Giving up her Watch responsibilities after thirteen years Christina Rees writes us a farewell summing up of past decades and their battles for the truth in the Church
The evening of 17 October 1990. A tense debate in a village hall somewhere in Hertfordshire. Robbie Low is explaining why he is against ordaining women as priests. I am scribbling notes as he talks. I will be speaking next in favour of the move to include women in the priesthood. Robbie likens the disagreement over ordaining women in the Church of England to a civil war or family strife. He declares that the Anglican Church is a body in crisis.
That event took place nearly twenty years ago. Both Robbie and I were doing what many church members were doing that year – taking part in debates across the dioceses in advance of the decisive vote on women priests, which was to take place in two years’ time in General Synod. Robbie’s wife, Sara, and I would be among those elected from St Albans diocese to serve on that historic term of General Synod, from 1990–95.
There would be many more such debates in the years leading up to the vote in November 1992, often speaking against my friend and neighbour John Easton, who argued passionately that the Church of England should not go ahead with this move until and unless the Church Catholic had determined it was right. John and I remained friends for the rest of his life, even after he and his wife left to join the Roman Catholic Church. We disagreed on the ordination of women but we continued to recognise, accept and value one another as fellow members of the Body of Christ.
Anglican break up
Looking back, Robbie Low’s pronouncement on the state of the Anglican Church seems prescient, even more true now than it was then. Many other fault lines across the Communion have appeared, eclipsing in their intensity the long-standing disagreements over the issue of ordaining women.
The Anglican world has both expanded and shrunk, as alliances have spread out across the globe, and technology has brought new virtual friends and allies into our homes and offices. It has been an extraordinary two decades.
In our own Church, after debating the issue of ordaining women for over thirty-five years, we await the report from the Women Bishops Revision Committee, which will be debated in July at the final session of the current quinquennium of General Synod.
If I were to have the gift of foresight, I would say that in July the General Synod will commend the draft legislation for debate in the dioceses. It will return to General Synod for final approval within 18 months, and within about two years the Measure will be ratified by Parliament and become law. I would add that only a small number of parishes and individuals will choose either to accept the Vatican’s offer or, at the other end of the churchmanship spectrum, to align themselves with the growing number of breakaway Anglican groupings. I also expect that most of those who continue to oppose opening the episcopate to women will continue to minister and worship faithfully in the Church of England.
Most will stay
Why do I think this? My predictions are based on over thirty years’ membership in the Church of England, with twenty of those years as a member of General Synod. During that time, first working for the Movement for the Ordination of Women and then as chair of Women and the Church, I have taken part in countless debates on national, diocesan and deanery levels. I have been invited into nearly every diocese in the Church of England. I have spent untold hours listening to both clergy and laity telling their stories and expressing their hopes and fears. I have heard shocking and distressing tales of dishonesty, prejudice and mistreatment. I have listened to wonderful stories of growing acceptance, reconciliation and restored trust. I have heard of endless acts of loving and sacrificial service.
Painfully slow progress
I am conscious that when I express my joy at the prospect of finally having our Church accept women to all three orders, many of you will be feeling only sorrow. I am aware that it is inevitable that some of you will feel the sense of loss and regret that change, especially unwanted change, can bring. Without meaning to in any way trivialise or diminish anyone’s sense of sorrow or pain, I would like to explain why I believe that it will be possible for us to continue to go forward, together, by the grace of God.
Recently a leading member of Forward in Faith confessed to me that he could not understand why the women bishops’ debate is taking so long. He acknowledged that he has found the past few years to be depressing and frustrating. He feels that the process is taking a heavy toll on us all.
I have heard others who oppose women bishops in principle express the urgent desire for resolution, for the sake of the Church. I have heard many heartfelt pleas from those of
all perspectives directed principally at the bishops, and in particular, our two Archbishops, asking them now to give a lead of positive and prayerful confidence about moving forward. There seems to be a strong sense that the necessary process, and work undertaken in preparing legislation for women to be included as bishops in our Church, now feels as if it has gone on for long enough.
The energy that continues to be expended is seriously draining the Church. The process has indeed been necessary and is of vital importance on a number of levels, but for many of us inside the Church, and most certainly for those outside, it now appears as if we Anglicans spend more time squabbling about issues of gender and sexuality than doing anything else. Although I consider these issues to be among those at the very core of our understanding of who we are, and what is our relationship with God, the length of time this is taking is now impeding our overall mission to the people we exist to serve.
I believe that part of the Good News we are called to preach, and part of the Kingdom of God we are called to proclaim, has to do with healing broken and distorted relationships, including those between women and men.
The labourers are few
As part of the new creation we have been given both the message and ministry of reconciliation, and this involves a transformed dynamic between men and women. We have been invited – and are continually being invited – into the intimacy with God that Jesus had. An aspect of accepting that invitation to partake in the life of the Divine Trinity is to accept one another’s unique gifting and calling. I would find Jesus’ sobering comment to his disciples that ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few’ to be even more challenging if I did not think that the task of mission and ministry, whether by lay or ordained ministers, does not need to be limited to half the work force.
Within a few days, the Report of the Women Bishops Revision Committee should be published. Over the past year or so, some of us on General Synod have been invited, repeatedly, to speak to the points we raised in our written submissions.
A small group of us had found ourselves sharing the same room as we waited to be ushered in to make our presentations and face the inevitable cross examination by members of the Revision Committee. Over the hours of waiting, old friendships deepened and new, perhaps unlikely, friendships began to be forged.
The dynamic between us gradually changed as the months passed. A feeling of camaraderie developed as we moved from politely discussing areas of disagreement, to discovering shared interests and mutual affinities. We became friends.
Even the relationship with our inquisitors on the Revision Committee subtly began to change. What started out as relentless and, at times, somewhat aggressive, verbal theological duelling, began to include gentler bouts of good humour.
I genuinely believe that we are in a time of change and transition that includes us in the Church of England, but that is also far bigger and more profound than any of the issues we face either in Anglicanism or even in Christendom. My sense is that we are part of an altogether deeper spiritual process. I think some of the realignments we are seeing, and the strangeness we are experiencing, are the visible manifestations of the spiritual equivalent of the shifting of the vast tectonic plates.
It is important for us all to keep before us the Cross and the Resurrection, and the unshakeable understanding of who we are in Christ. We must also remind ourselves that we are not alone, but that we have the Comforter, the Counsellor, the Spirit of Truth, who will guide us into all truth.
We are on the brink of taking an important decision which we as a Church now need to take: I am confident that we can do so with mutual good grace, recognising beyond our differences, our shared commitment to the well-being of our Church, our joint membership of the Body of Christ, and above all, our common determination to ‘press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus’ [Philippians 3.14]. ND