Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Do things come in threes?

The Most Reverend Dr. Katharine Jefferts Schor...Image via Wikipedia

Don't subscribe to it myself - I think people retrospectively group events together. However, there has been a triplet of headaches for the good old C of E over the last few weeks.

First of all we had a problem with hats. The old tradition was that women wore hats in church and men didn't. However once you're a Bishop the reverse appears to apply. Katharine Jefferts Schori, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA wasn't allowed to wear a mitre at Southwark Cathedral.

No doubt this was an attempt to placate conservative opponents of women becoming bishops, but it ended up looking hugely discourteous and failed to placate anybody. Just her being there at all was probably more than the most vocal opponents could stomach. Meanwhile, others saw it as an insult and a failure of hospitality to a senior member of the clergy. The irony is that mitres are entirely optional in the Church of England - they're not required by church rules and only became commonplace in the 19th century. Perhaps the more courteous thing would have been for everyone not to wear one!

The second problem (sorry I forgot; challenges) is the legislation currently being processed in response to the General Synod's vote to go forward with ordaining women bishops in the Church of England. It would be too long and dull to say why this takes so long, but the whole process was thrown by a new amendment being proposed by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York for the latest meeting of Synod. Called "co-ordinate jurisdiction" essentially this is a further concession to conservative concerns and is seen as giving a greater voice for traditionalists who find themselves in Dioceses with a female Diocesan Bishop. A full analysis of all the amendments is here, which ably demonstrates why I couldn't face standing for General Synod at the next election. I still maintain that the simpler the better is the best way forward - anything else is papering over some very big cracks.

Just when you thought it was safe, the news came through that the favoured candidate for Bishop of Southwark was Dr Jeffrey John. Dr John was, of course, the candidate for Bishop of Reading [suffragan to Bp of Oxford] in 2003. He was forced to withdraw from consideration after protests about his sexual orientation. Although he has declared his current circumstances to be in line with the Church of England's teaching, he hasn't repented of his previous relationship to the satisfaction of his critics. [Other Bishops don't seem to be subject to the same scrutiny as to whether their repentance matches their sins, but this is sex we're talking about...] Given Dr John entered a civil partnership in 2006, I suspect nothing would quell the more vocal critics. You can hear a Today programme debate here between Giles Fraser and Chris Sugden.

What intrigues me about is why Dr John's current appointment as Dean of St Alban's doesn't generate such a reaction. If the concern regarding him becoming a Bishop is about a gay man in leadership, or in a teaching role where he might 'mislead' people, or in senior office where the Church of England is publicly affirming a person who some find unacceptable, why isn't being a Cathedral Dean out of the question? The evangelical end of the C of E has often had a semi-detached relationship with its Bishops, so it's remarkable that episcopacy is suddenly so important to them. I can see that traditionalist Anglo-Catholics might have a particular problem with gay bishops, but on the whole they tend to make less noise about it.

The evidence suggests that Dr John has nurtured his Cathedral well, with a growing congregation that even pays its way and doesn't need to charge admission to visitors. Given he has been such a good steward of the responsibilities given him so far by the Church, I think it would be our loss if he weren't also given the opportunity to lead a Diocese.
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