There’s an old joke, worn thin from use, that goes something like this:
A woman dies and goes to heaven. As part of the ‘orientation progamme’ she’s taken on a tour of heaven. She is, as the Americans say, ‘shown a time’. Finally, she’s taken past a large enclosure. From within issue sounds of rejoicing, praise and excitement. Wanting to take a closer look, the woman looks for an entrance. None is to be found. In frustration she asks her guide, ‘What’s that?’ To which the angel replies, ‘Oh, that’s the Baptists* - they think they’re the only ones here.’
*add denomination as appropriate. Apologies to Baptist friends!
This rubbish joke occurred to me when I read yesterday’s news that the vacant See of Maidstone was going to be filled with a conservative evangelical bishop.
This bishop will be consecrated to serve those parishes that cannot accept ‘the headship’ of women. He will be serve the pastoral needs of people who fundamentally object to women being in positions of authority and leadership over men.
For anyone who needs bringing up to speed, this situation has emerged as a result of negotiations that allowed the legislation for women to be bishops in the Church of England to pass through.
Unsurprisingly this announcement has generated a fair amount of exasperation and gentle mockery on the web. Kelvin Holdsworth - who blogs as Thurible - has listed ten questions which are raised by this announcement. It is well worth a read and captures the concerns of some people on what might be called the liberal wing of the church. Others have raised titters by suggesting that this is a bishop for people who don’t really believe in bishops, but if they have to have them they’d better be bloke bishops.
There are serious questions raised by this announcement, of course, not least about how much this development signals the levels of fissiparousness within the church. It is an icon of our tribalism. It may have been the price of having women as bishops, but it is still an uncomfortable icon.
Personally, I’ve tried to be alert to the ‘tone’ and ‘timing’ of this announcement. If this announcement was to be expected it does feel rather deflating. Why? Well, it comes reasonably swiftly after the Archbishop of Canterbury sought to prevent acclamations of gladness at Synod when the women as bishops legislation finally went through. That situation felt like, ‘Please don’t be publicly thrilled about this thing almost all of us are really thrilled about.’ Many were left feeling that our songs of gladness (songs shared by most in the church) were to be kept in the silence of our hearts. Now those muted scenes have been swiftly followed by a development that can hardly thrill most in the church.
Equally, given that this announcement has happened before the appointment of any women as bishops just feels uncomfortable. To (awkwardly) borrow a form of language I believe is popular among ‘the yout’’: ‘All the feels are wrong.’
My instinct is to say that having a 'headship bishop' (that always sounds embarrassingly close to 'headshop bishop' to me) is bad news for the church. It creates the prospect of C of E bishops who are not in ‘full communion’ with other C of E bishops.
However, ironically, I think this announcement is probably really bad news for those conservative evangelicals tempted to ask for the Bishop of Maidstone’s oversight. I think it’s a poisoned chalice that Conservative Evangelicals should weigh up carefully before drinking from. I certainly think it’s not a hugely thrilling job opportunity for any chap called to serve in the post.
For to ask for Maidstone’s oversight is to step into an enclosure. It is an enclosure that I suspect might feel safe, honoured, hey, even holy. But – and I’m going with my Columbo-ish instinct here – I think it might be a trap.
The most dangerous prisons we have are the ones we create for ourselves. That we long for. That we say, ‘If only I have things this way I will know true freedom, I will be myself.’ And along come others who help us to make that box for us to live in.
I sense that Maidstone might be a classic example of ‘Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it'. It offers an enclosure in which Conservative Evangelicals can get on with things, yes, but which will look odd to the rest of us - for we will probably be left feeling, 'Oh, so they'd rather play over there on their own, than muddle through with the rest of us'. Sadly, we might then end up not taking 'them' seriously any more. It runs the risk of becoming a kind of marginalia, by choice. And that, I suspect, is precisely what evangelicals – as people very keen to speak into wider public life in order to communicate the Gospel – would find horrifying.
I know I am not the kind of Christian who could fit the Conservative Evangelical world-view. So what do I know? But I know how my sometimes overly determined pictures of what the church should look like or what the Gospel is, would, if granted, offer new forms of spiritual prisons for me and others. I like all Christians need community to be called to account. And, hard though it can be, I like being challenged by my sisters and brothers. But why take mark of those who choose a holy enclosure for themselves?
It will remain to be seen how the newly shaped see will cash out. I sense God is always seeking to call us out of our spiritual prisons, so that we are more exposed to the Other and to difference and the terror of God’s beauty. On that account, the see of Maidstone risks not being an answer, but a trap.