Tuesday’s vote at General Synod

I was (and still am) utterly devastated by the result of the vote at General Synod on Tuesday.  On a whim I decided to go down to Church House after leaving work as early as I could for the end of the debate and the vote itself.  The public gallery was full by the time I got there at 5pm (unsurprisingly) so I sat with a dozen or so other latecomers in the overflow “Abbey Room”.

Every house at the Synod was in favour of the motion.  The overall number in favour was around 75%.  However, the rules for passing this measure were that each house had to approve the measure by a two-thirds majority, and the percentage in the house of laity was only 64%.  By six votes the measure did not pass laity and did not pass at all.

I was gutted.  Silently gutted, unlike a particularly unpleasant little (literally) anglocatholic man who was also watching in the Abbey Room.  After hearing that the measure had not carried in the house of laity he shouted “Yes” at the top of his voice.  Prior to announcing the result ++John Sentamu had requested that all those watching in the Church House were to please keep respectful silence on hearing the result.  Clearly this message hadn’t transmitted to this particular man, or he chose to ignore it.  It was an incredibly ungracious moment…

I will admit it – the legislation was not good.  It was not the legislation I wanted to see before the Synod, and was not the legislation I wanted to see passed.  I want our church to declare that anybody can be a bishop regardless of colour, sex, sexuality, whatever, with no exceptions, get outs.

What we had instead was a bit of a fudge that tried to provide “provision” for those who could not accept the ministry of women.  Those “provisions” were not far reaching enough for some, they were not “proper provision” – they voted against.  We don’t know who exactly voted for and against, but it is thought that some of the supporters of women bishops also voted against, as they felt the provisions gave too much away.

It was bad legislation, but I still wanted it to pass.  The legislation did make some provision (although clearly not enough for some) and possibly just, although I’m not sure, avoided enshrining discrimination in the legislation.  What I wanted to see pass would be seen by those opposed as even worse legislation.

The mood at Church House was incredibly bleak.  One young vicar watching with me in the Abbey Room threw his dog collar on the floor as he was taking in the result.  As I talked to him afterwards he asked me, “What am I going to say to my friends who I can’t get into church anyway?  What am I going to say from the pulpit on Sunday?  What indeed.

This result is not the absolute catastrophe some have portrayed it as.  There will be women bishops, and hopefully with no discrimination in the legislation; the majority of Synod voted for this legislation as did the diocese (42/44); and Christ is still risen, let us not forget that small detail!  The waiting, though, is ridiculous now.  This vote is hugely damaging for the church of england.  Anyone saying this was a good result for church unity hasn’t got a clue – I cannot see how divisions are not simply going to grow on this issue.

It has been a gut punch, something that’s left me completely deflated since Tuesday evening.  What made it feel worse was that I’ve been cooped up in work for the last two days (as you’d expect?!), when all I wanted to do was whatever I could to help and support those I love in the church I still seem to love.   There have been many female ministers/priests who have played such an important part in my life of faith: Annabel Shilson-Thomas, Maggi Dawn, Julia Binney, Kathryn Fleming, Carol Jones.  (So many apologies if I have left anybody out.)  How this result must make them feel I can only begin to imagine.

Leaving me so deflated could have left me wanting nothing more to do with this church.  Some people have talked about leaving: I can see why some people would want to run a mile.  But it hasn’t had that effect on me.  If anything, it’s made me want to get more involved, and help to right what I see as an injustice.  The church is hurting (as am I), needs healing and I want, if I can, to help.

