Shepherds & Sheep

Sunday 23rd July 2006
Year B, The Sixth Sunday after Trinity
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Jeremiah 23:1-6
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34

There is a very old New England joke - but it might just as well have been from Yorkshire - where a man asks directions of a farmer and is told: "If I were you, I wouldn't start from here!"; but, given the tight connection between all three of today's readings about shepherds and sheep, I don't think I have any choice.

Two weeks ago I attended the General Synod in York and, as some of you will know, the most prominent, if not the most important, item of business was the admission of women to the Episcopate. The issue had previously been considered by the House of Bishops but it failed to agree on a consensual basis for proceeding and so it handed the matter to the Synod which: voted to accept that the admission of women is theologically consonant with the Church's obligation to express the faith anew in every generation; and went on to appoint a wide ranging legislative group to look at all the options.

Immediately you can see from this that the traditional picture of the Church as dividing neatly into shepherds and sheep is no longer entirely appropriate. From the practical perspective of trying to do God's will in the world, we cannot leave it all to the shepherds and, indeed, they did not see it that way themselves.

Further, the Bishops and the Synod referred the matter to the whole Church for consideration; and that means all of us. Earlier this year, those who attended the Lent Course will have got a flavour of the issues which are now before us: there are those, now in a substantial majority, who believe that the call of women to the Episcopate is a valid understanding, based on Scripture, of how we are to conform with the will of God under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and there is a minority whose consciences, based on their understanding of Scripture, cannot agree with the majority.

In spite of the structure for decision making which is based on voting strength, this tidiness is illusory. Doctrine cannot be settled by simple or even 2/3 majorities but must be arrived at after a period of prayerful discernment; and that is what we are all invited to be involved in.

The basis of any decision must be our commitment to love one another, in spite of our disagreements, and to render mutual concern and respect to each other. This will not be easy. The very nature of Church government which relies upon a debating and voting format pushes us, if we are not careful, into an adversarial form of decision making which mimics the secular political process. Above all, we must resist this temptation.

In this Diocese we have a particular set of circumstances that must be taken into account. John, our Bishop and shepherd, is profoundly opposed to the admission of women to the Episcopate as are both his Suffragans, Lindsay and Wallace, for very different sets of reasons. This imposes two essential conditions on our discussions: first, those, like me, who are in favour of this development, must recognise the pain which our Bishops are undergoing as they labour, as a minority within the Church, to preserve what they think is right for the Church under the will of God; secondly, we must particularly acknowledge, in these circumstances, the integrity which they show in listening to those with whom they disagree.

And there is a warning: because of the way in which the debate has been couched so far, it is easy to gain the impression that those who oppose the change as a matter of conscience are the only ones who are acting under the force of their conscience. It has too often been implied that those in favour of women Bishops are simply extending a secular equality agenda into the Church. But that is a demeaningly superficial view. Bishop John finds it hard to see how the Church will survive with women bishops; I find it hard to see how it will survive without them. If we hold onto the gravity of those positions, and the gravity of their divergence, we will save ourselves from time wasting on unworthy point scoring.

In 1992 when Synod agreed to admit women to the Priesthood there were dire predictions of schism which have thankfully turned out to be misplaced. The situation in which we find ourselves is, typically of the Church of England, untidy but viable. This next stage will test us even more profoundly. The issue at stake will not so much be the way in which women Bishops exercise their due authority (although that issue is difficult enough); the core problem will be the inability of some Bishops to recognise women Bishops which will impair the Integrity of the House of Bishops.

From this very brief summary of some of the major issues, it is easy to see how difficult is the situation in which we now are. Our shepherds have said that they need our help and, thus, we must not behave as sheep in the way that their behaviour is commonly caricatured by those who don't know about the good qualities of sheep.

In a way which is difficult to exaggerate, the call of our shepherds that the sheep should help them is a collective act of humility which we should all recognise. It is not easy to share authority with those you are called upon to lead; and that gesture of humility calls for a reciprocal act from us. We are humbly to accept our charge and carry it out to the best of our ability, in prayer, in love and in integrity.

There are three points I would like to make about the process: first, acting under an informed conscience means that we must be informed. Simply expressing a personal view without reading and listening is not enough. Secondly, no matter how tempted we are to suspect the motives of those with whom we disagree, we must not give way to this temptation. I say this with feeling because in the forum of the Synod it is all too easy to revert to political language and see those we disagree with as underhand or untrustworthy. When somebody puts forward an apparently innocent point it is perceived as being loaded with underlying code, so the temptation is to concentrate on the code and ignore the point. If indeed some people do resort to those tactics, we must not reply in kind. If we are faithful to God, listen to each other in love and leave ourselves open to the good council of the Holy Spirit, the right answer will emerge; there is no procedural motion nor point of order known to man that the Holy Spirit cannot deal with.

Thirdly, and finally, we must continue in solidarity as the children of God and brothers and sisters in Christ and, above all else, continue to love one another. Contrary to a strand of Christian thought which maintains that to love is to give way so as to please others, I do not believe that we can love another unless we have sufficient love of self; and that depends on integrity. We must listen, learn and teach in love and humility; and then be brave in what we believe the Holy Spirit calls upon us to affirm.

Above all else, in this time of ferment in the Church, we must pray for and behave in love towards our shepherds. Whichever side of the argument we come down on, our love must be the same. There has never in our lifetime been a more important time than now to pray for our Bishops.