Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Breaking the logjam

After that last post on women bishops, how could I not recommend this petition, which seems to me one of the few practical ways of tackling this question (and also the constitutional sclerosis) that I've seen?

If it's actually not practical, I'm sure someone will tell me ...

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The women bishops disaster

Well, surprise, anger, despair, bafflement, a suffocating blanket of why-did-I-expect-anything-else, on this subject. I was lifted out of this last night, shortly after the news came through, watching two small boys blowing up each other's Lego models. Who could watch that and not think that spiritual leadership is a distinctively male quality?

But then, I'm a scarcely-repentant Protestant who doesn't really believe in bishops at all. So what do I know. Two slightly more considered thoughts.

One: this is certainly a disaster, but it's primarily a constitutional disaster - the product of a deeply obscure and dysfunctional decision-making process in the Church of England. It's not so much the supermajority requirement - something that pushes us to consensus is not a bad thing. But making it impossible to revisit a deeply urgent issue for five years is simply ridiculous: this needs to be resolved. And it also brings out how problematic the House of Laity is. This is a very indirectly elected body, and I believe relatively few of the candidates make their positions on the key issues plain to the electors. This isn't democracy in action; it's not clear that the lay representatives actually represent anyone, no matter the fine personal qualities of the individuals. If this fiasco exposes the essential illegitimacy of the body and of the process, then it's achieved something.

Two: we do, as a Church, actually deserve this. The bitterness, lack of goodwill and hairsplitting failures of generosity with which the debate has been conducted on both sides - including by me - has not been a model of Christian decisionmaking. A little repentance all round would not go amiss at this point. It might make the resolution of the issue a touch easier too.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Impossible history

Yesterday I had the unusual experience of leading a 90-minute class on the use of historical theory for theologians, and then going to preach on the connection between history and faith at evensong at University College. That double perspective and the discussions that resulted crystallised some old problems for me.

There was a lot of talk about how history (that is, modern, academic history, wearing its 19th-century rationalist garb) deals with miracles. The tendency is to assume that history is basically secularising. Leigh Eric Schmidt's wonderful history of American revivalism, Hearing Things, describes academic history as approaching the sacred with 'narratives of suspicion'.

That's obviously true, but I now wonder if it's both less sinister and less problematic than it appears. Because what strikes me now is that history deals exclusively in probabilities: nothing is ever proved or disproved categorically. But a miracle could almost be defined as an event whose probability can't be assessed.

On one level, you need to make an a priori decision whether miracles are possible at all. If no, then you are left with the Sherlock Holmes principle: eliminate the impossible, and whatever's left, however improbable, must be the truth. Which, as the late great Douglas Adams pointed out, is ever so slightly silly. "The impossible often has a kind of integrity to it that the merely improbable lacks."

But more than that, even if you grant that miracles are possible, how on earth can you assess their probability? A miracle is by definition an exceptional event, even a unique one, which defies patterns. It's neither probable or improbable: either it's impossible or it's inevitable.

So history isn't hostile as such to miracle-claims: it simply can't process them. They're outside its scope. And fair enough. The trick is to remember that, when there is something about which we cannot speak, it is sometimes prudent to keep silent.