Trinity XVIII

Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Psalm 26
Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12
Mark 10:2-16
“Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, ‘Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?’  He answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’  They said, ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’  But Jesus said to them, ‘Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you.  But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.”  “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh.” So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.’
Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter.  He said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’
People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them.  But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.  Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’  And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”
The allegations that have emerged this week and last about Sir Jimmy Saville are very disturbing.  I am not quite old enough for Jimmy Saville to have been an integral part of my childhood, nor was I ever a fan of Top of the Pops.  But I do remember looking forward to Jim’ll Fix It each week, and seeing what amazing experiences would be organised for the children who wrote in – often ill, disabled or otherwise vulnerable children.  I suppose I didn’t have a particular view of Jimmy Saville – that he was a good, slightly eccentric person seemed to go without saying.
Stories have now emerged from over a dozen women that Jimmy Saville used and abused his position of power and trust at the BBC to have sex with girls as young as thirteen.  These are, of course, allegations at the moment.  But there are concerning reports (some anonymous) from Saville’s colleagues at the time in the BBC that yes, they had seen this and that, or yes, they had heard this and that.  It seems that complaints had previously been made, the police involved, but no charges brought.  That these allegations have only been made now perhaps says something about how different our attitudes now are, particularly towards women.  Casual sexism in the workplace is no longer acceptable, and it is not seen as flattering (as it once was) for a girl of any age to receive the attention of a man, wanted or not.
What Jimmy Saville is alleged to have done is criminal, and if he were still alive then I suspect that prosecutions would follow.  What has been interesting is that I have not heard a single church leader, or any church group, condemn his actions since the allegations surfaced.  Not one.  It may be that statements have been made, and I haven’t heard them.  And yet, the conservative evangelical group in the CofE, Reform, at their conference last week somehow found time to pass a resolution affirming that  (and I quote) “marriage is a creation ordinance and a gift of God for the good of all. It cannot be redefined to include same-sex couples nor subjected to a distinction between ‘marriage’ and ‘christian marriage’.”
Priorities, priorities.
What is it that makes the church speak out on certain sexual “issues” (in inverted commas) but not others?  Why do certain more conservative Christians just never shut up about homosexuality and gay marriage, but we hear comparatively little about rape…child abuse…human trafficking?
I am not someone who believes homosexuality is wrong in any way.  That is such a clumsy way of saying that!  Love between two people, two people of the same sex, two people of different sex, is a wonderful thing.
But those who do think homosexuality is wrong, is a “sin” (inverted commas) must surely recognise that as sexual “sins” (again, in inverted commas) go, it is pretty low down on the list.  Consensual sexual activity between two adult partners, who just happen to be of the same sex, versus non-consensual sex: rape, sex with a minor, sex which abuses a position of responsibility, or which takes advantage of someone who is weak or vulnerable.  There is just no comparison.  And yet, which do we hear about more often from so-called Christian voices?
Today’s gospel passage is one of only a few where Jesus talks about sex and marriage.  There are others, but really not many.  I have heard this passage used as evidence that Jesus was a supporter of “traditional marriage” (again those inverted commas), whatever that is supposed to mean.  Some conservatives say that when Jesus talks about a man leaving his father and mother and being joined to his wife, and the two becoming one flesh, this confirms their view that homosexuality is wrong, and that gay marriage especially is wrong.  Jesus talks about a man being joined to his wife, not being joined to another man – that must mean that Jesus was against homosexuality, right?
