Imposter or Usurper?

Imposter or Usurper?

At the consecration of the new Bishop of Sherborne in Westminster Abbey this week there was an unscripted intervention.

At the point in the service where the Archbishop asks the congregation if it is their will for the new bishops to be ordained – and after the congregation had replied with an emphatic ‘It is!’ – a lone voice shouted ‘No!’

Such interventions are sadly not uncommon in the Church of England when a woman is being ordained bishop.  The new bishop of Sherborne is Bishop Karen and it was her gender which prompted the outburst.  The reasons for the objection are well rehearsed – the Bible does not permit women to be bishops – this is going against the word of God – and numerous variations on this theme.

But what was striking at this consecration was the personal and abusive nature of the objection.  He went on,

‘You Karen, are an imposter and a usurper!’

Now just a minute… she is what?!

The Archbishop of Canterbury actually dealt with this very well.  In response to the well rehearsed objections, he reminded the person behind the lone voice that then Church of England has spent a great deal of time in study of Scripture, prayer, discussion and reflection on whether women can be bishops and decided that women can and should be called by God to such a role in the church.  He reminded him that the Queen had given her consent, and that the congregation had done so too before asking the question again – to which the congregation responded with double vigour in support of Karen’s ordination.

But what of the personal accusations he brought?  It is one thing to object on theological grounds to women bishops as a whole but to make it personal takes it to a whole new level.

Bishop Karen is not an imposter.  She is not pretending to be a man.  She has not disguised herself to become a bishop.  She is simply the person God made her to be – nothing more nothing less.

Neither is she a usurper.  Usurpers steal the place of another to get power, but the position of Bishop of Sherborne was offered to Karen, not anyone else.  She is the person who was chosen by the church after careful and prayerful reflection.  She was the person welcomed by the diocese and others into this new role.  She is simply answering God’s call and vocation in her life and ministry.  None of these things make her a usurper.

In actual fact, it was the lone voice of objection which was the usurper.  He was trying to steal the power of that moment, trying to take what should have been a time of rejoicing and leave a bitter taste in the mouth,  trying to undermine her ministry as a bishop before it had even begun.

And the imposter?

The Gospel reading for the day was from John 15 which includes Jesus’ famous words on the night before he died on the cross.

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”

Was the objector expressing love in the things that he said?  Even on a human level his words were hurtful and abusive so how can they have a hope of measuring up to the love of Christ.

There is nothing worse than taking the word of God and using it to hurt or injure someone.  That is the way of the extremist – the fundamentalist – the religious terrorist.

Jesus also said, almost immediately after,

“You are my friends if you do what I command you… I am giving you these commands so that you will love one another.”

Imposters pretend to be something they are not.

Who is the imposter now?

Who do you trust?

Who do you trust?

Who would you trust to tell you the truth?

That was the question which Ipsos MORI put to around 1,000 UK adults recently.

The results were not that surprising overall.  The most trusted professions included Doctors, Teachers and Judges.  The least trusted were Politicians, Government Ministers and Estate Agents.

But the survey does reveal a significant shift in trust of the Clergy.

hairdressersBack in 1983, Clergy were the most trusted profession – today they come 8th below Hairdressers and ‘The ordinary man/woman in the street’.

For the Church this ought to be deeply shocking.

Put simply, more people would put more trust in their hairdresser than they would in their parish priest.  More than that, Clergy are less likely to be trusted to tell the truth than a stranger in the street.

Where has this distrust come from over the last 30 years?

There would seem to be 2 obvious culprits – child abuse and sexuality.

Child abuse has been a huge factor.  The social shock that some priests and clergy who were trusted with our children could be paedophiles has left a significant scar.  This monumental breach of trust has sent shock-waves through church and society.

The effect in other countries has been even more dramatic.  In Ireland, scandal after scandal involving sexual, physical, or emotional abuse of children has seen trust in the majority Roman Catholic Church plummet.  In Australia, research by an evangelical group found that child abuse is the biggest single blockage to faith in God.

