Christian · Church · Church of England · religion · Sermon & Talks

Synod, Suffragans & Sermons. Talk 25th November 2012

Readings: Galatians 3:21-29, John 20:1-18

I wonder how your week has been. I wonder how you feel as you come to worship today?

Sometimes it’s hard as we gather here to remember why we do it. Why we get together and what it’s all for. Sometimes the issues and difficulties of our lives crowd in on us and we find it almost too hard to let go of all the stuff we are carrying and be free in our worship. It’s one of the reasons we share the peace together before communion – it gives us the chance to make things right with the people in our community before we share in the mystic and healing symbol of communion.

I must confess I started this week relatively excited. As a local Church we’ve seen the huge amount of work and dedication that has helped us restore this building to the state it’s in today. We’ve been talking about vision and asking questions about where we are going, what we are called to do as a Church. Nationally we had just had the appointment of Justin Welby as Archbishop-designate, an exciting and optimistic election and exciting time for the Church.

Then on Tuesday the unthinkable happened. After more than 20 years of discussion, 12 years of legislative process and huge compromises to attempt to hold conservative traditionalists together in the whole church the General Synod voted overwhelmingly in favour of electing women as bishops but was held to ransom by 76 dissenters in the house of laity which prevented the process going forward.

I am appalled. Shocked. And frankly have spent much of the week pretty angry about it. The problem for me is not that others have a different position on this issue – I serve a broad church and I respect those who have come to different theological conclusions on issues like this – but that not only did I think we had a workable (if slightly patronising) compromise for those who can’t accept the ministry of a non-male bishop but that the vast majority of the Church has made their opinion plain on this. The Church corporate has already agreed in principle to consecrate female priests as bishops, and more than 2/3rds of the whole of Synod agreed that now is the time to remove the last remaining legal obstacle to the process. What happened on Tuesday was an unjust anomaly in the election process of synod. What happened on Tuesday was the whole church being held to ransom by seventy-six people unwilling to accept change.

Let’s go back to the bible here. Because I believe, as the former Bishop of Durham Tom Wright said this week that the issues of female bishops is not an issue of equality or some mis-placed notion of progress, I believe the issue is about our reading and understanding of scripture.

I know that there are a number of scripture readings that can be read, on face value, to suggest that women should be sobordinate to a man. Yet there are at least as many that declare that God created man and women equal.

That word ‘equal’ is an interesting one isn’t it. I am not a fan of current trends that talk of ‘equality’ as an almost God-like status that we should achieve. That’s not to say that I approve of oppression or any system that treats any one person a inferior to another. But I am very concious that equality in the sense that many people mean it, simply tries to make all of us carbon-copies of a certain set of values. Just because there tend to be very generalised areas in which men & women tend to bring different skills (see how careful I am being, here) doesn’t mean that one gender group is any way inferior to the other.

But I am also disturbed by the building of an argument for the episcopal ministry of women just from a sense of equality or keeping up with social trends. If we believe that women have a valid ministry in the Church it should be an position of theology not social trend setting. Sure, we may see the places where we’ve got it wrong in the past because of the changes in society but that should not be the reasoning behind the changing of our outlook as a Church.

As Tom Wright commented this week in response to the questions in the House of Common’s:

If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the “programme” was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their “programme” to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.

It is not about progress or equality. It’s about the bible.

I see no biblical imperative for men or women being excluded from any sphere of ministry in God’s Church.

The Bible tells us that:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

“Heirs according to God’s promise” Powerful words. Notice the lack of any qualifying of what that might mean. No suggestion that despite this God given equality we are limited in our calling to specific roles. And remember that the St Paul who wrote this is the same St Paul that wrote that much maligned ‘Wives submit to your husbands….’ line in Ephesians. We have to conclude that either Paul was fickle or that he perhaps meant something else. If we were to look at that passage in detail we’d see that just Paul also calls for husbands to lay down their lives for their wives – in itself an act of submission – we’d also see that our model in this is Christ’s relationship to the Church. A servant who laid down his life. To believe Paul in Ephesians says that a woman is inferior would be also to suggest that Christ is inferior to the Church or the father. This we know is not what the Bible says or what Paul would suggest.

At ordination clergy are presented with a bible. The hope is of course they have already read it, but the principle is that all ministry begins with the announcement of ‘the gospel’ that is the good news Jesus’ resurrection.

Isn’t it interesting that in ‘gospel’ reading this morning we heard the story of how that proclamation of the gospel was heard for the very first time. From the mouth of a woman. Jesus entrusted that task of declaring his resurrection, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene.

Within a few decades of this declaration of the resurrection, as the Church spread across the known world, St Paul was sending greetings to friends leading the fledgling churches that were springing up, including an “apostle” called Junia.

Greet Andronicus and Junia, my fellow Jews who have been in prison with me. They are outstanding among the apostles, and they were in Christ before I was. Romans 16:7

He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. Romans 16:1

For me it is clear that our traditional attitudes to women in the ministry have more to do with cultural suppositions of the past than they do about the roles women are capable of, or permitted by God to fulfil. But I also recognise that we are all on a journey in our own understanding and faith.

Our mistake in the western Church, I think, is that we too often view the reformation as an historical even rather than an on going process. We think that Church as been the same forever and ever amen. It hasn’t. And it isn’t.

It was fantastic to welcome 76 children and parents to Messy Church on Friday. For many of you here that event is something you might find hard to describe as Church because it doesn’t look like what you might expect Church to look like. Yet we gathered together to explore the bible, to worship and for teaching. Each of us on our own journey of faith.

Equally for many of you the @11 service may not be something you recognise as ‘Church’ Yet it is as valid an expression of Church as this service.

If we have a reformation world view we can recognise these things as church, even if they are not going to meet our own spiritual needs.

We have been over the past few weeks been looking at transformation both of our world and ourselves. The challenges that face us today are about that same God driven transformation. Forcing us to, as the ordination services says ‘declare afresh the gospel in each generation’. The on going discussions about the ministry of women as bishops, the ongoing challenges we face as a church in our communities and the on going struggles as God transforms us personally are all part of this continuing reformation as the Holy Spirit leads us on out journey of faith together.

Today we celebrate the last day of the Church calendar: ‘Christ the King’ the Bible tells us that Jesus’ Kingdom will come on the last day when he returns in triumph to our broken world. But it also tells us that Jesus’ Kingdom is an ever-present reality. The Kingship of Christ reminds us that despite our human failings, despite our struggles and the bumps in the road we encounter in this journey of faith, that He is King and he will make all things right.

I don’t understand why the the vote on women bishops went the way it did. I don’t understand a lot of what happens in life. But I know that we can look to Christ the King as revealed in the Bible and by the power of the spirit and take heart that he will make all things right.

This is the hope we can set our eyes on, this is the light at the end of our road. That Christ is King. God is Lord.


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