The Bristol synod motion

Well Bristol Diocesan Synod today passed a softer form of no-confidence motion than the one I have proposed:

In the light of the recent failure of the General Synod to pass the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) measure at its sessions of November 2012, despite overwhelming support for this legislation by this and other diocesan synods of the Church of England, Bristol Diocesan Synod:

1. Reaffirms our strong conviction that it is God’s will that women be ordained as bishops in the Church of England.
2. Has no confidence in the General Synod’s ability to transact the clear will of the majority of the Church with the urgency required to further the mission and witness of the Church.
3. Calls on the House of Bishops to explore, as a matter of great urgency, every possible avenue to effect the will of the Church on this issue.

This motion is not aimed at the removal of this current Synod (which mine is) but does go part of the way along that route by making the points that:

  • As one of the 42 out of 44 diocesan synods which affirmed the move to ordain women as bishops, its steer was effectively ignored by the action of the November synod
  • It does not believe that this present synod is capable of passing a form of women bishops legislation which assigns the same authority to operate to women bishops as is held by men

However, if other diocesan synods pass similar motions, where does that leave us? Essentially, the message given to Synod is, ‘we don’t think you lot are capable of passing satisfactory legislation and we’re upset about this.’ But, it doesn’t take any further action which would amend this situation. Essentially, this will not do anything other than register a protest.

The stronger, original version of the motion goes further – by expressing a total lack of confidence in the Synod to act as the present General Synod of the Church of England, it’s essentially saying it needs to go, and go as soon as possible. So why is this necessary? I think it’s so, for the following reasons:

  • Those who voted against the motion in the House of Laity have indicated that the main reason is that the present proposals give inadequate provision for traditionalist parishes. The only form of legislation that they are more likely to pass would have to give greater provision for independence of authority to traditionalist parishes to choose an alternative (male) bishop.
  • This amended form of the current draft legislation will never get the support of the key proponents of women bishops, since it would lead to a situation of male bishops and female ‘bishops’, within the CofE. The female ‘bishops’ would find that their authority could be overturned by individual parishes, simply because they were women.
  • Therefore, the Synod would find that any strengthening of the provision for traditionalists would lead to a collapse in support by the proponents of women bishops. Yet I fear that such strengthening of provision is exactly what is being contemplated by the Archbishops Council and the House of Bishop for the July 2013 Synod.

In short, this Synod is broken as regards women bishops legislation.

Some are looking to 2015 and a new synod with the hope that this will pass a ‘single-clause measure’. This amounts to ordaining women bishops with no ‘alternative provision’ for traditionalist parishes. It’s a high-stakes gamble, since my guess is that this, in turn, will not get a 2/3rds majority across the houses, because, in the last resort, Anglicans are mostly ‘nice’ and don’t want to pass something which would force anyone to leave. It would be entirely possible in future hustings for the House of Laity for a candidate to stand up and say something like the following:

I fully support the ordination of women to the episcopate and long for the day when that will be possible. I will support any form of legislation which will allow this, whilst giving fair provision to those whose consciences cannot accept women bishops.

The result will be a person who, if elected, will vote against a single-clause measure. Plenty others, who aren’t this clear about their intentions, will wobble in the last resort. The result would be a process which will take just as long as the present one has (nearly twelve years) and will result in exactly the kind of legislation which was rejected this month.

The real way forward is to cut out the time-wasting and get a Synod which accepts what was before us this month. That is the quickest route forward, but for it to happen will require another Synod. The quicker this happens, the better. Hence, the need for stronger motions than this one.

A possible way out of the Women Bishops bind

Since last Tuesday’s vote in the General Synod, I have been dropping heavy hints that this is the best way of getting the matter straightened-out for the Church of England. Most of what follows is self-explanatory, but the basic approach would be to get sufficient numbers of Diocesan Synods to pass this or similar votes of No Confidence in the current General Synod, in order to get a dissolution and an early election. As it is presently constituted, the only form of legislation the current Synod would pass would be so compromising of future women bishops’ authority that it would not command the support of those who are in favour. What follows is my rough draft of a Motion which might be put before Diocesan Synods. It would need checking through with a specialist in Church Law (a Diocesan Registrar or similar), before being put up for a vote…

In the light of the recent failure of the General Synod to pass the Draft Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) measure at its sittings of November 2012, despite overwhelming support for this legislation by this and other diocesan synods of the Church of England, this Diocesan Synod:

  1. Has no confidence in the General Synod to govern the Church by Measure, as it is currently constituted;
  2. Calls on the Archbishops of Canterbury and York to ask Her Majesty to dissolve this General Synod at the earliest opportunity, in order that new elections may be held without unreasonable delay.

