Contrary vocations and patience: yet another blog entry about the women-bishops vote

The internet is probably too full already with responses to the General Synod vote on women bishops; and, as has been pointed out several times, the theological arguments were in any case well-worn before the debate even began. So I’m confining myself to a side issue.

I’ve noticed that, both now and when the response to the consultation on same-sex marriage was published, there are a lot of voices calling on Anglicans who disagree with what the Church of England is doing or saying – to leave the church, or to boycott its services. Some of those voices are, admittedly, below the line in the Guardian “comment is free” Faith section (but hey – “be open to receive fresh light, from whatever source it may come”). Many of them are from non-Christians, but some are from Quakers, probably also from other “dissenters”. They make the superficially reasonable point that the church is a “voluntary organisation”; and the more reasonable point that there are other churches out there; and the further reasonable point that enough, sometimes, just is enough.

For what reason – other than tact – am I not joining those voices? I wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving their church. Heck, I wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving Quakers. We’re not the easiest bunch of people to cope with, and we have some very irritating collective tendencies (like assuming we’re obviously better than other church groups, and being smug about it). But I am, still, ecclesially committed – by my own settled choice rather than only out of habit – to objecting to bishops and priests (of whatever gender), and various other key features of Anglican life and practice. Not to put too fine a point on it, Quakers got started by encouraging people, quite forcefully, to leave their churches – for reasons that mostly still hold.

I also believe that some people, several of whom I’m fortunate enough to have as my friends, are called to be Anglican priests. (And Anglican laypeople, of course. But the priesthood example makes my point more clearly). I don’t just believe that they are sincere; I believe that they’ve correctly discerned their vocation.

I’m also still pretty sure that I’m supposed to be a Quaker.

I might, of course, be wrong. But does it make any sense if I’m not wrong?

Let me be clear: I’m saying that people are called by God to adopt practices and live lives that are not only different (in a nice harmonious easy-ecumenism way) but significantly contradictory on key points and likely to provoke actual conflict, with no prospect of resolution within a timeframe we can see. There are contrary vocations before the one God.

This is not, I think, saying that nobody’s allowed to change his or her mind, or to argue with anybody else. It’s not an argument for relativism (“stick with your own truth and let me stick with mine”), nor for isolationism. We aren’t just called and formed in ways that happen to be different and contradictory, and dumped alongside each other; we are related to one another in changing and “dissonant” ways from the beginning, as well as for the foreseeable future. Quakers got started by encouraging people to leave the churches. But they didn’t (for all sorts of historical, social and theological reasons) leave the network of relations that link the churches.

In that network of relations Quakers get accustomed, perhaps without realising it, to the recognition by others of our contrary  vocation. “It’s so good that there are Quakers around”; “you remind us of all these important things we might otherwise forget”. There’s even a secular version: it’s good that there are pacifists around; yes we are still buying weapons, but please do keep telling us not to, we need to hear your voice.

Clearly there’s a way of recognising the contrary vocation that’s distinctly patronising (whether it’s directed at Quakers or at anybody else: “all these nice things the Church of England does, provides counselling and carol services and comforting sermons…”).

But sometimes the recognition is genuine, has a bit of an edge. Recognises, first of all, a neighbour with whom one is obliged to live, into the future, as part of one’s own calling (a calling that’s shaped, after all, in relation to others). Finds a difference and is prepared to wait, if need be indefinitely, for it to become a gift. Is confident enough to see past the fear of being wrong. Resists the temptation to define oneself as different, to look for things to fight about or reasons to think oneself superior, to be a dissenter on principle.  Taking the puzzling negotiation of intractable differences one step at a time.

Rather as I think many Anglicans have been trying to do, over this issue. I don’t have that kind of patience. I’m not even sure I fully understand that kind of patience. But if I don’t spend time with it, I never will.


One response to this post.

  1. Posted by Alice on 1 December, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    V. wise words.


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