I’m a Methodist; a low church non-conformist who is ideologically opposed to the Established Church and vehemently supports the priesthood of all believers. So why have I joined the Yes 2 Women Bishops campaign and sent my letter off to the diocesan reps via their website? Isn’t it at best a little bit hypocritical and at worst down right wrong? Am I wrongly trying to influence a body which does not represent me?
These were questions I did consider before supporting the campaign and my conclusion to do so was not based on my belief that there should be full gender equality in our country. It was based on thinking about what it means to be part of an ecumenical congregation and wider denomination which is seeking closer links with the denomination voting on the issue.
Whilst I am a Methodist and individually am under the discipline of the a denomination which does have gender equality enshrined within it what happens in the church I go to is very much shaped by the rules and denominational decisions which other members are under as well as what the Methodist Church of Great Britain and its Conference decides. The local Church of England bishop is part of the web of people whose decisions have an impact directly or indirectly on the congregation I am part of. It only seems right then that I raise my voice as a member of that congregation to say my examination of scripture and tradition in the light of reason and experience tells me that I should be voicing support for this measure.
But what if I were not in Cornerstone? What if I were in other contexts should I, could I still be raising my voice? I want to suggest yes. Imagine you are in a Methodist church or circuit that is part of a LEP. The bishop is one of those who is making decisions which will again directly or indirectly impact on your experience of church. One of the big reasons for this is that the bishop is involved in working through finance decisions with the local CofE partners who we work with as well as being the person who will authorise who can share ministry within a building owned by the CofE.
Through voicing your opinion and supporting the campaign for women bishops you are leaving the decisions on this rightly with the denominational representatives but you are feeding in the opinion of individuals from partner organisations when your denomination cannot lobby for this on your behalf.
This is a two way thing of course, we need to listen to our denominational partners too and particularly the URC and Church of England who we are working more closely with. This listening to partners was I hope, (but I’m not convinced), an important aspect of the Fruitful Fields discussions.
Getting back to the women bishops thing. The Methodist Church has had a covenant going on with the Church of England since 2003. Part of that covenant is ‘to work to overcome the remaining obstacles to the organic unity of our two churches’. Last year the Moving Forward in Covenant report was published which sort to develop ways of working together more closely. Whilst the whole bishops things is part of that problem for various reasons I’m not going into the gender element is a seperate aspect of it. The nearest Methodists get to bishops are our chairs of district and across the country a number of these are women. The issue of women bishops is one of things which would need to be overcome if there was to be a closer relationship between our two denominations.
Within the most recent report on moving closer there is discussion of the President of Conference acting as a representative to get over some of the issues related to differences on the episcopate. The President has in the past been and next year will again be a woman. The proposals within the report cannot therefore be discussed and worked towards unless gender is an issue on which we speak and push for change.
What happens in the CofE relating to bishops is also important for Methodists if we do find ourselves in a position where this report or a future of version of it were to be implemented because under the proposals are that “A Covenant Partnership in an Extended Area would be made by the bishop of the diocese and the appropriate authority of the Methodist Church.”
I could go further through the report and draw out similar points but you get the idea. This vote on women bishops matters to Methodists and others because whatever the future of the covenant the reality on the ground is the denominations are working together more closely than ever before and with increased financial pressures this is likely to continue.
My final point would be that if you work your way towards the end of the report and the Faith and Order Committee response the church has raised the gender issue. This body pointed out under a sub-section entitled, “Episcope and Episcopacy that “the role of women if of paramount importance to Methodists.”
It is in light of this last section I believe that the Methodist Church itself should be making a public statement. However, I understand why they feel this is inappropriate and so feel it is fully in order for individual Methodists to make their own response which in effect reiterates the stated position of the Faith and Order Committee.
In terms of how to get involved and make your voice heard this article from Vicky Beeching about the campaign’s use of social media in today’s Guardian gives you all the information you need. If you want to write a seperate letter this link to Peter Owen’s site will help you find out who your local General Synod members are.