One step forward, two giant leaps back – the English Episcopate

jesus and woman

There have been times in my ministry in Scotland when I have really wondered whether the Scottish Episcopal Church’s relationship of full communion with the Church of England is a good thing. I may not be a nationalist but I guard the independence of my church very fiercely. Recently though, rather than wondering whether full communion with England is a good thing, I find myself wondering whether it in fact still exists.

Here’s the thing. Next week a bishop will be consecrated in the Church of England who will be the first bishop of that church who happens to be a woman.

Now, I’m all in favour of the Episcopate being open to both men and women. I always have been. However, what I mean by that is that I’m in favour of the Episcopate being opened to both men and women on the same terms. I’m not really in favour of it being opened to women on a different basis to that by which men are consecrated. And for that reason, I’ve always been rather suspicious of what’s going on down south.

I watched many people in England celebrating the vote to allow women to become bishops with very mixed feelings. You see, I was aware that the terms were not really so good.

Next week, the first woman will be consecrated in York Minister. There will be rejoicing. However, I know a number of women and a number of men in the church for whom the rejoicing will be somewhat muted and rightly so.

Just a few days after Libby Lane is consecrated a bishop in York Minister, there will be another consecration of someone called Philip North. He is being made a bishop and he is one of the people who don’t accept the ordination of women. And the word has apparently gone out that all those bishops who consecrate Libby Lane are not to lay hands on Philip North in order to “preserve” or “protect” for him and those who share his views an untainted, “pure” line of succession which has not been interfered with by anyone who either is a woman or who has actually touched a woman in a previous consecration.

This idea of being tainted because you have touched a woman in a religious service is vile. One might presume that anyone who held to such a view would be regarded by the institution as being unworthy of being made a bishop and thus a leader of men people. But no – not only is the Church of England going ahead with this plan, it was actually built into the plan to ordain women in the first place. If women were to be ordained then there would continue to be bishops who didn’t recognise those women as bishops and who would continue to be ordained by a line of male bishops who had not been contaminated by those pesky women.

Now, remarkably to many of those of us outside England, there are actually people who think this is a good idea. There are actually people who think this is what inclusion looks like and who think that this was a price worth paying for women being made bishops.

(Remember at this point that congregations who don’t fancy having a girl bishop can opt to have a boy bishop instead too).

This hideous situation is demeaning of women. It is demeaning of men too because it demeans our common humanity. But it is demeaning of God too.

But wait! It gets worse.

I know you are probably wondering how it can possibly get worse, but it does. You see, the Church of England has decided (I’m at a loss really to know how) that it needs always to have a bishop who “holds a conservative view on headship”. Now, this means that it is going to have a bishop who has been appointed with a job description that demands that he (yes, he) believes that men have headship over women.

People sometimes erroneously presume these people to be Evangelicals but that’s a slur on very many Evangelicals. The name for this is religious misogyny and the C of E is not just practising it but making sure that it will be practised in perpetuity.

Now, you might well say – “oh, that’s the Church of England for you, what does it matter to us?”

But it does matter. Are our bishops all in full communion with the Church of England’s bishops. All our bishops have shared in a consecration with a female participant, so I presume they are well and truely “tainted” from that point of view, thank goodness.

It matters too because those of us outside the Church of England tend to take the Anglican Communion rather more seriously than many in the C of E do.

When a bishop who happened to be gay was consecrated in the USA, many in the C of E were up in arms because they hadn’t been consulted.

Well, these two developments in England that are coming up are things that those of us around the communion haven’t been consulted about either. And if we don’t get to share the decision making, we can at least hold our noses whilst it happens and say that it must never happen here.

The official recognition of a theology of taint in the Church of England applying to those who touch Libby Lane was not in my view a price worth paying for the ordination of women as bishops.

The search for a bishop and the establishment of a permanent post, for someone who holds a doctrinal position stating that men have a headship role over women by definition is also not a price that was worth paying.

The cause of equality has made a big step forward with the opening of the Episcopate to women in England but has been accompanied by two giant leaps backwards.

The position of the Scottish Episcopal Church has become quite clear on the Anglican Communion in recent years. We love it – but not at any price.

