In God’s Image … All of Us

I should have known it was foolish to write about not being busy. I haven’t given up on my pursuit of spaciousness and ‘time wisdom’, but it seems to be three months since I last found the time to write a blog post!

However, I can’t let this week pass without a huge ‘shout out’ for the Church of England as celebrations take place of the twenty year anniversary of the ordinations of the first women priests.Twenty years which were preceded by decades of struggle on the part of those men and women, lay and ordained, who consistently and courageously held out a new vision for the church: a vision of the possibility of priests of both genders, together reflecting God’s image in the world. Twenty years during which the ongoing un-recognition of the full gifts and potential of women has caused many people to slip away from the church uncounted by the institution, but deeply grieved by many who remain. Twenty years during which the ministry of ordained women priests has built, inspired, shaped and enlivened countless communities and congregations, and people and places that might otherwise have remained untouched by the church’s mission.

This Saturday, 3rd May, at 1pm in Dean’s Yard, Westminster Abbey, people will gather to celebrate these two rich decades and to honour those whose courage and tenacity made it possible, whilst lamenting the loss of those who have felt compelled to walk away, and remembering friends who are no longer with us.

At 2.15 we will set off to walk to St Paul’s Cathedral, where at around 4.30pm the Archbishop of Canterbury will greet everyone from the steps. The cohort of women who were ordained priest in 1994, together with representatives from all the dioceses of the Church of England, will go into the Cathedral for a service at 5pm. The Eucharist will be celebrated and – via a live link to a screen in Paternoster Square – the crowd outside will share in the thanksgiving and celebration and will also be able to receive communion.

If you’re free and can get into London do come and join us for the walk or in Paternoster Square. As a gathering of women and men of all ages, lay and ordained, from diverse ethnic, social and cultural communities, we will reflect the breadth, vibrancy, generosity and grace of the God in whose image all of us – all of us – are made.

All Good Things …

Our eldest child leaves primary school next week. And the loveliest thing about that is that she very much doesn’t want to. After seven years of being nurtured, humoured and challenged by some wonderful teachers and support staff, she and her year group don’t want to go to school anywhere else, ever!

Many a person has been bored senseless in a bar by the endless prattling of parents caught up in the maelstrom of schools admissions. I know that I have prattled unforgivably in the past. So please un-forgive me as have so many others before you, whilst I explain that we moved into a new area of London at precisely the time when we entered the schools fray as novices, negotiating a bewildering world of admissions policies, OFSTED reports, local rumour and urban myth.

We would happily have sent our children to a community school, but we’re too far away from any of them for that to be an option. So on paper it was a tussle between two Church of England schools: the first being of the flagship, ‘Outstanding’, SATs-busting variety, where at reception level only churchgoers get in; the second having a good, solid, but less jaw-dropping academic record, and what was arguably a much more inclusive intake, among other factors in terms of faith background.

Enquiring about a visit to the flagship school we were told firmly that the head teacher was ‘too busy’ and the caretaker ‘too new’ to show us around. Then came the rather breath-taking line: ‘If you’re fortunate enough to be offered a place for your child we’ll give you a tour of the school then’, and as final encouragement a warning (contrary to the published policy) that ‘You do realise this is a church school which only takes children from Christian families?’.

Chastened and bemused, we nervously approached the other school. There we were swept up by a purple-clad and wonderfully warm admissions officer who smiled broadly and chatted to our daughter whilst showing us into the Hall. Everyone left that Open Morning fully reassured that this school would welcome as many of our children as it could accommodate. ‘I want to go to the school with the lady in the purple jumper,’ declared our 4 year old. And so she did.

I completely understand why people spend every last ounce of energy and emotion on getting their children into league-topping schools. Come the end of Year 6 the likelihood is that they too will be relieved that they made the right choice. Seven years into the game, I no longer make any judgment of any parent making a decision about their child’s education.

I do, however, rail against some aspects of the system. In particular, the churches and governors who ring-fence their resources for Christian children alone, only to wax indignant against the culture of strategic church-going which they themselves have created.

But that’s for another blog post and another time.

This week I rejoice in the deeply welcoming and inclusive culture that has shaped the past seven years of our daughter’s life. God bless that school, its staff, its pupils and its parents. I’m profoundly relieved that with two younger children still in their care I’m not the one who, next week, will leave the playground for the last time.

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The Rare Fruit of Courage

We’re in a difficult place in the Church of England right now – and we’ve been here for quite some time. In fact, the desire to be a ‘broad church’ has presented its particular challenges right from the beginning. It has also produced the rare fruit of creative partnership between people of different theological traditions, nurtured by a shared distaste for exclusion.

Of course some people leave this church of their own accord. But we would genuinely rather that they didn’t. Difference is embedded in our DNA and we prefer to nurture it and ask what it might teach us, rather than uproot or suppress it.  And so the worldwide Anglican Communion is essentially a remarkable network of friendships, held together by the knowledge that God’s children are nothing if not diverse.

Here in England the difficult place in which we find ourselves is one which involves identity and validation. The majority want to make an unequivocal statement: that God is calling out women to be bishops, bringing to the role their gifts of discernment and creativity, of vision and pastoral sensitivity, of leadership and wisdom. But we also want to encourage the ministry and calling of those with whom we radically disagree on the theology of gender. We want them to be able to thrive as well.

The question is not and never has been: should provision be made for those who dissent from the majority view? The question is: how should such provision be put in place? How might it be made real and reliable without undermining the primary decision to consecrate women as bishops? Should it be framed in legal instruments and, if promises are breached, protected by recourse to law? Or might it be achieved through statements of gracious intent, requiring considerable trust from those relying upon them?

There has been a lot of water under the bridge. Groups and individuals on every side of the argument have at times behaved badly – or at the very least carelessly – towards one another. The soil in which trust might have been tenderly cultivated has instead been littered with obstacles to growth. Understandably, some now argue that the ground is irrecoverably infertile: that only legislation can save us from one another.

But the House of Bishops has spoken again in fresh tones, offering a new vision which, crucially, will challenge all of us at different points. The proposal is for a published framework of expectations regarding the promised provision, coupled with the innovation of an independent monitoring process to ensure that those expectations are fulfilled. Not legislation, but rigorous accountability, both moral and procedural.

This offers us the sort of space in which, if we wanted to, we could continue to relate to one another as partners in God’s Kingdom, willingly embracing our mutual accountability. We could walk together in genuine relationship, actively enabling one another to flourish. It would require not only trust but profound courage: far braver to live alongside one another without the sterile protection of law, relying instead on grace, human decency, and the ability to handle one another’s vulnerability with tenderness.

It’s a way of relating that is as risky and wise, as profound and edgy, as spacious and intimate, as deep and as wide, as the Church of England itself. It could lead to new discoveries about the God who longs for the time when we might show the world that we love one another, and are therefore capable of loving them too.

If not now, then when? Surely we have the courage to try.

(This is a personal perspective and not the ‘official line’ of any group or network with which I’m associated.)