Veni Sancte Spiritus – but please don’t tell us anything we’d rather not hear

This is a guest post by Rev Edward Dowler

First of all, let me state my own position, somewhat fence-sitting thought it is. Although I long for closer communion with my Catholic and Orthodox brothers and sisters, I realise that there is an anomaly about a church in which a certain category of priests cannot be considered for ordination to the episcopate. However, some aspects of the reaction to the recent vote on women bishops have deeply disturbed me.

The first of these was majoritarianism. One bishop pronounced with perhaps some sleight of hand that ‘the clear majority of the Church of England demands it, the people of this country expect it, and I believe that the Holy Spirit yearns for it’. Since forty two out of forty four dioceses (or, more accurately, diocesan synods) have expressed support for women bishops, it has been widely concluded that the legislation should certainly have been passed, despite not receiving the required majority in the General Synod. But majoritarianism is not democracy: as the American Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently pointed out, democracy is not just about enacting the will of the majority, but also, just as importantly, it is about protecting the rights of the minority: exactly the point about which the House of Laity was concerned.

Secondly, in the aftermath of the vote, there has been a nasty strain of clericalism in evidence. Members of the House of Laity were, it seemed, simply too thick and reactionary to get it; no surprises there if you believe in any case that they are ‘life-denying fun sponges obsessed with being right and with other people not having sex’. But it was noticeable that the key swing voters whose votes ensured that the legislation was defeated were in fact people who actually support the ordination of women to the episcopate. However, they felt unable to ignore an uncomfortable feeling that charity was not served by what seemed to them to be a ‘winner takes it all’ piece of legislation. At what has already turned out to be very considerable cost to themselves, they were not prepared to endorse this, despite their own desire to see women bishops.

Thirdly, there has been erastianism of the worst kind. As John Milbank has pointed out, the purpose of having an established Church is so that ‘the political nation is answerable to the Church: to God, to Christ and to Scripture’. But the Church of England seems largely to have accepted that it now goes the other way. The Prime Minister, in one of the milder comments from the House of Commons, has told the Church of England that it needs to ‘get with the programme (of secular equalities legislation)’. Despite all of the lessons that the twentieth century might teach us, even the Archbishop of Canterbury seems to believe that the Church should essentially keep in step with modern ‘trends and priorities’, as if it were in these that true wisdom is to be found. Other bishops meanwhile contend that the answer to this disagreement within the Church is to put it all in the hands of the secular courts (cf. 1 Cor 6.1-8).

Fourthly, we have seen what one might describe as a pneumatological deficiency. Are the prayers for guidance, the talk about seeking God’s will, the Synod Eucharists and all the rest of it just so many platitudes and pieces of empty flummery? For, rather than asking what it is that the Holy Spirit might be saying to the Church of England in and through this vote, the immediate response to the decision is hotly to protest that a way must be found of overturning it as soon as possible. In the words of the Greek Orthodox priest, Fr Stephen Maxfield (scroll to the last letter), ‘The Church of England is very odd. It invokes the Holy Spirit before meetings of its General Synod, but then it flatly refuses to believe that He has anything to do with the results of its deliberations’.

As several commentators have pointed out, one problem is a chronic lack of theology. Since we do not have an agreed theology of the episcopacy, we do not know whether bishops exist to provide leadership in the manner of secular gurus of that discipline, or bureaucratic managers, or fathers within a family. And because we do not know this, the conversation all too easily defaults to regarding episcopacy as just another ‘senior position’.

Similarly, since we do not have theology of gender, or indeed of the human person more generally, we default to secularised discourses of rights and equal opportunities. In the words of one priest in my own diocese, ‘young professional women aren’t used to being told they can’t do things’. So, putting it bluntly, we have been trying to decide whether to have women bishops without really having a clue what either a bishop or a woman (or a man) actually is.

Perhaps the egregious Chris Bryant MP is right – although not for the reasons that he thinks he is – that we should simply appoint no more bishops of either gender for the time being. Perhaps (and I owe this point to the Anglican solitary, Maggie Ross) we need to put aside our anxious, self-preoccupied strivings, our worldly perceptions that things can be fixed if only this or that group of people can be outflanked and defeated. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has indicated to us in and through this vote that the old way of doing things has now reached a dead end and that, instead, we must now just wait in stillness and silence before the Lord who waits to be gracious to us. If we did that, people really might take some notice.

The Revd Dr Edward Dowler is Vicar of Clay Hill, Enfield in the Diocese of London. He was formerly Vice-Principal of St Stephen’s House, Oxford and a member of the Theology Faculty at the University of Oxford. He has recently written the SCM Core Text in Christian Ethics (SCM: 2011) and The Church and the Big Society (Grove Books: forthcoming).

8 thoughts on “Veni Sancte Spiritus – but please don’t tell us anything we’d rather not hear

  1. Just because synod prays for something, guidance of the Holy Spirit, doesn’t nec mean that everyone will get behind it and be open. And God can work through Parliament and other secular orgs – so perhaps we watch and wait?

  2. Sam,
    This is just par for the friggin course. Religion is ALWAYS behind the moral curves in much the same way it’s behind all social and scientific curves; I’m not sure why people act like they’re so surprised. I mean it’s an inherent concept of religion to be traditional and conservative. As such you’re always following progressive culture (not leading it), because the church needs time to justify the continually changing norms.

    You, Sam, you’ve always been at that *“Pirsiginian” leading edge, right there at the beginning of the conversation. One can’t expect the rest of the Church to be in line with culture as that would be contra it’s purpose.

    *That’s gotta be a term weaved into intellectual conversation at some point.

  3. I had a look at the link to the bit about “life-denying fun sponges”, and found it quite chilling.

    Many people seem to regard school bullying as a problem, and quite a serious one. That article, however, is written in defence of bullies and seems to be saying that people who get bullied at school usually deserve it, and we are right to despise them.

  4. Andrew – as a matter of simple historical fact, I do not believe that it is true that the church is ‘behind’ the historical curve. I think that for most of history the opposite was true, and I would also argue – although this is more contentious – that most of the ‘cutting edge’ moral teaching at the moment derives from church teaching, what Girard calls the ‘hidden action of the gospel’. James Alison writes well on this.
    Steve – precisely so, I really lost a lot of respect for Giles after reading that.

  5. “In the words of one priest in my own diocese, ‘young professional women aren’t used to being told they can’t do things’.”

    Oh really? What professions are these young women in? I’d like a job like that!

    Honestly, if you are going to devise a theology of gender (though I think a few people may have got there before you), I really wouldn’t advise you to base it on what someone thinks the problem with ‘young women today’ is.

  6. A comment by e-mail from Simon Sarmiento:
    “But it was noticeable that the key swing voters whose votes ensured that the legislation was defeated were in fact people who actually support the ordination of women to the episcopate. ” Please could we have some evidence for this assertion. Names would be helpful.

  7. Historically it was on the cutting edge because they made the rules – you were a heretic otherwise so no one defied the church. But then, what about Galileo, or medieval and enlightenment philosophy? What about our modern civil rights movements, gays, and the current issue with women? How are those representative of the church being at the cutting edge of social norms?

  8. The trouble with interpreting the synod vote as the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking in our church is that He could equally be encouraging us down this route precisely because He knows that next time the vote may have even less provision for Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics… And anyway, Rome would say that since we’re a schismatic church, the Spirit was never interested in our synodical assemblies in the first place. Poor argument all round.

Comments are closed.