PS – before anyone starts belly-aching about the need for the Scottish Episcopal Church to elect a female bishop, can I remind anyone tempted to comment that the only way we can do so is by bumping off one of the current bishops. Those advocating this development should let the General Synod Office in Edinburgh know which bishop they’d like removed in this way and their chosen method. Once that has been done we’ll have an election, but I’m warning you not to prejudge the outcome, we’re still likely to try to select the best person for the job, regardless of gender. That’s what equality looks like.

Sermon on BBC Radio 4

It was great fun doing the BBC Radio 4 Sunday Worship live from St Mary’s today. There’s always a bit of an adrenalin rush about being involved with the production of 40 minutes of live radio.

If you were one of the million or so who tuned in then you’ve already heard this sermon, but the video gives you the pictures of what it looked like, including me preaching in headphones.

Sermon preached on BBC Radio 4 – 18 January 2015 from Kelvin Holdsworth on Vimeo.

When we follow Jesus, we follow into a whole set of traditions that remind us that God is with us – here, right here in the world.

A few weeks ago now we were in high festival mode in this church, as in most churches. The Christmas trees are gone. The baubles are packed away. The candle-ends have been removed from the windowsills and sent off for recycling. And there is only be barest whiff of incense in the air from the feast of the Epiphany.

But the church offers us time to reflect on what we encountered. For Epiphany is a season not a one off event. It’s a time for reflecting on what it means to live in a world that God has chosen to come into and be known in.

Very often I talk about God being a God of surprises and say that when we get to know God we should expect the unexpected.

But looking through the verses of Psalm 139, perhaps the big drama of the Christmas story should never have surprised us. For they too tell us that God is with us.

Most religions have patterns of behaviour and rhythms built into them. Across many traditions, the idea of praying at the start and the end of the day is common.

The psalms were clearly part of a cycle of prayer and they still form the backbone of daily prayer for millions of people every day. It isn’t hard to hear in Psalm 139 part of that ancient rhythm of reminding oneself early in the day that God is present.

The psalmist sings “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away.

You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways.”

Prayer is offered here in this building every day. Whether there are just a few of us gathered in the little oratory behind me as is the case on some days, or whether it is a day when the place is packed out with people celebrating a festival or a morning like this when we share our prayer with people listening on the radio, this is a place where prayer is offered every morning.

I remember when I was working in a university chaplaincy knowing one of the people in the mail room who, if he saw me going back to the chaplaincy would call after me, “Say one for me – don’t forget, say one for me”.

And we do. We pray each day here for the world around us, for people in need. We remember those who mourn and those who are sick. The rhythm of prayer means that prayers are offered not simply for the peoples of the world who need it but because some are too sick to be able to pray clearly, some a travelling, some are on the run, some are anxious and find it hard to be still.

Every time we pray, it is like a little Christmas for every time we pray we live out the truth that God is with us in the world and with us in every kind of setting that we encounter.

God is with us in the bright days when all seems well. And God is with us on the down days too. God is with us when we know it. And God is with us when we struggle to recognise it. God is with us when we pray consoling words in a holy place. But God is with us in every other time and place too.

“Where can I go from God’s spirit? Or where can I flee from God’s presence?” asks the psalmist. And the answer is that there is nowhere that is separate from God at all. Everywhere we go, God is already there.

Years ago when widespread acceptance of the internet was relatively new, I got involved in a project where a church put a webpage up asking for prayer requests. The idea was that a small congregation would pray through the requests at a lunchtime service each week.

Word got out in the press that this was available and within a few weeks the prayer requests were flooding in. Hundreds a day were coming in. Thousands. And for a time, baskets containing printouts of the prayers were being placed on the altar of the church to represent the prayers being brought before God.

The truth is though that we are already surrounded by prayer because Christians pray for the world every day. And we are already close to God – and our psalms are amongst the many promises in the bible that tell us so.

The world is troubling at the moment. Massacres happen on the streets of western capital cities, in Nigeria and in places far from the eye of the media too.

It is easy to feel unsettled and troubled.

Indeed, it is reasonable and right to feel that way.

But I believe that peace and justice will come to our world and trust that God is collaborating in our lives to help us to bring peace to pass. We must never be cheated into thinking that trouble and violence are the way the world really is.

For God is with us in the troubled, perplexing but ultimately wonderful world. And with God, love is always the last word on how things should be.