Marie-Elsa Bragg

Article for The Saturday Daily Telegraph: Can We Have Faith In Another Vote? March 2014

Since the vote against women bishops in 2012, people have been working hard to heal the conflict and bring people together despite different views. At first I was apprehensive about the process, but it has been heartening, though it is not over yet.
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I was brought up in a Christian culture, my mother’s family were French catholic, my father’s Cumbrian protestant, and though both my parents were agnostic, they had a strong sense of spirituality in literature and art. When I was young, I remember promising to stay quiet so I would be allowed to stay up for dinners with heated debates. Holidays with my mother’s family were in Provence, next to a Cistercian monastery called Senanque where the monks had a strong tradition of silent prayer and working the land. I remember once when I was about 8 watching a monk meditating in a cave for quite some time in mid day heat above a valley of lavender fields and finding him deeply peaceful. I remember another monk who used to tie himself to a stick to keep his back straight in meditation. My French grandparents were both devout Catholics and scientists. The two were not contradictory for them. They modelled a sense of duty and vocation in what they did.
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My father’s family were at the centre of the community in a small town called Wigton in Cumbria. The church played a vital role there with festivals, talks, dances, Sunday school and weddings that everyone went to watch. I was taken into the choir every holiday as soon as I arrived and I remember the doors were always open, as homes were back then. I often I wondered in to find my great aunt Margaret arranging the flowers or stood at the back with my grandmother, keen to watch every wedding, petals and small torn newspaper in hand for confetti in hand. Community was important there and my Cumbrian grandparents were people with a strong sense of duty and service, their sweet shop a hub of conversation, always standing to the national anthem when the TV was finished of an evening! So although my parents were strongly against religion, from the beginning religious community was central to my life and it was reflected in the people and places surrounding us. Often I now feel so lucky to have had time with a generation who lived through two world wars and yet took community and religion seriously in their own way.
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However, in truth, my family were surprised and a bit baffled when I decided to train to be a Jesuit Spiritual Director and work on retreats. Even more so when I went forward for ordination into the Church, my grandmother convinced I should be a nurse or nursery school teacher which I would have loved. But for me, in essence it was natural to seek out the place where people of my culture could look to to for spiritual support. I understand that many people turn away from the church because of its history, but to my mind, the spiritual teachings remain untouched by the mistakes we make.
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When I was ordained, I knew that being a woman, I would inevitably be in the centre of the battle for equality. But knowing that and living through it, are two different things and there is no question that it takes a toll. Over the last 10 years or more, I have developed deep gratitude to the women who pioneered before me and I have learnt never to forget them. I have been brought up with stories of pioneers in equality of gender, class and science and the arts, but hearing about the tough lives of these women over the years, brought home the truth that to change anything, it takes hundreds or thousands of ordinary people facing the tide and doing what they believe is right.
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So, along with many women and men, I have had the honour to be part of a movement to change history. But the vote is not yet through and we can’t take it for granted. Kate Adie recently lectured about Christian women and made the point that 100 years ago she would have been forbidden to speak in such a way in church. 100 years is not very long at all and yet thankfully the idea is now shocking. But, as the church is exempt from the sexual discrimination act, I and my female collegues can be told this repeatedly and have no legal rights to prevent it. The truth is, however, that every institution has politics, it is inevitable. And I have found that the understandable cynicism which is rife about politics at the moment, is often protecting a buried hope.
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Over the last year, after much apprehension, I have seen a new wave of ethical politics which has been heartening. Archbishop Welby brought in David Porter who has years of experience working on peace negotiations in Ireland. Behind closed doors, he mediated and facilitated dialogue in Synod and people started listening to each other in a new way. One woman who voted against women Bishops in 2012, recently said she would now vote in favour because she felt heard and part of the community again. Another man said that he had been a cynic about the process, but now he had been through it, he felt other institutions could learn from it, though he couldn’t say if he had changed his mind. Nothing is fail safe nor will any change take everyone with it, but this has brought a realistic and thought provoking possibility of a new era in church life.
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Through that work, they decided to vote simply on equality between men and women within the episcopate, and any provision for those against would be taken care of through 5 principles about respect and mutual support, and an ombudsman in place for any disputes. In fact, the 44 diocesan synods are now voting for the possibility of a final vote in General synod this July.
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Many will remember that it was the lay representatives of Synod that surprised us all, and there was a lot of anger from congregations feeling their view were not shown. The 5 year term has now come around and people can very soon vote for a new lay representative and build a Synod which reflects its people on all subjects. Though it is perhaps not a glamorous job on the surface to attend the meetings a lay representative is invited to, we can now say with certainty that we have seen it is a job of fundamental importance!
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But even if the vote for women Bishops passes in July, the situation is in fact not about to end, rather a new era with its own work is about to begin. For this, as Shakespeare shows in the end of Henry V when Agincourt is won and France partnered, we have to lay down our swords and enter the garden where a new language of kindness, community and relationship with God can be found. And in that garden, we must find a place for our elders. The selfless people who, through tough times, have developed wisdom which should not be left behind. The women who may have been bishops, but are now too old and the other men and women, both lay and ordained, who have years of experience. If we overtly give them a place to contribute their advice, we will be better equipped to build a future on solid ground.
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Hopefully the vote will return in July and the church will be given another chance. Not only for equality between men and women in the episcopate, but for a renewed community and political ethic. There is so much work for the church to do, and generations of spiritual guidance and teachings to pass on. It is the custodian of a heritage and faith that needs to be continually remembered and renewed, whilst the mistakes and lessons must never be forgotten. Recently I was in Wigton, sitting in our local church on a quiet back pew in the afternoon, and while I looked around the beautiful building, which had been built and preserved by so many, I could not help but feel that such a place is worth fighting for, worth protecting and deserves to be cherished by future generations as our sacred home.