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.