Sunday 4 November 2012

Yes 2 Women Bishops: Come out, come out, whoever you are!

It is now fifteen days, nineteen hours, fifty four minutes and fifty seconds until the General Synod of the Church of England votes on the Measure to introduce women bishops.
How do I know? Because there is a new blog, YES 2 women bishops, which tells me so. There is also a Facebook page and a Twitter thread.
It is surely a ‘sign of the times’ that the decision whether or not to introduce a theological innovation of profound significance (whichever way you interpret that) is being conducted via social media in an atmosphere curiously parallel to the last-minute campaigning in the US presidential election. It is also tempting to make negative comparisons with the Council at Jerusalem in Acts perhaps, or even Vatican II, but that was then and this is now.
Perhaps more in keeping with the present world of mass interaction is that the campaign has been set up, and is being coordinated, by a blogger who chooses to remain anonymous, going under the nom de clavier of ‘the Churchmouse’.
Internet anonymity is, of course, part of the landscape, going back to the days when cyberspace (as it was known in the early eighties) was the domain of the slightly nerdy loner, seeking significance in fantasy worlds and fantasy relationships. (Chorus: ‘No change there, then’.) One suspects that was a world much-populated by Gandalfs and Hobbit109’s.
Anonymity performed the same function as the ‘avatar’ — it allowed you to be someone else, or at least someone slightly different who was a bit more interesting than just you. It also made room for self-expression. Some kind of reasoning about themselves must lie behind choosing the titles Lord_Wistful or antoncheckout — two names I picked almost at random from this morning’s newspaper comments sections.
Unfortunately, anonymity is also the bane of intelligent online discussion, representing as it does the precise opposite of ‘relationship’.
Even today, the phrase ‘an anonymous letter’ sends something of a shiver down the spine. It also suggests the kind of thing one should instantly consign to the bin or keep for evidence in court. If you write to your local newspaper, you cannot expect to be published unless you provide your name and address. And the fact that this will often be withheld at your request is an indication not that this information doesn’t matter, but that both you and the editors have maintained a basic honesty.
Online anonymity, however, seems to be the norm. And it is no coincidence (in my view) that it has gone hand in hand with an appalling standard of social interaction. Any journalist will tell you of the vitriol that comes into their email inbox. But you only have to read the comments sections of our online broadsheets to know there is something wrong in the way we interact when we are anonymous. The bile and nonsense you read there would never have made its way into the letters columns of The Times when those were real letters.
Thus, as Lord_Wistful, it is relatively easy to write in response to another contributor on the subject of teaching the arts in schools, “And that crap basically exemplifies the wasters that are the art world.” It is risking rather more to speak like that when you have to put, ‘Eric Smith, Woking’, next to what you have said.
Hiding behind anonymity has a certain schoolboyish feel to it: ‘Tee hee! Lord_Wistful really showed her!’ But it is destructive of real relationships and therefore ultimately risks being destructive of the individual. Indeed Jesus seems to warn against imagining we can cultivate a ‘hidden’ side to our character: ‘Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.’ (Lk 121-2) Perhaps Lord_Wistful might like to think about that next time he posts (though I doubt that he will).
Of course, there are situations where anonymity is necessary. Martyn Marprelate (a made up name of glaring obviousness) was understandably cautious in his sixteenth-century attacks on English bishops. That sort of thing could get you killed by the Church of England (whose historical ‘broadness’ is, of course, a self-serving myth). But this is the twenty-first century and, frankly, who cares? In any case, names and addresses can still be supplied and withheld, even on the internet.
So I am left with an uncomfortable feeling about a campaign being driven by someone whose identity is unknown. Should Synod members pay attention to Yes2 women bishops? Perhaps, if the arguments are any good. But imagine the conversation if it succeeds: ‘Of course, that campaign had a lot to do with it, but we’ll probably never know who was really behind it.’
Hardly the stuff on which the edification of the Church is built, is it?
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  1. As a PS to my own article, I did wonder about this being seen as a personal attack on someone, but of course by definition it is not!

  2. John - the campaign is entirely organic and many people are involved. Mouse just set up the site. You'll see on the site a list of individuals who are also helping - Rebecca Swinson, Jody Stowell, Vicky Beeching and Graham Kings, Bishop of Sherborne.

  3. How ironic. An anonymous 'apologia' for anonymity - and on a blog thathat asks for names and addresses with comments. That's not going to work, is it?

  4. Not sure how this advances the debate really. Church Mouse has been a helpfully pointed anonymous voice in a number of church debates for a few years now, and it could be argued that s/he follows in a tradition of anonymous or pseudonymous satirists and commentators which probably goes back centuries. And this site does have links to Reform, FiF and others, so is attempting to link people to good summaries of the various arguments as well as putting its own position, or it did when I last looked anyway.

