God answers our prayers for unity

Neither proponents nor opponents of women in the episcopate will go away, says Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, so we had better agree to disagree. Or at least learn how to coexist. Canon Rosalind Brown suggests that the Bishop is the focus of unity for the church when she or he models reconciliation.

Avril Ormsby, reporting for Reuters, says that the ABC spoke about how the sides of issue will have to live together within the Church of England as women bishops become a reality.

The archbishop said traditionalists and liberals shared a belief in the scripture, whatever the diversity of interpretation, and should “recognise that the other person or community or tradition is not simply going to go away”

“They are not just going to be defeated and silenced,” he added. “Some of course may in one sense ‘go away’ to another Christian communion; but even then they will still be there as fellow-Christians, fellow missioners and fellow disciples, and the debate will not be over just because one local jurisdiction has made a decision.

“But many do not want to go away in that sense at all. They want to be part of the same family still. And this means that some dreams of purity and clarity are not going to be realised.”

The archbishop offered hope of accommodation by saying both groups had “to some extent turned their backs on the fantasy of a Church that is ‘pure’ in their own terms, in favour of a Church that is honest about its diversity — even when that diversity seems at first embarrassing and unwelcome”.

The Rev. Canon Rosalind Brown, Residentiary Canon at Durham Cathedral, offered a vision of what this might look like in her July 2008 sermon “Angels in Confined Spaces.”

I was among women in the Church of England invited to a conference with women bishops from around the world just after the Synod vote earlier this month. It was a strange experience to worship together knowing, in the light of the vote, that the first female bishop in the Church of England was almost certainly among us.

There was a steady yet hopeful mood, rather than jubilation, as we focused on “Transfiguring Episcop√©”, what the episcopate might be in the future as God transforms the church. The atmosphere was totally different to that in the media in the days after the vote – still looking for stories of division, the media focussed almost exclusively on what could go wrong: schism, years of wrangling, feelings of anger and anguish, etc. etc. At the conference, the emphasis was so very different: yes, we recognised there could be a demanding road ahead particularly for our brothers and sisters in the church for whom this is an unwelcome decision, but there was hope of a way of release for everyone, not just those who look forward to women in the episcopate.

It was as I imagine it was when the angel shone light in Peter’s cell, the ground had shifted and hope was tangible. And the reason for this transformation lay in part with the stories of good practice which the female bishops told us, the ways that they have found to work with parishes and individuals who cannot accept women in the episcopate but nevertheless have come to respect their bishop and the careful provision she has made for them.

There are stories of reconciliation and mutual respect that need to be heard in this country before we succumb to the usual despair that the vote inevitably means disaster and departures. So we heard the story of one Forward in Faith parish for which the bishop has provided a male bishop acceptable to the parish to fulfil some of her episcopal ministry among them but which, when there was a major pastoral crisis in the parish, turned to her for episcopal ministry rather than to him. Why? Because the gospel of reconciliation has been worked at and lived out by both bishop and parish and they trust one another.

A bishop is a focus of unity for the church; we tend to assume that means we all like our bishop and agree with him or her and if we don’t then he or she isn’t a focus of unity, but what the experience of female bishops working with these parishes tells us is that to be a focus of unity for the church is to model reconciliation so that peoples who might normally be divided, even estranged, can recognise their unity through and with him or her.

There were so many similar stories from around the world that we were left wondering how the Church of England could have set up working parties to produce various reports on women in the episcopate, including the Manchester report which was debated at Synod, without consulting a single female bishop about her ministry. If we listen to their experience we can have sure hope that God answers prayer for unity. If we say that the consecration of women to the episcopate means inevitable split, we have not allowed for angels in confined spaces.

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