Reviews, Silence and A Deeper Magic…

Last week, the Independent Reviewer, Sir William Fittall published his decision regarding the publishing of the names of celebrants at Cathedral Eucharist services.

https://www.churchofengland.org/more/media-centre/news/wakefield-cathedral-report-independent-reviewer-william-fittall

A grievance had been raised by a member of the congregation at Wakefield Cathedral, Mr Belk, after the Cathedral Dean stopped publishing the names of those who would be presiding at the Eucharist. Mr Belk, who had attended Wakefield Cathedral for many years, could not accept the priestly ministry of women for reasons of theological conviction, and would not attend a service presided over by a woman. He had previously left three services when, due to a last minute change in the published rota, he had arrived to discover a woman was the celebrating priest.

Sir William, with clarity and precision, describes the complaint, the investigation he undertook and quoted both the responses he received and the sources to which he referred. In the judgement he quotes Mr Belk, the Cathedral Dean the Very Revd Simon Cowling, the Area Bishop the Rt Revd Tony Robinson (Bishop of Wakefield and Chairman of Forward in Faith) and Justin Welby. He also quotes sections of the House of Bishops Declaration and the Faith and Order publication on the Five Guiding Principles. The appendices contain letters between Mr Belk, the Dean, the Bishop and Sir William. On the basis of such information, Sir William then weighs the information and makes a decision.

Can anyone spot the problem? The House of Bishops Declaration, under which the Reviewer operates was written to support the mutual flourishing of both those who could not accept the priestly and episcopal ministry of women AND the women called to exercise that ministry. Yet, in Sir William’s review not one woman is consulted or quoted. The voice of women is deafeningly silent.

This is something of a pattern in the cases taken to the Independent Reviewer to date. A basic analysis of those quoted in a review and those who have contributed to the appendices shows that the majority of the voices quoted were male and over 70% of the appendices provided by men (I have not counted appendices where submissions were written by more than one person or where authorship was unclear). In the largest report to date, Sir Philip Mawer’s extensive review of the Nomination to the See of Sheffield, he lists over 100 people with whom he had conversations and again over 70% of those named individuals were men.

So women’s voices are notably absent from the independent review process designed to arbitrate on situations where their flourishing and the flourishing of those unable to accept their ministry are in conflict.

Would a woman’s voice have changed Sir William Fittall’s recent judgement? I do not know. But a woman may have been able to bring a different perspective and highlight different conclusions in the circumstances the Independent Reviewer so clearly y describes. There are three key areas where a woman’s voice may have contributed to the understanding of the situation.

Pain

The Independent Reviewer discusses the pain of being unable to participate in the Eucharist (para 37) and the duty of those committed to mutual flourishing to avoid causing pain to the other (para 38), namely Mr Belk. What his review does not explore is the pain that is experienced by a woman who has her priestly ministry denied. Neither does it explore the pain of women in the congregation who identify with that celebrant and feel that, in some way, their full humanity is lessened when the ministry of a sister priest cannot be accepted. The review describes the different sorts of information that Cathedrals provide including information about preachers and choirs, as if this is comparable data. However, as ordained women know, while the names of preachers and choirs may attract people to worship, the names of presidents have been used to avoid their worship and that is a very different experience indeed. It is painful to know that people have to be provided with information about when you will be behind the altar, so they do not have to experience you there. Would a more evenly balanced understanding of the pain experienced have informed the Independent Reviewer’s response?

Agency

As someone who has been in both situations, I can testify that there is a world of difference between experiencing pain or limitation for your theological convictions and suffering the same because of something beyond your control. The difference is agency. And in the scenario described, the complainant has a lot of agency: he can choose to remain at the Cathedral or – under the provisions made for those who share his views – choose to worship at a Society church. He can choose to walk out at the start of the service if he feels unable to receive or choose to remain and engage with the brokenness and grace that is the hallmark of true communion. He can choose his level and type of pain. His celebrant has fewer options. She must simply be there, fulfilling the role that God and the Church have asked her to fulfill, and be accepted or rejected on the basis of who she is. There is recognition in the Review of the one choice being denied Mr Belk, but not of the pain his ordained sisters must experience without choice or voice.