Background Notes:

The present makeup of the General Synod makes it unable to pass any form of legislation enabling the consecration of women which would not, at the same time, so compromise their future authority as bishops to a degree that it would not command the necessary support in either the General Synod itself, or in the wider Church of England.

The only option for any way out of the impasse is, therefore, either to wait for new elections due to be held in 2015, or to
petition for an early dissolution of the Synod on the grounds of no confidence. Although the existing General Synod legislation does not make it clear whether such a situation and process was ever envisaged, the precedent of the process operating in Parliament, and hence within the British constitution, make such a course of action constitutional, as Her Majesty is Sovereign over both bodies.

There is also a possibility that such a motion, if passed by Parliament, might also be constitutional – however, it would be better for the Church if dioceses to urge for the action in the first place, rather than Parliament itself.

Were this General Synod be so dissolved, early elections would follow and the existing legislation – which is likely to be the most generous compromise on offer to traditionalist churches and people within the Church of England – could then be put before a new Synod without much delay.

(Note: comments are OFF on this post. If you want to give feedback, I suggest that you do so via Facebook or Twitter.)

To the new Archbishop, from Michael Sadgrove

Michael Sadgrove, Dean of Durham, has written a wonderful letter to his diocesan bishop, Justin Welby, on the announcement of his appointment as the next Archbishop of Canterbury.

When Donald Coggan was installed as archbishop, his secretary mis-typed ‘enthronement as ‘enthornment’. That gave him food for thought. The role was daunting enough then. How much more complex and demanding it is today. Who knows what the next few years will bring for our world, for our church and for you personally. To be a bishop or an archbishop feels to me like a kind of crucifixion. Yet Jesus wore his crown of thorns not only with dignity but also with hope for the joy that was set before him. I pray that joy and hope will be yours at the spring equinox when you come to be seated on the throne of Augustine.

So take the cup that is given you in Canterbury, and as you wonder how on earth you find yourself there, smile a little at God’s strange work, be thankful, and discover in the doing of his work that all shall be well.

The Ontological Argument

A few weeks ago, BBC Radio 4’s In Our Time did an excellent review of The Ontological Argument for the existence of God. It is available on iPlayer here and is well worth a listen.

On a sillier note, some of the Ontological Argument’s weaknesses, as flagged up in the programme, are dealt with by reference to good beer by Jeff Cook in an article on Scot McKnight’s blog here. Enjoy! and the future

Steve Collins has been the genius behind the content of since the site opened around 2001. From the outset, it was designed as a portal to allow access to the various things which were happening under the ‘alternative worship’ title across the world. Now Steve, quite rightly, thinks it’s time to officially call it a day on future developments to the site, partly because alternative worship no longer exists as a discrete movement, and partly because the form of activities identified under that title are now fairly diverse and dispersed. As the hoster, I’m intending to keep the site live as a repository for at least another couple of years, so that an archive continues to exist. In the meantime, I’m echoing Jonny Baker’s credit for all Steve has done over the years.

Trying to support dairy farmers

Like many people in the UK, I have great sympathy for the plight of dairy farmers, who have struggled for years with the fall in the effective cost of milk. The move by supermarkets to start another price war means that dairy farmers are making a loss on every pint of milk they produce, and after years of falling prices, there aren’t any savings left to make. I’ve tried to do my bit to support the cause by posting info from the Farmer’s Weekly on Facebook. But the only direct action I can take concerns where we buy our milk. This is the information I have gathered so far, but as far as I know it’s only valid today, and even then to the best of my knowledge, so I would be interested in comments as to what others think…

  • Morrisons and Asda seem to be the worst in forcing down milk prices.
  • Co-operative supermarkets have recently said they will not activate planned price reductions.
  • Milk processors Robert Wiseman and Arla are being blockaded by farmers as I write. According to their website ‘Robert Wiseman Dairies processes and delivers over 30% of the fresh milk consumed in Britain, every day.’ I know they bottle milk under their own brand, but I guess they also do the same for supermarket chains. (But which ones?) Arla bottle milk under the Cravendale brand.