Well, not necessarily.  The entire point of this passage of the gospel is divorce, not homosexuality.  Jesus talks about how marriage cannot simply be dissolved – in marriage two people become as one flesh, joined by God, they cannot be separated.  This is simply not in the context of homosexuality, whether it is right, or whether it is wrong.  I think the only honest answer to what Jesus said about homosexuality is “we don’t know”.  It is not discussed, it is not considered.  This answer will be unpopular with lots of people for lots of reasons.  Some won’t like the idea that Jesus does not support their own views on sexuality.  Others won’t like the idea that we can’t divine a view other than “we don’t know”.
It does seem strange that this passage is used more often to justify a view on homosexuality, not divorce.  I don’t why that should be.
Perhaps those who make the sort of anti-homosexual arguments I’m thinking of feel threatened by homosexual couples in a way they are not threatened by the prospect of divorce and remarriage.  Does a homosexual relationship between two men or two women as equals jar against the one-sided, male dominated view of relationships that some people still hold to?
Perhaps some people, however dedicated they are to their marriages, would not want to rule out the possibility of divorce in extremis?  The question of divorce is something that might actually be encountered in a marriage; homosexuality and gay marriage is unlikely to be.  It is far easier to criticise something which will never affect you than something which could.
It is easy to portray Jesus as a conservative on sex and marriage, but much more difficult to justify it.  In this week’s gospel passage Jesus actually displays a progressive attitude in this area, compared to what had gone before.  Jesus asks the disciples about Moses’s command about divorce.  It seems to be fairly permissive – ‘Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.’  Deuteronomy 24:1-4, for example, supposes that a man enters into a marriage with a woman, and finding something objectionable he writes her a certificate of divorce.  There were some circumstances where the right to divorce could be forfeited, but on the whole it seems it was a man’s prerogative to divorce his wife.
A man’s prerogative.  Only a man’s, and not a woman’s right.  If a woman was in an unhappy, possibly abusive marriage, probably no divorce option under the law of Moses.  If a man had got bored of his wife, issue her a certificate of divorce.  Jesus’s stance that if a man or woman divorces his/her wife or husband then they should not remarry can, if seen in the historical context, be seen as a progressive step.  Firstly it includes both wives and husbands being able to divorce.  It also puts a penalty on anyone who simply chooses to divorce their husband or wife and remarries.  That is adultery according to Jesus.
This doesn’t, for me, address very well the situation of a woman (or man) trapped in a cruel or abusive marriage who feels that the only way out is divorce.  If they get a divorce and then wish to remarry (hopefully to someone who is not cruel or abusive) then…is that adultery?  Is that forbidden?
Well, I don’t know (again)!  My heart says divorce and potentially remarriage in that case is not forbidden.  What do I have to back that up?  Not much perhaps.  I find it appalling when I hear certain neo-Calvinist theologians, John Piper for example, saying that women should remain in abusive marriages and submit to their husbands in accordance with God’s will.
Erm, I just can’t see (or hear) Christ saying that somehow.  I find it helpful to remember that Jesus did not come to replace the Law of the Old Testament with just another rule book.  Jesus said he had come to fulfil the law, to fill it full, to give it meaning, to show the truth behind it – to show us that behind it is God and God is Love, and Jesus is Love Incarnate.
If we approached things from Love’s perspective I wonder what we might see, and what we might see a bit differently.  If we brought fresh childlike eyes to any situation – the question of divorce and remarriage, the question about who it is legitimate to love and be sexually attracted to.  Any question about anything really.  What would we see if we came to these things in an open way – with eyes to see and ears to hear – without the baggage of what we had been taught and we had been told to believe.
Perhaps we might just find the Kingdom of Heaven.  Amen.