The Church of England has responded to this by putting ever more stringent child protection policies and checks in place – and in many ways has stemmed the tide – but stories of abuse of children cuts deep into our psyche, wherever they come from.  Perhaps that is why Jesus uncharacteristically talked about millstones and being thrown into the sea for people who betray that trust.

But there is a second source of mistrust which is damaging the trustworthiness of the Church and her Clergy – sexuality.

There have always been gay clergy in the church.  Once upon a time, when homosexuality was still illegal in the UK, the church was often a haven of safety.  The ‘don’t ask – don’t tell’ approach of the first 60 years of the 20th Century allowed gay clergy to discreetly live their lives with a degree of security.

But as social attitudes became more open to same-sex relationships – as they became recognised and open – as they achieved recognition and equality – “don’t ask-don’t tell” ceased to be a safe-haven and morphed into blatant hypocrisy.  Creating a climate in the church where gay, lesbian and bisexual men and women feel they have to keep their sexuality and relationships secret today is deeply distasteful, damaging and unnecessary.

Many LGB clergy have, of course, come out – among their family, friends, and local church.  Others have made the courageous step of coming out to their Bishop – some have even come out to the Church of England’s ruling body, General Synod.  But the lies required of them do not stop there.

All clergy are asked to abide by the infamous report from the House of Bishops entitled Issues in Human Sexuality – and promise to live within its rules for clergy of abstaining from same-sex acts. This either encourages further dishonesty in pretending to be sleeping in different bedrooms from their partner, or heaps guilt on those who take their oath of obedience seriously, or creates neutered frustration and unhappiness in those clergy who try to live by it.

And now with the advent of same-sex marriage, we have the laughable situation where if a heterosexual couple are co-habiting and one of them feels called to be a priest they are told that they must be married; whereas if one partner in a gay partnership feels called to be a priest – he/she is told that they must not be married.

Most people in the Church of England also know that we have gay bishops – despite the pretence which the Church of England tries to sell to the rest of the Anglican Communion.  More than that, we have at least one diocesan bishop whose same-sex partner is another bishop!

R4 ComedyA gay comedian on Radio 4 was recently talking about going to weddings and getting fed up of being put on a table with the only other gay man there by well-meaning hosts assuming this will mean they get on.  They sit there awkwardly until finally he decides to break the ice by saying “Nice sermon vicar”.  The audience immediately got the joke.  it’s a shame that the Church does not.

Society at large sees this pretence, however much the Church might like to pretend it does not.

Another joke of its own making which the Church of England has not yet understood, is in the same-sex section of their website “Your Church Wedding”.

yourchurchwedding - CopyIt says that “The law prevents ministers of the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages. And although there are no authorised services for blessing a same-sex civil marriage, your local church can still support you with prayer.”

To say that this economical with the truth is a laughable understatement.  It is a piece of political spin which even Alastair Campbell would have thought twice about at the height of his power.

I was sent a more accurate paraphrase recently which read…

The law prevents ministers of the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages…

– we lobbied hard for this get-out clause because we were scared that we would be taken to court if we refused to conduct same sex marriages.  And even after obtaining this legal safeguard we still voted against the Same Sex Marriage Bill in the House of Lords.

…and although there are no authorised services for blessing a same-sex civil marriage

 – because we have steadfastly refused to prepare, adapt or seek authorisation for such services despite repeated requests from priests, laity, and members of General Synod.

…your local church can still support you with prayer.

– but you should know that while some churches will affirm your relationship in prayer, others will be praying for your relationship to end.

If the Church wants clergy in the UK to get their integrity back – if clergy are to regain their trusted status – the same focus and action that has led the way on safeguarding children needs to be applied to the hypocrisy which it displays on sexuality.

Perhaps there is a reason why hairdressers are more trusted than clergy – their profession makes it easier to be real.