Thomas Hardy provides one of the most poignant scenes in literature in his novel, ‘Jude the Obscure’. Jude and Sue arrive back at their lodgings to discover the bodies of their children hanging in the room. The eldest, nick named ‘Little Father Time’, under the delusion that he was helping to relieve his parents of a heavy burden in their current poverty, has killed his siblings and committed suicide. Amid the devastating sorrow descending on the parents Jude becomes aware of the murmur of voices outside the window. He looks out to discover two clergymen having an abstract debate regarding the precise eastward direction of Jerusalem: theological twaddle amid the debris of life and sorrows.
The metaphor is powerful if perhaps extravagant in the light of the Church of England’s apparent determination, courtesy of General Synod, to make itself utterly irrelevant to life as lived by most people. I am angry because I do love the Church of England. But my feelings pale into insignificance beside those of thousands of clergy denied full acceptance as equals in ministry in the Church. The vast majority of those who voted supported the idea of women bishops. But thanks to the rules governing these matters, a minority carried the day. Proclaiming the gospel in a world where most people live without reference to the Church is made more challenging by the very public silliness of the Synod vote. The Church may appear more out of touch than people thought. And what impression will it give to have Bishops in the House of Lords making decisions related to Equal Opportunities Law.
The silver lining in this cloud of ecclesiastical goofiness is precisely that an overwhelming majority of bishops, clergy and laity voted in favour of women bishops. It seems inevitable that one day the Church of England will be graced with the gifts of women in Episcopal oversight as in other Provinces of the Anglican Church. Until then it is up to the wider Church – ordained and laity – to make the case for the relevance of the Church of England through the quality of their commitment to the wellbeing of their communities.
It may be that the institution looks remote and rather like imploding on itself in an orgy of its own ‘la-la-landers’, but up and down the country there are thousands of people actively involved in making this world a more humane place through community organisations, campaigns to address issues of poverty, as representatives in local authorities and Parliament, and as volunteers supporting numerous causes, offering care and humbly sharing the good news of God’s love in practical ways, all of whom find spiritual nourishment in that odd, sometimes infuriating creature – the Church of England.
I am angry and sad – on my own account and on behalf of my sister laity and clergy. But I still love the Church of England and am foolish enough to believe it still has a future.