In the end, the milk consumer in Britain should support the plight of our dairy farmers, not just because they are our neighbours. If we allow supermarket price wars to destroy the milk production infrastructure of our country, we will soon find ourselves drinking imported milk, the shipping costs will be added to the price and it will do further damage to the UK balance of payments. It’s not like we can’t afford milk, which is far cheaper than the bottled water which so many of us consume by the gallon.

Google (cycle) Maps

Google have recently announced that they are adding cycle directions for European countries. Sure enough, a trip to their website from either the browser or (for those who have it) the Android Google Maps app, gives an option to highlight local cycle lanes and roads suitable for cycling. Looking at my local area, it appears that the information is rather dated. For example, they don’t show the Concorde Way from the St Werburgh’s City Farm to the old Ashley Road station, which has been open for about three years. However, older tracks are most definitely there. I doubt if this will be available for the iPhone/iPad for some time to come, because of Apple’s rumoured stupid decision to abandon Google Maps in future releases of iOS. Well done to Google, though. A step in the right direction. (Thanks to the CTC weekly news sheet Cycleclips for this one.)

No starch press

The quirky covers of computer-related titles from No Starch Press caught my eye a good few years ago, but I only came across their website recently. They offer sample chapters from a number of their titles, including this one on the excellent audio editor audacity. I have been using audacity for many years as a first-rate, free digital recorder, but the sample chapter showed me how to do a really good job of transferring vinyl records to digital format, which went a good way beyond my existing knowledge. I’m now tempted with buying the whole book, which, I guess, is what they were hoping for…

Life after the rapture – on grabbing the microphone

The biggest “Christian” internet event of the year so far was the prediction that the world was going to end on 21st May 2011 at 6pm in each time-zone. The reaction by Christians has been either to ignore it, to join in lampooning it as extremely stupid, to protest loudly that they have nothing to do with the speculations of Harold Camping or to grow increasingly depressed at the amount of media interest that such an example of a group of Christians being extremely (and publicly) foolish has generated.

Religions are developing an interesting relationship with the internet. It is now possible for any deviant trait within them to find a global expression which can attract the attention and following of others. This is so, not just in the case of Christianity (and the antics of the likes of Camping) but also for Islam, which has struggled with the way Islamists seem to have “grabbed the microphone” for the whole faith and have extended their appeal to young, impressionable Muslims searching for a way to construct their lives around a passionate expression of their faith, whilst only having an early, developing understanding of its theological subtleties. For both fundamentalist Christians and Islamists, it would appear that the internet is like an unguarded, very powerful public address system where the microphone can be grabbed by those who have the most high-impact (if untruthful) message.

This is an uncomfortable experience for Christianity. From the conversion of Constantine in the fourth century up to the Reformation (in the West), the Church had a sufficiently central role in society, with its own internal authority structure, to ensure that deviant voices claiming to speak on behalf of the whole faith could be marginalized and silenced. Even after the Reformation, the churches of Protestantism had a close enough relationship to the secular arm that, again, the most eccentric voices could not get much hearing or public credibility. After the Enlightenment, although freedom of religious practice and speech steadily grew, the mainstream churches had sufficiently allied themselves with the dominant power structures to qualify them as sources of a “rational” religion, as distinct from “irrational” enthusiasm. It was only in America, where traditional social structures were stretched at the margins of western expansion, that marginal, deviant approaches to Christianity could gain a significant hearing. For this reason American Christianity has never had anything like a social or intellectual elite, controlling the significance of which religious discourse was to be taken seriously and which was not. (Americans may wish to point to the constitution which enshrines religious liberty and freedom of speech, but similar constitutions have operated in Europe for almost as long, yet our religious discourses have usually been constrained by a social elite which have severely limited the extent to which deviant discourses have attained public credibility.) With the internet, however, everyone is equally mainstream, everyone equally marginalised. Privileged discourses are under significant threat, especially in the domain of religion. Even the Vatican and the Queen of England have websites which exist alongside those of religious fanatics and political extremists. The public address system is open to absolutely everyone and the microphone is unguarded, ready to be grabbed by the person with the most attention-demanding message. So, in this case, a message that THE WORLD IS GOING TO END AT 6PM ON SATURDAY understandably grabs the microphone of world attention.

