Wednesday, 21 November 2012

‘My dear, we have to take what we can get’

A Russian icon of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple

Patrick Comerford

Today [21 November 2012] is the Feast of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary in the Temple. Well it is in many Orthodox and Roman Catholic calendars, although not in the Church of Ireland nor in the Church of England.

In the Orthodox Church, this celebration is known as the Entry of the Most Holy Theotokos into the Temple (Εἴσοδος τῆς Παναγίας Θεοτόκου). In some Orthodox icons, as the child Virgin Mary is presented at the age of three by her parents, Joachim and Anna, to the High Priest in the Temple, she is dressed in episcopal robes. Mary was supposed to have been consecrated to God’s service in the Temple. Although the story is from the apocryphal Gospel according to Saint James, it provides a visible image of the Virgin Mary in preparation, even in childhood, to present God-in-Christ to the world and the world to God-in-Christ.

And so it is appropriate that this ministry should be identified with the ministry of the episcopate.

But sometimes, as a liturgist, it is good to be reminded of the emphases and nuances of other Christian traditions, including those with little apparent liturgical tradition.

I say “apparent” because all Christian traditions develop their own liturgical expectations and traditions, even if they have no liturgical formulae or appear to have little or no sacramental life.

Staying in the Penn Club last night, I was reminded that this is particularly so with the Religious Society of Friends or Quakers. Meetings for Worship have their own liturgical sense of when the silence begins, when it is appropriate for someone to stand up and speak (minister) or read from Scripture, and when a Meeting for Worship should end – usually symbolised in the ritual (although Quakers are loath to use that term) of two elders shaking hands.

Quakers are also reluctant to speak about ministry in formalised terms. But each local congregation or meeting has its elders and overseers. The responsibility of elders is to see that the Meeting for Worship is precisely that, while overseers exercise pastoral care.

But elders and overseers are appointed not by the local congregation or meeting, but by the Quaker equivalent of a diocesan synod, known as a Monthly Meeting, and they exercise their role throughout that monthly meeting.

However, the offices of elder and overseer are open to all members, and women have been active in Quaker ministry, both formally and informally, throughout more than three and a half centuries of Quaker history.

Quaker women must find yesterday’s debate about women bishops in the Church of England baffling, and compared to the Quaker method of making decisions through searching for consensus, last night’s vote in the General Synod seems to amount to the bullying of the majority by a vocal and closed-minded minority.

The Quaker author and playwright Beatrice Saxon Snell (1900-1982) tells an interesting story of how she reacted when it was first suggested that she should become a Quaker elder. She was not born into the Society of Friends, and she was taken aback by the suggestion that she should become an elder.

Her story is recounted in Quaker Faith and Practice (3rd edition, 1995-2004), the book of Christian discipline of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain:

I had a salutary lesson in sober thinking when I was first asked to become an elder. The invitation appalled me; I felt I was not old enough, had not been in the Society [of Friends] long enough; I suspected strongly that my monthly meeting had asked me on the inadequate grounds of vocal ministry; I read up the appropriate passages in Church government and felt still more appalled. Nevertheless I had been in the Society just long enough to know that the group often has a wisdom which can seldom be justified on logical grounds but which is, nevertheless, superior to the wisdom of the individual. I therefore went to consult a much respected elder of my acquaintance. She and her house were late Victorian; she sat on her ugly sofa with the poker up her spine, her feet set neatly together and her hands folded in her lap; and she let me talk myself out. When I had quite finished she inclined herself slightly towards me and said: ‘My dear, we have to take what we can get.’ I have since been convinced that this is a text which ought to be framed and hung up over the bed of every elder in the Society; it ought to be hung over the bed of every Friend who is tempted to refer to the elders as ‘they’.

The Church of England may regret not allowing the most talented, capable and theologically and pastorally sensitive people to become bishops, simply because a small minority thinks that a woman, on the grounds of gender alone, is incapable of presenting God-in-Christ to the world and the world to God-in-Christ.

I owe much of faith formation to my experiences in the Diocese of Lichfield in my late teens and early 20s in the 1970s. I know many good, capable, holy, learned and caring bishops in the Church of England. I am sure they were appointed on these criteria and not because of their gender.

But I also know many good, capable, holy, learned and caring priests in the Church of England who are women and for that reason alone cannot be considered for the ministry of bishops.

We cannot change how we were born in the image and likeness of God. In our gender, colour and so on we are made in the image and likeness of God, and to deny that is to deny that Christ took on our human flesh, pitched his tent among us, and lives with us.

But, in the meantime – or for the next few years anyway – I suppose, the Church of England will just have to bite its lips as it learns to say: “My dear, we have to take what we can get.”

An overnight stay in Bloomsbury

The Penn Club in Bedford Place, Bloomsbury ... one of my favourite places to stay in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I stayed last night in the Penn Club in the heart of Bloomsbury after taking part in the special service in Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, for the relaunch of USPG as Us.

The Penn Club is a quiet place to stay in Bedford Place off Russell Square, and, although the accommodation is plain rather than simple, this is one of my favourite places to stay in London. I have a room at the back overlooking the gardens that back onto Museum Street at the side the British Museum.

The club is housed in three inter-linking Georgian terrace houses built in the 1800s. Russell Square, a pleasant green space with shady trees, a café and a beautiful fountain in the centre, is just a few steps from the Penn Club, as are Tavistock Square with its Gandhi memorial and peace monuments, and tiny Bloomsbury Square. The club is also close to London University, the British Museum, the British Library, and – although there was no time for them last night – to Covent Garden and the West End theatres.

