Monday, 9 July 2012

Women & Bishops - A Poetic Response

On the day General Synod debates whether women can be bishops in the Church of England, I want to offer something a little different: some poetry. Poetry can open up different space than traditional rhetoric or argument. That's one reason many philosophers have often been suspicious of it.
While it is possible that a vote could actually take place for or against, it now seems more likely that an adjournment will be sought - .
The poems I offer today have not been specially written for the Synod debate, as if I were some low-rent, remotely-engaged 'poet in residence' at Synod. At one level they are tangentially related to the debates. On another I hope some of the themes embedded in the poems resonate.

‘From: The Broken Middle’ is taken from a series of liturgical poems published in ‘Presiding Like A Woman’ (SPCK 2010)
‘Silence’ was originally published in Third Way Magazine.
I am somewhat nervous about offering 'Divine Service'. As a poem set in the context of Nazi persecution it is open to misunderstanding when placed in this context. I offer it as a kind of reminder of what lies at the heart of our faith, not by way of crass comparison between the hand-wringing of the C of E and the choices of the likes of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

From: Presiding From the Broken Middle

And we shall speak a song God gave us
And we shall find bread in the stones we found
And we shall receive blessing when rejection is given
And we shall arise when we’ve been beaten down.

And we shall sing a song God gave us
And we shall break bread on holy ground
And we shall proclaim a blessing in a world that is riven
And we shall stand and know we are found

And we shall roar a song God gave us
And we shall share bread among the lost and found
And God will heal from the broken middle
And with grace and hope and love astound.

(For D.S.)

As when Eadfrith crunched onto the holy shore
kicked the sting of the sea from between his toes
quaked beneath the impossible vault of heaven
and understood.

How he traced the shapes of Alpha and Omega
on the palms of his unpromising hands
asked to bear the blessing
prayed the ink would stir the Word uncurl
blink itself awake.

We too have known that startling silence of the heart
the world’s refusal to speak.
We too have come to that wide unyielding desert
the wilderness which steals.

Too late we ask to receive. Too easily we hide.
Too late we understand: no pilgrim may be given more.

Divine Service, Flossenburg, April 9th 1945

One last time
they herd us
our flesh mere meat
connective tissue
waiting for the cut

But we have come for news

And if today
it is too slick
for us to hold
jittery and quick
as a fish

there are words
which can move the bulk
of a man

there is bread
which thunders and roars

there is blood
thick and hot
which falls like rain
on dying land.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Women Bishops - Anger, Fear and Hope

‘Are you the Judean People's Front?’

I’m sure I don’t need to supply the follow-up lines from one of the stand-out moments of Monty Python’s The Life of Brian. Like so much Python it is part of our comedy DNA. Like so much of their work, this scene – in which the ingĂ©nue Brian tries to get into Roman-occupation revolutionary politics – has bite because it captures a truth about human nature and organizations: we are a) almost instinctively fissiparous and b) often struggle most with those we are closest too. The gang Brian tries to join is most definitely not ‘The Judean People's Front’ – they are ‘The People's Front of Judea’ and are horrified that anyone should think otherwise.

Those two points – fissiparousness & ‘family’ mistrust - have been played out painfully and embarrassingly as the Church of England wrings its hands and often argues indecorously over whether half the human race is permitted to carry crosiers and wear pointy hats and purple shirts. Frankly – even if one accepts that the C of E is an institution gloriously based on compromise, as I do – in our handling of the so-called ‘women bishops issue’ we have been making pillocks of ourselves in public for far too long.

It will come as little surprise that I am passionately committed to women being able to be bishops in the church without let or hindrance. My sense is that this is also the will of the church – as expressed through the dioceses - almost unanimously. Furthermore, I cannot – intellectually, emotionally or instinctively – comprehend sensible grounds for preventing women from being bishops on an equal footing with men. And I do not base this, thankfully, on some frankly self-centred ambition to wear purple. There is simply no way that someone like me will ever be a bishop. I am an ambitious person, but the things that get me dribbling lie some distance outside the church. (In truth, I rather pity the first woman to be made a bishop in the C of E. The scrutiny and tabloid tittle tattle will be unbearable.)

Some months ago I planned to go up to York for the final Synod vote on whether or not to have women bishops. I shall now be doing other things. Weather permitting I shall be at what cricket pundit David ‘Bumble’ Lloyd dubbed ‘The Ey-Up Cup’ at Old Trafford – Lancashire vs Yorkshire. I shall be with friends who care about as much for the C of E’s internal wranglings as an 11th century English peasant cared for church disputes over the Filioque Clause. Perhaps this is classic ostrich behaviour. However I simply cannot face what we – the church – are doing to ourselves. Perhaps I am part of the problem. I remain unhappy with and unconvinced by the bishops’ proposed amendments to the Synod Measure. I believe that the church – through the dioceses – has spoken to indicate its support of women bishops without let or hindrance. I am therefore hopeful that there will be an adjournment (hopeful? Not the correct word) and the bishops will rethink. Equally, I do not want to exclude a minority of folk who cannot accept women as bishops, but the time has come for the church to accept women as bishops. Not at any price, but simply as what we are: human beings, no better and no worse than men.

Most of my friends are not churchy people. I have no idea if this is a good or bad thing. It probably doesn’t much matter. But what it does mean is that I regularly have to field the bewilderment of those who cannot comprehend our institutionalized inequalities and our theologically justified discriminations. I am challenged on an exceptionally regular basis as to why I remain within a sexist, homophobic, screwed up outfit like the C of E. I have – of course – many well-rehearsed responses to that, many aimed at undermining the claim that any of our institutions are anything other than compromised. To be human is to be a creature of unclean hands and lips. But tempted as I often am to leave, I stay. Not because the C of E is cosy and is full of folk like me, but because not only do I have hope and a vision of the space we might be, but I see the Living God at work within her, despite us. We will have women bishops one day. I hope that those who can’t handle that will stay within the C of E, as we who have been hungry for equality have stayed and will stay.