There is only one previous situation where Christianity, as a whole faith, has been seriously challenged by eccentric discourses in this kind of way. In the century immediately following the death of the first apostles, the Christian communities, which were small yet globally-dispersed, had to cope with the fact that their faith was expanding into the Graeco-Roman world. That world was one where religious discourses were multiple and where diversity was unlimited. Before very long, the Christian community itself was struggling with the fact that divergent interpretations of its teaching were abounding within its communities. The teachings of those whom the Church came to regard as “heretics” – people like the Gnostics, Docetists and Marcionites – were sitting alongside more traditional interpretations. It was difficult for local Christians to know for certain whether the understanding of the faith held by their local community was the same as that which was held by Christians elsewhere, let alone that which was held by Jesus and the first apostles. Although the New Testament itself recognized that false teachers would emerge (and indeed were emerging) to lead people astray, it did not provide a thoroughgoing way of structuring the discourse of the Church in such a way as to prevent deviant interpretations of the faith of Jesus from eclipsing, or drowning out, authentic interpretations. This came to be a problem in the following century. The Christian concept of “heresy” grew alongside its key response to the problem, which was to develop an understanding of the Church as a structured community, with authorized ministers in each locality (bishops) who represented the local church to the wider community and the wider community to the local church. These bishops acted as points of accountability. They could be identified as sources of either authentic or inauthentic teaching by reference to other bishops elsewhere. Similarly, they could be trusted (by reference to their relationship with other bishops) by the local community as trustworthy teachers, thus inspiring confidence among local Christians that they were not being led astray.

This, of course, is the root of the Catholic vision of the Christian church and indicates that the Roman Catholic (and Easter Orthodox) churches may have less to fear from the internet than do the churches of Protestantism. Ultimately, the Catholic model was originally designed to cope with exactly the problem presented by the internet. Protestants have broken with this model as they believe it has gradually led the Church to a point where its authority is functionally (if not theoretically) independent of the original apostolic teaching which it was designed to serve and protect. Protestants point back to the Bible as the source of authentic Christian teaching. All other sources are second-order to it. However, the Protestant approach comes at the cost of allowing deviant interpretations of the Bible to thrive without any internal mechanism to marginalise them, except through forming allegiances with social and rational validators mentioned above. Yet it is precisely these “meta-validators” which are being systematically removed by the internet. In short, Protestantism has no functional validation mechanisms left to rule out deviant interpretations of the Bible from claiming that they represent the whole of authentic Christian faith. This is exactly what we had with Camping, whereby all that the rest of Protestantism could do was individually and privately to dissociate themselves from Camping’s claims.

What has worried most Christians is the way Camping’s obvious and crass stupidity has lent support to the claim by opponents of Christianity (such as Richard Dawkins) that Christianity is somehow inherently less “intelligent” than atheism. The existence of atheist parties celebrating Camping’s “prophecy” denoument shows that the point is not lost on Christianity’s detractors. Camping and his ilk are a massive impediment to Christianity’s credibility, and hence do severe damage to its mission. The question of validation – of whether a person is genuinely representing mainstream Christian belief – is therefore of considerable importance to all Christians, and especially to Protestant Christians in the age of the internet. It is easy for the Catholic Church to dissociate itself from Camping – after all, he isn’t a Catholic bishop – he doesn’t speak with the Catholic church’s authority. But few non-Christians on the internet are likely to be sufficiently motivated to engage with the only alternative Protestant Christians have in the validation stakes – to listen to a point-by-point rebuttal of Camping with reference to the Bible.

I am left with the conclusion that unless Protestants are able to come up with some kind of global system of validation – or, its converse, dissociation – then the widespread image of Christianity they are going to have to work with in their mission will be a random collection of absurd and less-than-absurd beliefs about what “Christianity” actually is about. Even if one Christian is able to make a coherent argument commending their faith to another person (either by teaching or practice), who is to say if that really is what Christianity is, or whether it’s about – say – a rapture which didn’t happen on 21st May 2011 at 6pm local time.