The Penn Club was established by Quakers in 1920 with funds left over from the Friends Ambulance Unit, which was active during World War I. The club continues to have connections with Quakers throughout Britain and world-wide, and maintains traditional Quaker values of integrity, equality, tolerance and simplicity, honesty and fairness in all its dealings. The value Quakers place on silence means there is no television in the rooms, and all mobile phones were switched off during breakfast this morning.

Konaki in Coptic Street ... authentic flavours of Greece in the heart of Bloomsbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Last night I had dinner in Konaki, a Greek Restaurant in Coptic Street, close to British Museum. This restaurant has a curious mixture of faux Tudor black beams and Greek music, but it is still one of my all-time favourites in London, and has been on the scene since 1985. In summer time, the courtyard at the back of the restaurant is one of the most delightful places in London for lunch.

The authentic Greek food and wine were consoling comforts last night after the vote earlier in the evening on women bishops in the General Synod of the Church of England.

Earlier yesterday I had a little time to take short strolls through Russell Square, where TS Eliot once worked, and through Bloomsbury Square.

There may be a little time this morning for a coffee in Bloomsbury. But, despite having had a little time in the bookshop at Church House yesterday, it’s such a pity that there’s going to be little or no time before heading back to Heathrow Airport to browse through some of the bookshops around here, or the curious coin and curio shops around the British Museum ... one of them even specialises in selling old banknotes and antique Greek coins, which seem to have lost none of their value for collectos despite the present monetary crisis in Greece.

A Laconic attitude in the face of a dismal decision

A shadow of winter darkness over Saint Margaret’s Church and Westminster Abbey this evening (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

The word Laconic describes a short, if not terse, dry sense of humour in the face of adversity.

A Persian envoy tried to intimidate the Spartans, saying: “When our archers shoot their arrows, the sun will be blotted out.” The Spartan replied: “Good. We will fight in the shade.”

On another occasion, a Persian envoy delivered a threat about what would happen if Persia invaded Sparta. The Spartan leader replied: “If!”

There was a Laconic, wry sense of “so-that’s-where-we-are-now” at this evening’s reception in the Harvey Godwin Suite in Church House, beside Westminster Abbey, last night. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, in his speech as President of Us (formerly USPG), was not just laconic but graceful.

Word about the vote on women bishops in the General Synod of the Church of England rippled through the service in Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey, as we were celebrating the relaunch and rebranding of the oldest and longest-lasting mission agency in the Anglican Communion.

As the voting figures were confirmed in the vestry afterwards, jaws dropped. The reaction was the same among archbishops, bishops, priests and the laity present.

So, what happened in that vote?

It is a disaster brought upon the Church of England because of a tiny minority in the House of Laity, where an unholy alliance between the extremes at both ends has once again taken away from the credibility and relevance of the Church, in mission, in the word today.

A very small number of the House of Laity – six in all – have blocked an all-too-generous compromise that was a generation behind the thinking in the Church of Ireland, which has been far more advanced, comprehensive and theologically coherent in its thinking.

One priest who is in a parish that has passed Resolutions A, B and C tells me he now hopes that this legislation will be recinded and that those who cannot accept the ordination of women must face the implications of their intransigence.

Those who blocked this legislation must be seen as straining at gnats while they are swallowing camels. Have they considered the consequences of being seen to fail to connect with the realities of ministry and mission in the world today?

Some of the people taking part in the service in Saint Margaret’s this evening, including Canon Edgar Ruddoick, had just returned from Southern Africa and the consecration of Bishop Ellinah Wamukoya of Swaziland, Africa’s first Anglican woman bishop. Another women is about to be consecrated a bishop in southern Africa in the New Year,

The voting in Church House this evening, as we celebrated around the corner in Saint Margaret’s, was: Bishops, 93.6% in favour (44-3, with two abstentions); Clergy, 76.7% in favour (148-45); Laity, 64.07% in favour (132-74). In other words, the vote was lost by 1.03% or six lay votes.

But we must go on, and the Church of Ireland is already providing a clear theological and moral lead on this debate within the Anglican Communion.

And despite the grey clouds hanging over Church House and Westminster Abbey this evening, it was a joy to take part in this special service in Saint Margaret’s Church.

With the Revd Richard Bartlett of Holy Trinity Northwood, a director of USPG Ireland, at this evening’s service in Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey

I shared in leading the intercessions with Rachel Parry, Programmes Manager of Asia – for many years we were members together of the China Forum of CTBI in London. Others taking part included Archbishop Albert Chama of Central Africa; Archbishop Justice Ofei Akrofithe of West Africa and Bishop of Ghana; the Revd Canon Chris Chivers, chair of trustees of Us; Janette O’Neill, General Secretary and CEO of Us; Canon Edgar Ruddock, Director of Global Networking, Us; Bishop Michael Doe, former General Secretary of USPG; the Revd Richard Bartlett, also a director of USPG Ireland; Bishop Andrew Proud of Reading; and Canon Andrew Tremlett, Rector of Saint Margaret’s and a canon of Westminster Abbey.

The sermon was preached by the Revd Canon Dr Sam Wells, Vicar of Saint Martin-in-the-Fields.

As I walked back from Church House and Westminster Abbey to Bloomsbury, I passed Saint Martin-in-the-Fields and realised the Christmas lights are already bedecking Shaftesbury Avenue and Covent Garden. And in some ways this is right, even if Advent has not yet begun, for in darkness, there shall be light, and incarnation is the promise that God redeems all our human and carnal frailty and makes all the arguments about differences in human flesh irrelevant.

Yes,I believe we are going to realise that, and rejoice in it ... sooner or later ... but in God’s own time.

With Janette O'Neill, Chief Executive of Us (formerly USPG), at this evening’s service in Saint Margaret’s Church, Westminster Abbey