Trinity XVII

Numbers 11.4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Psalm 19.7-14
James 5.13-20
Mark 9.38-50
“John said to him, ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following us.’  But Jesus said, ‘Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of power in my name will be able soon afterwards to speak evil of me.  Whoever is not against us is for us.  For truly I tell you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ will by no means lose the reward.  ‘If any of you put a stumbling-block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea.  If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life maimed than to have two hands and to go to hell, to the unquenchable fire.  And if your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be thrown into hell.  And if your eye causes you to stumble, tear it out; it is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and to be thrown into hell, where their worm never dies, and the fire is never quenched.  ‘For everyone will be salted with fire.  Salt is good; but if salt has lost its saltiness, how can you season it?  Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with one another.’”  
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
The appointment of a new Archbishop of Canterbury is a nervous time for the Church of England, and for the Anglican Communion at large I would imagine too.  The liberals are worried a conservative will be appointed; the conservatives are worried a liberal will be appointed; those in favour of the consecration of women bishops are worried that the new archbishop will oppose women’s ordination and consecration; those opposed to the consecration of women bishops are worried that the new archbishop will support women in the house of bishops.  It is sad to say that we probably think about what we want to avoid in the next ABC more than thinking about what positive features we would like to see: prayerfulness, humility, a promoter of justice, and of course a deep love of Our Lord.  We fixate on what we are against, rather than what we are for.
Christians of different denominations, and Christians of different “flavours” within denominations have not traditionally been very good at getting along with one another.  I remember seeing very sad scenes from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem last year when physical fights broke out between Greek and Armenian Orthodox clerics during their preparations for Christmas.  This is sadly a regular occurrence.  You don’t have to think too far back in history to find Roman Catholic Croats at war with Orthodox Serbs in the former Yugoslavia.  The Thirty Years War between Western European Catholics and Protestants in the 17th Century killed, in percentage terms, almost as many people as either the First or Second World Wars.  The history of Western Europe is stained with the blood of Christians shed at the hands of other Christians.
And you do not have to look as far as the battlefield to find antagonism between different groups of Christians.  Aggressive assertions by certain groups of Christians that they are the only “real” Christians are rife.  The position seems to be that if you don’t subscribe to certain groups’ particular doctrines then you are not one of them, not a real Christian, and you don’t really know God or Jesus.  I find this a cruel and dehumanising attitude to take.  Why Christians cannot see past their differences to the core of others’ beliefs – Jesus Christ – I don’t know.
The disciples in today’s passage from Mark’s gospel seem to have taken a similarly dismissive attitude to someone they didn’t know who was performing miracles in Jesus’s name.  It’s interesting what John says to Jesus.  He DOESN’T say  ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following YOU.’  What he says is ‘Teacher, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he was not following US.’  Their rejection of this other follower of Christ is not based on some defect in this person’s relationship with Jesus, it is based on a perceived defect in their relationship with the disciples.  This other healer is not with the disciples, he is not part of them.  Therefore in the eyes of the disciples he (or she) is a rival, a threat.  He is not with them, so he is against them.
No, Jesus says, do not stop him.  This person who is doing deeds of power in Jesus’s name is not someone doing or speaking evil against him.  They should let him alone.  This person is not against Jesus, so he is for him.  This is despite not following the disciples!  Despite not believing the same things as the disciples.  Perhaps despite not believing the same things as Jesus?!  We don’t know.
So why do we insist on applying a stricter standard to others than Jesus does here?  Why do we insist on excluding others who don’t believe exactly what we do, who don’t belong to our little group?
Well, for whatever reasons we do it, we do.  And for us, this week’s Gospel passage contains a warning.  If anyone puts a stumbling-block before any vulnerable person who believes in Christ, the consequences will be so grave that you’ll wish you’d been thrown into the sea with a great millstone around your neck.  A pretty barbaric punishment!  It sounds rather like an ancient version of the gangster punishment of embedding someone’s feet in concrete blocks and throwing them into a river or the sea.
Don’t try to trip up other followers of Christ says Christ himself!  Why question what they’re doing and how they’re doing it if they’re doing it for God, for Christ?  Why put them to the test?  Why try to make them conform to our own way of being a Christian?  Why ask why they’re not following us, if they’re trying to follow Christ?  That is all that matters.
We are all guilty.  Not one of us is innocent of this, whether conservative or liberal, progressive, traditional, evangelical, catholic, orthodox, reformed, whoever…
There may be behaviour we find challenging in other Christians, and there are some things which should be challenged.  But perhaps we can move to a different way of doing that?  A way that doesn’t say “you are against me”.  A way that doesn’t say “you are not a Christian”.  A way that isn’t cruel and doesn’t dehumanise.  But a way that operates by love, instead of just paying lip service to it.  A way that recognises that everyone, even those with whom we don’t agree, is a beloved child of God.  A way that sees our mutual love of Jesus as central, as THE most central thing, rather than putting Jesus second after our own beliefs and preferences.
As the new ABC is being chosen, we can only hope and pray that he shares Jesus’s view that whoever is not against us is for us.  Amen.