Neutrality

I feel so deeply for the pain of colleagues who are concerned that on the basis of their theological convictions certain roles in the Church of England may be outwith their grasp. But the reality is that it is only women who are legally barred from ministering in certain parishes. While the Church does not have a great record in its treatment of BAME, disabled or working-class Christians, and I support all work that is being done to rectify this, the truth is that there are no legal barriers to their ministry. There are no legal barriers to my Society or Reform brothers being appointed to any parish in the country. It is only women who have a legal structures surrounding their ministry so that those who need protecting from them need have no fear. Now I have labored this point because we need to be clear that in making judgments based on the House of Bishops Declaration, we are not operating from a place of neutrality. The agreement which allowed women to be ordained priest and then consecrated bishop has inbuilt legal discrimination – as little as possible under the circumstances the Bishops faced at the time, but yet it is there. The scales of justice are not evenly balanced and waiting for the Independent Reviewer to add his evidence, piece by piece to either side. I do not have a sense that Sir William considered this context in his most recent judgement, and think it is something that should be made explicit in every judgement. Again, it may not have altered his final conclusions, but it surely would have made his judgement more complete.

Magic

This is a very superficial overview of the review and the places in which I think a woman’s perspective – particularly an ordained woman’s perspective – would have contributed to a more nuanced and complete judgement. There may be reasons why the Independent Reviewer engages less with women’s voices. It could be because most Church leaders and leaders of para-Church organisations are men – and that raises all sorts of other questions. However, some more nuanced and gendered reasons may be at play: in one report, the Reviewer did invite women involved to contribute, but they did not; in another men had clearly taken the initiative to send the Independent Reviewer their opinions while women hadn’t; and in the Sheffield Review, some contributors asked to be kept anonymous. However, whatever the reason that women’s voices do not inform Independent Reviews, their absence and the need for their input must be recognized.

However, I do not want to be overly critical of the Independent Reviewers, past or present, for they are merely doing what they have been asked to do with expertise, respect and frequently gentle wisdom. And so this leads me to my final point about magic.

Like many of my generation, I loved C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In it (spoiler alert) Edmund betrays his family and the king Aslan, quickly realizing his dreadful mistake. When he is rescued from the clutches of the White Witch, she comes to Aslan demanding Edmund’s death – as a traitor, his life is forfeit. The law is clear. Her case upheld. The boy’s life is her’s. It must be to satisfy the Deep Magic by which Narnia exists.

Aslan offers his own life in the place of Edmund – and his offer is accepted. He dies, and yet the following morning is restored to glorious life. That is because there was a Deeper Magic at work – a Magic that says when one gives their life freely, in love for another, death is defeated.

My point is that the Independent Reviewer works in the realm of Deep Magic – there are rules and facts and evidence to be weighed. It is an important aspect of our life in the Church of England as we consider how to honour the Five Guiding Principles we agreed. However, the decision to open the episcopate to women and the House of Bishop’s declaration came out of a process of relationship, honesty, trust and grace – a Deeper Magic, namely love. It was this Deeper Magic which allowed the Church to take a major step forward, and it only in the realm of this Deeper Magic that the settlement has any real future. Relationship, honesty, trust and grace cannot grow when the reality of the priestly ministry of women is simply avoided. To sit in that place, as people who deeply disagree but who profoundly love, is a place of pain, but also of incredible grace. The Dean argued that he wanted to provide a space “in which mutual flourishing moves from the realm of theological principle to a lived reality” (para 43) – that space cannot be created if they enable people to avoid engaging with people with whom they disagree. Nor, can they create that space, if they tell women that it is reasonable for their presence to be notified to others so such others can avoid them. For me, that is truly “asking too much”. However Deep Magic deals with principle, and it is out of that mindset the Independent Reviewer reports.

In conclusion, my questions as we reflect on the Independent Reviewer’s most recent report are:

  1. How can we ensure women’s voices are heard in decisions and judgments about their flourishing?
  2. How can we ensure that the Independent Reviewer is enabled to operate not just in the principle of law but in the messy realities of love.

2 thoughts on “Reviews, Silence and A Deeper Magic…

  1. As a female member of the congregation at Wakefield Cathedral can I say that this response is perfect. I identify with female celebrants and feel the pain of their rejection. I couldn’t have put it into words that well but the feeling is certainly there. Thank you for writing this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Beautifully argued response. The patriarchal nature of organised religion is one of the reasons I have left the church. I have great admiration for sister priests and the pain that they have suffered and still suffer for following their calling.

    Like

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