    The conservative evangelical position on transparency is not all that great anyway, so there is a hint of glass houses about this post, albeit that that is by your association with their position rather than by any obscurity in relation to your own position or activities. What I mean, for example, is the Reform failure to publish its full newsletters but only redacted versions, the failure of clergy linked to Reform to declare that link on their on their church websites (I did a survey when the letter to the bishops was signed by all those clergy in May 2010(?), and it was startling, though I cannot now remember the exact figures), or indeed, in some cases, to their own congregations (a small number of examples known to me personally), the secret ordinations abroad, the secret development of AMiE and so on. These are not transparent times even in Christian circles, and that is a pity, though we all (me included) have no doubt what we think are good reasons for maintaining whatever barriers we do.

  5. Is their any connection in that the "YES to women bishops" logo closely resembles the Japanese (Imperial Army)flag?


  6. Simon, that is what we call the 'tu quoque' fallacy. Phil, no.

  7. Simon, when I was a Vicar and a member of Reform, there was no link on our Church website because I think it's fair to say that the PCC would have been split between those who thought Reform was good, those who thought it was bad and those who couldn't see the point. But I never kept my own membership a secret.

    I don't know why others don't, but clearly many do. Reform is a bit of an odd thing, many are unhappy about the things like AMiE and the levels of secrecy.

    That's Reform... could you level the same thing at Church Society, or Fellowship of Word & Spirit? Or at Regional Partnerships, or other denominational groupings?

  8. Yes, I understand that my point is not a strictly logical answer to the question whether Mouse ought to reveal his/her identity. But it is surely valid to point out that the particular bit of moral high ground called 'transparency' cannot properly be occupied against YES2womenbishops by or on behalf of conservative evangelicals, because of the deliberate obscurity of much of Reform's activity. Doesn't work. A complaint against YES2womenbishops spelling and syntax, now that would be a good point ...

  9. Hi Darren. Church Society? Yes, very much so. Its contacts with Reform, for example, prior to AMiE being set up were discernable by serious detective work relating to dates and places of meeting etc, but otherwise deliberately kept clandestine I think. Just not nice. Can't really comment about the others.

    But it is not secrecy in itself that is really concerning in the case of Reform, but the uncomfortable feeling that the rest of the C of E is being secretly plotted against; and their claim that their consciences should be so highly regarded by opponents in the women bishops debate then rings so hollow, to me at any rate.

  10. Simon, could you be more specific about your 'detective work'? You seem to know more than I di, and I'm a member of Reform and CS and have some involvement in AMiE. I am not aware, however, of anything like the coordination you infer. Indeed the words 'booze up' and 'brewery' have often seemed more apt.

  11. While we're doing tu Quoque, Fulcrum was set up in secret and launched on an unsuspecting Blackpool NEAC.

  12. Yes, it was a while back. Can't be too specific, but in short I had reason to try to work out what the meetings were that a minister kept disappearing off to. To me it was obvious that they were not what our PCC was being allowed to believe. By marrying up dates and venues of advertised Reform and Church Society meetings it was clear that they were having joint meetings, and this was, as I recall, taking place in the run up to the launch of AMiE. It was denied when I suggested it, but part of the denial (concerning the clergyman's membership and role in one of the organisations) was demonstrably untrue. So I was pretty confident that I had hit the mark. In the grand scheme of things it did not matter much, I suppose (though it was all important to the future of our church) but was part of a sequence of events that destroyed my belief in the integrity of the clergy involved and, more to the point, fitted with Reform's obsessively secret approach that I had been aware of for a good couple of years before.

    I expect you are right about the launch of Fulcrum, by the way, though I didn't know that - secrecy seems to have become the prevailing culture for doing things in the C of E. But Fulcrum has not, as far as I am aware, then plotted against the church authorities in secret.

  13. Simon, I was aware of at least one meeting between members of the Councils of Reform and Church Society which, as I recall, touched on the women bishops issue. This doesn't seem remarkable to me, nor a particular reason for 'secrecy' (though proper confidentiality is reasonable). I am not aware these had anything to do with AMiE, though I may be wrong.

    As to Fulcrum, the story is told by Graham Kings on their website here. They didn't plot against church authorities, just against other evangelicals.

    You see, no one is just, no, not one.

  14. I was on Church Soc Council before John for a couple of years. Church Soc folk are generally more cautious about working together with FiF & as I recall CS wasn't over-joyed by it. I remember Steve Walton, also CS council member asking in a public meeting questions about AMiE.

    So either there is no secrecy. Or it's soooo secret even those on the council don't know anything about it. As John said here a few years ago re: conservative scheming - chance would be a fine thing. Although a word of caution. People often get touchy and cross about the very thing they are most prone to do. That bothers me... what do I get annoyed about?