Six Years Later

shallowford

A special place.

I can tell you exactly where I was when I found out that the Church of England’s General Synod had rejected women bishops legislation. I was on my study abroad year in Ottawa, Canada, walking down Laurier Avenue East. It was the day before my 21st birthday, and although I had an essay to write for the next day, instead I poured my heart out into a blog post. It’s interesting to read it back. It’s raw, it’s heart-felt, it makes me cringe somewhat with six years of spiritual discipline between it and now, but I stand by it.

In part, it says:

Upon going to university, I first encountered Christians who held the opposing view of women in the church, to me. As a theology undergraduate, I encountered male students who scoff at my degree because of my gender, and because it is at a “normal” university as opposed to a theological college. Within the Christian Union, a university society, I witnessed leadership-gifted women sidelined by the belief that they were somehow inferior, and that this was a biblical truth… I realised at the conclusion of my first year at university, that part of the very essence of who I am as a Christian had been effectively suffocated by my church/CU situation at university. Suddenly I had become meek and mild and too afraid to challenge “the big boys” who were “theologically sound.” At a church weekend away, a third year student said to me, ‘I just couldn’t take a woman preacher seriously.’ And I, to my shame, said nothing, I just smiled. In second year, I developed a reputation for being…gobby. I break the mold of that perfect Christian girl and challenged the guys on what I saw as misogyny being passed off as theology. It didn’t get me any friends, it got me a reputation; it got me the butt of jokes about rebuking and what have you.

I can’t tell you where I was or what I was doing when the women bishops legislation was passed through Synod. But I can tell you where I was when it was announced that Sarah Mullally, installed today as Bishop of London, would be the first woman to have that role. I was at work and I cried. I’m not even embarrassed to admit it. Fortunately, my colleagues who find my obsession with Anglicanism adorable, also viewed weeping at my exploding Twitter feed similarly endearing.

Why did that fateful day in 2012, the random day in 2017, and this day in 2018 mean so much? Let me take you back to 20-year-old Hannah:

If you follow me on Twitter then you know that I make jokes all the time about how people assume I’m going to be ordained and that I’m trying to avoid it. The thing is, God has threatened me with ordination. (Potentially wrong word choice there!) God has made it really quite clear that he’s given me a gab for a reason, and it is for his use. But that gifting isn’t acknowledged by the majority of Christians I know. It’s frustrating and it’s humbling and it really really hurts. I thought the vote today would be a yes. Not out of arrogance but because I couldn’t see how anyone could ignore women who have been so obviously called. I love the Church of England, which is why I think it just hurts so much right now that the church I love doesn’t believe in me.

Reader, I have some news: the path to avoiding ordination just got significantly more complicated. I have been recommended to train for ordination. I know! I couldn’t be more humbled and I couldn’t be more delighted. God has called me; the God who made me has called me to thing he made me for. My goodness, my fear is only matched by how much this makes my soul sing!

And, on a day like today, I am so proud of my beloved Church of England. And God bless Bishop Sarah in her ministry in London.

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A Bit More Theology

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Thanks, but no thanks Karl.

I was watching an old episode of the TV show ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’ recently. In it, the main character, Ray, is talking to his young daughter, Ally. ‘Why are there babies?’ asks Ally. Ray uncomfortably tries to explain. ‘No’ Ally says, ‘I know about how, why are we born? Why does God put us here?’ Ray looks terrified, has no answer to the tough question, and makes an excuse to leave as quickly as he can.

I’m sure we’ve all been asked tough questions when it comes to our faith. Maybe they’ve been the innocent yet piercing ones that children and young people are so good at posing. Maybe they’ve been from hostile people wanting to try and tear Christianity apart. Or maybe they’ve been the questions we ourselves have asked: what do I really think about this doctrine? Why do we do this thing in church? God, what exactly did you mean by that? It can feel daunting and unnerving. Theology, and the questions it raises, can sometimes feel like they are designed to catch you out, to trip you up. Sometimes, it feels easier to keep theology at arm’s length.

I studied theology at university and I had a few fearful what ifs lingering in the back of my mind when I began. What if it found holes in my beliefs and caused my faith to collapse? What if it was just too challenging? What if there was some chasm between academic theology and church life that would mean church would never be the same again? My uni friends shared my fears. In fact, I’ve not met a Christian who hasn’t, even if only for a split second, been a little bit scared of theology.

But the fear doesn’t last long. Theology is a bit like an Advent calendar. You open one window at a time and discover something: an answer to a question you’ve had, a new way of seeing God, and yes, maybe a challenge to a presupposition you’ve held, but through that challenge comes an opportunity to grow and an opportunity to draw nearer to God in discovery of him. And you keep opening windows, but you can’t predict what you will next discover or jump ahead to the end. Theology is, in part, about living with questions which do not permit easy answers. As one priest wrote in the Church Times recently, in studying theology her ‘questions were not “answered” [in the typical sense], but they were reframed, refined, and, at times, corrected. I grew back into faith, which was now more mature, more solid, and very differently shaped.’ Theology will never provide all the answers; the day I think I’ve got all my questions satisfactorily answered is the day I’ve made God infinitesimally small.

Studying theology helps us to live with the tough questions but, more importantly, studying theology helps us live with the people who ask those questions which do not permit easy answers. The theologian, Karl Barth, is reported to have said ‘the answer is Jesus, now what is the question?’ It’s technically true, but it’s pastorally unhelpful. There’s a difference between simple and fluffy, and this falls into the latter category. We don’t study theology to alienate ourselves from the people we encounter; we study theology so that when people present their wounds to us we can provide a healing balm rather than an inadequate sticking plaster. It’s about embodying the Word become flesh.

When a grieving person comes to you, they don’t need a technical overview of the doctrine of the resurrection any more than they need an empty platitude, but a bit more theology means you can meet them where death has really stung them, and open to them a way for God’s hope to shine through. When a young person laments being fatherless, a bit more theology means you don’t brush them off with a blanket statement about God being Father, rather you help them be reconciled to a God whose Fatherhood is very different from their preconceptions. A bit more theology in our pastoral situations really goes a long way.

Tough questions, tough answers; a frustratingly and gloriously, simultaneously knowable and unknowable God who communicates both mystery and certainty. Theology may not be easy but a bit more of it in our everyday encounters might just make the world of difference.