Consecration of Bishop Libby Lane

In the week that the arch-traditionalist Revd. Philip North refused Episcopal consecration from ‘tainted’ hands, including those of his own archbishop, we also see the Revd. Libby Lane consecrated as the first woman bishop in the Church of England.

‘What a piece of work is man’ – forever trying to square the circle in order to keep the show on the road, if you will pardon the mixed metaphor.

The Church, in its effort to keep going in the face of tacit or open misogyny and homophobia, has become a squared circle and is in danger of grinding to a halt. Wanting to please everyone all of the time, in the interest of maintaining a spurious unity, leads to a standstill situation.  We are trying to keep going without first having done the hard work of reparation, the servicing of the Church which involves listening, hearing, understanding and loving one another unconditionally. This is what brings life and enables real unity and, later, forward movement.

However, there is a sense in which pleasing everyone all of the time does enable a little forward movement to begin. It does so when the desire and the collective will is for a shared life in God. This is not bland piety. It is the hard reality which faces us when we place our humanity ahead of our concerns for the institutional church, or for the individual’s professional advancement in that institution. Our humanity consists in who we are as persons before God, and as we are known to one another.

As far as I know, Bishop Libby Lane was not a ‘key player’ in the inside deliberations of who would be the first woman bishop for the Church of England. She is, to many of us, an unknown, a King David figure. Like David, she is a bit of a surprise.

Bishop Libby Lane’s consecration is a major step in the right direction but more is needed – not just more women bishops, but a re-humanising of the Church and a re-ordering of its priorities, priorities which until now have consisted of the upkeep of safe and predictable career paths mainly intended for men. We need more surprises. But perhaps hope is on the way, through the unlikely source of management. Driven as we are by internal politics, the professionalization of the work of priests, and by management-style mission agendas, the human beings caught up in these processes may yet rise up and protest. Hopefully, Bishop Libby will be one such human being. Meanwhile, we in the Church in Wales, which voted for women bishops but has so far failed to deliver, hope that new life will appear through a new management initiative, the creation of ministry areas.

Management thinking, and ministry areas, justifies itself on the basis of cost effectiveness and vague talk of mission and the empowerment of the laity, by which it means the people who come to church. All of this is alright as far as it goes but it does not go far enough. It is the people who do not go to church, because they are put off by misogyny, homophobia and clericalism, who need to be empowered. Many are understandably cynical but there is also good will out there, as I find when I happen to be wearing a clerical collar while shopping or paying the toll fare in order to cross the Severn Bridge. I get an encouraging smile where others perhaps do not.  

The smile and friendly word is not about recognition of status. It is about recognition of God’s unconditional love, made flesh in his Son, operating within the contexts of day to day life and made visible in the Church’s ministry. The Church, and people wearing clerical collars, irrespective of the colour of their shirts, exist to make that love known and, more importantly, experienced, by all whom they meet, including those who may not go to church or who do not think of themselves as religious. The essence of mission is therefore not what we say or do, but what we are. The task of managers in the Church consists therefore in making it possible for those they manage to be recognisably what they are called to be which is Christ in the world.

This is also what empowerment is about. To empower is to liberate. Good management is a liberating process. In the Church, it ought to enable those who minister in God’s name to recognise and fully ‘comprehend’ the pains and joys of others. This comprehension, or ‘holding’, is part of God’s ongoing work of creation and salvation. The two words are rooted in the Greek words for ‘life’.

For Christians, the work being done in all of us through the Holy Spirit, whether or not we go to church,oHo is about real life and practical action, so it is not enough for those who minister, whether lay or ordained, to be nice people with a sense of humour. They need to be people whose humour comes from an understanding, a connectedness with a God who laughs with us. The parables of Jesus were not told as grim morality tales. They were often jokes, and jokes only work when they are told from a place of empathy, rather than one of cynicism and judgment. Humour is central to salvation. Gloomy religion and solemn clergy do not speak of the salvation offered in the person of Jesus.

All of this brings me back to the kind of hope which Bishop Libby’s consecration offers both the Church and the world. There was a spark of real affection and humour which passed between her and those around her in the moments which followed her consecration, and a sigh of relief when the lone protestor failed to ruin it. We hope, and we pray, that this affection will prevail against all that is barren in our Church. We hope that the laughter will overwhelm the cynicism, that it will bring life and hope out of a death situation which has lasted for far too long.