Relationships – so precious and yet sometimes so frustrating. The God who is Trinity, relational to their very core, gave us each other, to love and to care for, to create community with, and for our mutual blessing.
Last week, I had the privilege, with Lee our Rhythm chaplain, to take part in the meetings of representatives of the Next Steps Group, who are leading the CofE’s Living in Love and Faith exercise. We met, with other inclusive groups, the Bishop of Fulham and the Bishop of Warrington.
Even before I share some of my reflections on how it went, it’s worth mentioning that these bishops even working together is a sign of hope and rejoicing. Bishop Jonathan is bishop to churches which do not accept the ordination of women, and Bishop Beverly is, obviously, a woman. That they were there, together, without obvious discomfort, and with clear warmth and cooperation, working together for the common good of the church should be an important reminder to everyone that we have walked similar paths before and not only survived, but come to a place of mutual respect and harmony. Now I’m not for one minute saying all is happy and grand regarding women’s ordination. There are still examples of disrespect, rudeness, and not recognising God’s grace at work in others (and yes, on both sides…). But most of us are still here. People feel able to operate with integrity, and Jesus is being worshipped and proclaimed in all our churches. There are, admittedly, hurts from the past and examples of poor handling that should not be forgotten, but these then can serve as lessons for the future and hopefully inspire and shape how things might be done better this time.
As we were waiting in the lobby to go to our meeting, we met those who were meeting beforehand. Our greetings were necessarily brief, but I hope, friendly. Some of us know each other from General Synod, and goodwill and openness to working relationships has to be the Christian way forward in all this. (As the latest report accompanying the feedback on the LLF process has at its core – our friendship and mutual siblinghood in Christ is what God gifts to us, and we have to work out how we live that out https://www.churchofengland.org/sites/default/files/2022-09/FriendshipWEB.pdf ). I am also cognisant that, just as one example, one of those more conservative individuals was someone I was in the same church worship band as some 25 years ago (yes, I was very young then!). But if I can end up here, and they can be there, reflects that our journeys may vary but they also hugely intersect, and, given different experiences, our thinking can evolve and grow and there is potential for finding mutuality again, as I certainly don’t reject wholly by any means who I was or what I believed back then.
The actual meeting was positive. As I said, relationships are the heart of all this, and although we were told the bishops were there to listen, there was a degree of dialogue and there was certainly warmth and welcome. We were open and clear. The appetite for change in the church is unequivocal from the feedback on LLF, whilst no-one should be forced to do anything they do not want. This has been the case before, and that consistency must continue and reflects the very nature of the Anglican polity. No one has to re-marry divorces, churches can choose only male clergy, nor does anyone have to play guitars, or do messy church, or use wavers or loaves. But there is even more – the very nature of marriage, according to the Anglican rite, first expressed in Cranmer’s Book of Common Prayer, has always been to recognise that it is not purely for procreation. The good of mutual comfort, demonstrates a view of marriage as being fundamentally about relationship and love and care, not simply a societal legal construct to ensure inheritance and property division. Following this to its logical conclusion requires being more inclusive.
It also seems sad to me, that the church is arguing over marriage verses … marriage! Covenanted love is a known blessing, fidelity a recognised virtue. Is this not good news that we should be sharing with society, rather than squabbling over its exact expression? In the July General Synod, people of all hues came together in standing up for the protection of children through supporting age verification for online pornography. Elements of today’s culture encourage casual, meaningless sexual encounters, downplay consent, promote through pornography coercive control, degradation of women, and rape. Social media has created new means by which bullying, manipulation, exploitation, and abuse can take place. The loving gift of relationship, beyond patriarchal kinship dues, that Christ gave the disciples and offered to John and his mother Mary, from the cross, is a beautiful message to share with the world. Please join me in praying the Church of England might not only remember this but find ways to truly express it, for the blessing of all people, next February, and also pray for the bishops discerning this path in the coming weeks.
Jo Winn-Smith, Trustee