"A church by law established but from law exempt". So a leading Free Church commentator described the Church of England this week. In the week when we celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Equal Franchise Act, giving women the vote in Britain, how is it that the Established Church, exempt from the Sex Discrimination Act, is still debating on what basis it can admit women to its leadership?
Put more acutely, given that most people live their lives without reference to organised religion, does it really matter if the Church of England decides to consecrate women bishops or not? What does it matter either if a group of conservative Anglicans meet in Jerusalem and call themselves Gafcon or Foca and issue a declaration that excites journalists, depresses many Christians and mystifies everyone else?
While acute suffering continues for ordinary people in conflict zones around the globe, what greater humiliation could there be for the Church than groups of Christians gathering to argue over one another's identity or lifestyle? Fiddling while Rome's burning, rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic; pick your metaphor and weep.
I was ordained in the Church of England 13 years ago this week. As a priest whose vocation is to pray, to proclaim the gospel of Christ and to serve others, I am embarrassed by the public preoccupation of Anglicans with sex, and, on one level, I want to argue that these current arguments don't matter at all. But the truth is, they also matter immensely.
Today the doctrines of Christianity take their place not only alongside other world religions, but also an almost infinite number of beliefs mediated by the not-so-holy-trinity of Yahoo, Google and Wikipedia. The modern Church of England is drawing on ancient principles of prayer and service in shaping its mission in a complex society. While it's true that in community projects, prisons, hospitals and schools, pioneering work is being done by Church people standing alongside those who are on the margins of society, I think it's also true that some of the current arguments over gender and sexuality are a kind of displacement activity.
The fact is, it is extremely difficult for the Church to make effective, large-scale contributions to the huge questions of late modernity; that, for example, more people were killed in wars in the last 90 years than in the previous 500; that the gap between rich and poor continues to widen; that Westerners are scandalously inattentive to the ecological consequences of over-consumption. To really make an impact on this huge agenda is extremely challenging, so we Christians find ourselves retreating to familiar territory: attempts to regulate private sexual behaviour and the public role of women.
In this last week, our two archbishops have spoken out about credit unions for the poorest in society and about civil rights in Zimbabwe. They are wise and prophetic but, despite many serious frustrations, it is not wrong for the Church also to discuss the place of men and women, heterosexual and homosexual, in a society that believes mistakenly that these issues have been resolved. The Fawcett Society reminded us recently that eight out of 10 votes cast in the House of Commons are cast by men, and nine out of 10 decisions in UK boardrooms are taken by men. Homophobic bullying is also a serious issue for schools. Human identity and role are not irrelevant topics for theological debate by serious people in the context of a society where these questions, addressed by legislation, are not resolved in reality.
I believe passionately that women and men should represent Christ in sacramental ministry and I hope that today the General Synod will remove the barriers that prevent women from becoming bishops. I hope it is done decisively and with generosity towards those of a different opinion. I hope too that FOCA, newly constituted, will be very careful about its rhetoric in a volatile world.
To disagree is not wrong, and we should not be afraid of it, because ultimately, whatever is decided at conferences and meetings, the Anglican Communion is not a multinational with a board and a chief executive; it is part of the body of Christ, and I am bound by my baptism to every other Christian, whatever their views about me or anyone else. Every soul in these islands has someone to pray for them, and it is here that the Church of England lives and breathes; in the deep and genuine desire of people with differing theological views, and in different circumstances, to live lives marked by compassion, forgiveness and love. It doesn't get any simpler than that.
Lucy Winkett is canon of St Paul's CathedralReuse content