The fallout from the failure of the women bishops measure has been depressingly predictable. Disappointed supporters have spared us no doomsday scenario, insisting that the church has committed suicide, that the world is looking on in contempt and that women clergy will resign en masse. Yet is it possible to suggest that rather than being a catastrophe, what has happened is actually a blessing in disguise? The minority has long accepted that women will eventually be consecrated bishops and has sought only adequate provision for those who cannot accept them. This provision has been denied because a majority confident of victory has felt able to make no more than minimal concessions. The final vote exploded this comfortable assumption and made it necessary to think again, and it is here that opportunity beckons.
The new archbishop of Canterbury is known to favour women bishops but he now has the chance to rise above the fray and demonstrate real statesmanship by telling his fellow supporters that they have brought this result on themselves by their unwillingness to compromise. A man who shares the same outlook is well placed to do this, and Bishop Welby has the advantage that he does not carry the baggage of the past decade. If he can muster the courage to tackle the failings of his own side, rather than succumb to the temptation to blame the other, perhaps a solution acceptable to all will be found sooner than anyone thinks possible.
In the mindset of the majority, the notion that God’s will might not be identical to theirs is a new thought that they will need to take on board. They will find this difficult, just as the minority once did, but the road which the latter has successfully travelled must now be taken by them too.
The second urgent task facing the new archbishop is the need to convince the minority that they will be protected and encouraged to develop their ministry and service to the church. Many of them feel that they have been pushed aside in the rush to embrace change and fear that in any new legislation, push will turn to shove. The comments made by some supporters of the measure have done nothing to reassure them, and here Bishop Welby has another great opportunity to act constructively. Rather than trying to see how much the minority will concede, he can bend over backwards to tell them that the majority will meet their concerns in a spirit of generosity and understanding. The minority knows that it will not get everything it wants, but there is much more that it can be offered and the task now is to lay that on the table and move forward. The inevitable cries of dissent from WATCH can be faced down by calling their bluff. Would they really vote against women bishops because they want to be mean to their opponents?
Most important of all, the new archbishop now has the chance to bring God back into the picture. A spirit of repentance and submission to his will is desperately needed, and it must be clear that this is not just another way of manipulating popular opinion in order to push the original agenda through. The church is meant to be a community of love, and love is shown most clearly in the way that we treat those who disagree with us. It is the duty of the majority to take the lead and demonstrate to the minority that its fears are unfounded by showing it that they take its objections seriously. This will not be easy, but it is the way of the cross and the true witness of the church to the world – see how these Christians love one another!
In furtherance of this aim, perhaps everyone involved should covenant to avoid using words like ‘hurt’ and other loaded terms that constitute a form of emotional blackmail. We all know that few people will be completely satisfied with the final outcome, but do we really need to be told that they are ‘gutted’, ‘devastated’ and so on? Can we not agree that this kind of thinking has been overworked and ought to be parked for the greater good of the whole?
Some years ago peace came to Northern Ireland when its Protestant majority agreed to share power with the Catholic minority, whom they disliked and distrusted. The Church of England needs to find a similar solution to its internal strife. The current house of bishops represents only one of the two integrities in the church and calls to broaden its composition have gone unheeded. How can it contemplate admitting women but not conservative Evangelicals? The synod vote showed just how out of touch the bishops are, and if this carries on, we must expect further shipwrecks ahead. Here again is an opportunity and something for Bishop Welby to address.
There is no easy or perfect solution to the present crisis, but there are ways forward that could lead in that direction. If our new archbishop takes them, the recent vote may yet turn out to have been a blessing in disguise.
Gerald Bray is Director of Research for the Latimer Trust.
This article was first published in the CEN in December 2012
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