity, restricted and controlled by a hierarchy or a set of rules. Instead, it is a bold experiment in toleration, where its adherents are not expected to agree but merely live with each other. It is a modest ambition, except that centuries of experience have shown that, by living together, people allow themselves to be influenced and enriched by those around them. The breadth of views and customs within the Anglican Church is a source of pride and intense irritation.

The new concord about women bishops is still fresh from the packet. It is natural that the two sides will proceed with caution, encouraged as much by the promise of checks and balances as by assuring words. Traditionalists and conservatives remain doubtful about future preferment, and how well a woman bishop might represent them; supporters of women bishops wonder how welcome their ministry will be in certain parishes. But a vision has opened up that victory in this matter need not involve another's defeat.

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