Elders of the Tribe

 

Elders of the Tribe

Author: 

Paul Bayes

“The weak bishops.” “The lying bishops.” “The bastard bishops.” “I wouldn’t trust them as far as I can spit.” “The only way they’ll give a straight-line response is if you ask them to design a corkscrew.”

A few months ago on this site I wrote a piece which spoke of the need for people to express their anger if they were angry. I have seen all the phrases above on social media in the past few days, and I am glad of them, though I am not a masochist and I do not enjoy them. I am particularly grateful to the people who have contacted me directly to express their emotion and to make their points about the recent bishops’ statement.

For some, the sense of betrayal is particularly acute when applied to people like me, who have spoken of the need for change in the Church. Where was I? What happened to my voice? How could I have been so weak as to stand with this document?

Twenty-five years ago, in 1991, the same year that “Issues in Human Sexuality” was published, my friend and mentor Bishop Peter Selby wrote a book called “BeLonging”. Its subtitle was “Challenge to a Tribal Church”. In this book Peter spoke of the kind of community the Church is called to be, and contrasted it with the Church as it is. It is a prophetic and an angry book. It locates its anger in three areas; race and racism, gender and sexism, and the treatment of LGBT people. Peter in writing about this last subject drew on his experience of the 1987 Synod debate on the motion proposed by Tony Higton.

And then in the book there comes a chapter called “The Elders of the Tribe”. It speaks about bishops. It reflects that, when the ordination of women was discussed, “the report of the House of Bishops on the issue shows strong signs of having been diverted into accepting the agenda of those opposed to the change.” Peter went on to ask, “Do these responses reflect something of the demands and pressures on leadership when tribal responses are rife?”

This is a very good question. It speaks crisply and clearly over the intervening years.

Peter went on to speak of the risks and dangers inherent in the idea that the bishop is called to be a focus of unity in the Church. He said, “At the heart of that perception lies one of the most profoundly Christian of instincts, that we are called to bring together and not to divide, to seek and not to lose”. But beautiful and profoundly Christian as it is, Peter said, it is only a half-truth.

His point was that collegiality, the act of standing together and speaking as one, can endanger and indeed exclude the possibility of prophetic dissent. I believe that it is this point that lies behind the anger of the angry today. People believe that the bishops, the bastard bishops, have preferred unity to truth: “We asked for bread and they have given a stone”.

It is not my intention in this post to defend anyone or anything, least of all myself. In clear awareness of Peter Selby’s analysis, I nonetheless stand by the bishops’ report. I have chosen to act in this matter wholeheartedly as a member of the episcopal College. I have done so in good faith, because I believe that the suggestions in the report, insufficient as they are, are nonetheless necessary; that they will help LGBT people in the church, will make a church less toxic than the one we have now. But all that is, of course, debatable.

My own experience, since I began speaking out for the beginnings of change in the Church, is that I am profoundly suspected by many who disagree with me and that indeed some of them cannot in conscience remain in the same room as me, or work with me. This has not made me change my mind, but it does help me to understand still further what it is to be a bishop, a bastard bishop, in the Church today.

In October 1986, almost thirty years ago, Peter Selby wrote this in a newspaper:

Bishops do focus the Church, but what they focus is the Church as it is. Being a focus of disunity is not therefore in itself a sign of pastoral failure.

I believe that this is so; but since I first read this a quarter of a century ago, long before I became a bishop, I have been most profoundly challenged by the response to Peter’s words from another Peter, Peter Walker, then Bishop of Ely, who said this:

It surely is not a sign of failure, but on one condition; that the disunity which is focused in the bishop is held in a Godward reference. We here touch the mystery, but the central and to a degree the public mystery, of a bishop’s prayers…

The recent statement of the House of Bishops is offered to the Synod in the hope of prayer – not as a finished work but as a resource for dialogue, for further conversation in a context of sharing before God. And in a couple of weeks we shall see what the other Houses of the Synod make of it, what “the clergy” and “the laity” make of “the bishops”. And then the road will go on, and no one’s voice will be silenced, as I do not believe mine has been silenced, or will be. And we will continue to learn together what it is to listen, and to dissent, and to pray.

And in this season my prayers will include in particular my LGBT sisters and brothers, inside and outside the Church, whose real-life love has been marginal to our conversation as bishops and whose explicit voice so far has been absent there. And I will pray too for all the Church, and all the bishops, the other bastard bishops like me. And I will continue to seek the right way to be a bishop, in this season on this matter when those who disagree with me outnumber me. I will struggle for a church where the love of the loving will be honoured, whomever they love. I will reach for and advocate for and enable the maximum freedom now, and I’ll pray and work and hope for still greater freedom later.

But I would ask one thing of my sisters and brothers in the Church. I am one of “the bishops”, and on many matters I know before God how much I am a bastard bishop. But I also have a name; my name is Paul. Every bishop has a name. If across the Church we are to break the spirit of fear and conformity of which Peter Selby spoke, we must say our names to one another, in the room, in English, looking on the ones to whom we speak. In the Diocese of Liverpool I expect this of the people who share their being in Christ with me; that they will call me by my name and speak the truth to me, and will listen to me as I call their names and speak to them. And each one reading this has a bishop or bishops, each one with a name. I encourage you to learn that name and to use it in a conversation shared. It is in this way that the anger of which I wrote some months ago, the anger I welcome even though it is excoriating to me, will be tempered and used by God to change the world.

Paul Bayes is Bishop of Liverpool

Reprinted with permission from ViaMedia.News

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