Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s on the Third Sunday after Easter, 21st April 2013
Acts 9:36-43 – Tabitha

If you had asked me who Tabitha was, when I was little, I think I might have told you about Tabitha Twitchit, the cat in Beatrix Potter who was the mother of Tom Kitten and his sisters Mittens and Moppet, and who made clothes for the kittens.

Now in the lesson just now we heard about Tabitha in the Bible, whose name meant Dorcas, or ‘gazelle’, a woman ‘full of good works and almsdeeds which she did’. She had died: and the widows who were in attendance, weeping, showed the apostle Peter ‘the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.’ Like Tabitha Twitchit, Tabitha Dorcas was good at sewing.

But Dorcas was altogether more important than that. She is one of the few people in the Bible – or anywhere – to have been raised from the dead. The widow of Nain’s son; Lazarus, Jesus himself of course – and Jairus’ daughter. What Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter, whose name we are not told, was ‘talitha cumi’, ‘which is, being interpreted, Damsel, …. , arise.’

Damsel, arise. Talitha cumi. Dorcas, get up. Ταβιθα, αναστηθι, in Greek. There does seem to be some similarity between the two stories. Does it mean they are only stories?
St Paul said, if there were no resurrection, then our Christianity is pointless (1 Cor. 15:14).

But that’s not what I want to concentrate on this morning. We believe in God: we believe that Jesus was God in human form, the Son of God. Why would there be any limit to what God could do?

No, what I want to focus on is Tabitha, Dorcas. The Acts of the Apostles describes her as a ‘disciple’ – μαθήτρια, which means a learned woman, or a female student. It is the feminine version of the word used for the Twelve, the disciples. Their two key names are ‘disciple’ – a student – and ‘apostle’ – someone sent out, an ambassador. Today is celebrated in many churches as Vocation Sunday – and I want to look at this one person, Dorcas’, calling.

You will recall how important it was for St Paul to be accepted as a an apostle. He became the apostle to the Gentiles, to the non-Jews. Now here we have Dorcas, described as a ‘disciple’. This marks her out as very important among the early Christians. Before the Twelve became apostles, before Jesus sent them out to preach the gospel, they were disciples, students, of Jesus, the Teacher, the Rabbi.

When Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus at the tomb, she called Jesus ‘Rabboni’, the most respectful word for a rabbi, a teacher, when she realised that she had mistaken him for the gardener. She too was a disciple, μαθήτρια.

So just as St Paul mentions, for example at the beginning of some of his letters, that he is ‘called to be an apostle’, Dorcas is described, before anything is said about her good works, as ‘a disciple’. She has one of the key qualifications for being one of the early leaders of the church; she is a disciple.

When I was reading about Dorcas, it reminded me about the continuing wrangle in our church about women bishops. True enough, the Bible doesn’t say that Dorcas was a bishop, an επίσκοπος, an overseer. But is does say that she was a disciple. I feel that being a disciple then was probably even more exalted than being a bishop – and Dorcas was especially exalted, she was uniquely ‘exalted’, in that she was raised from the dead!

But my train of thought wasn’t about whether there is Biblical authority for there being women bishops – although I do think that Dorcas shows that there is – but rather I thought again about the fact that there is still a deadlock about it today.

As you will remember, at the last General Synod of the church in November last, the motion to allow the church to ordain women as bishops was very narrowly defeated, by four votes in the house of laity. Three of the four representatives in that house from our, Guildford, diocese, voted against, and so did two of our clergy representatives, (one of them being our Archdeacon, who is now going to be Bishop of Blackburn).

There was a lot of upset, sadness and anger as a result within the church – but outside, the most common reaction was that the Church of England had showed itself to be completely out of touch. It was not our best day.

But when the various post-mortems started, those who voted against were saying not that they opposed women becoming bishops, but that they did not feel there was ‘proper provision’ for people who did not accept that there should be women bishops.

As you will remember, when women were first ordained as priests, the church adopted a system of ‘flying bishops’ to give spiritual oversight to parishes which passed a resolution that they would not accept women as priests. There are three or four parishes out of the 160 in our diocese which fall into this category, and there is a flying bishop appointed – the technical term is that he is their ‘Provisional Episcopal Visitor’.

There have been various proposals about how to look after parishes that will not accept women bishops. First there was a suggested ‘Measure’, with a capital ‘M’, which would be part of Canon – church – Law. Then this was replaced by a suggested Code of Practice, which would be more like the Highway Code: not law in itself, but the idea is that if one follows it, it will avoid breaking the law.

The problem is, that there doesn’t seem to be any likelihood that the various groups who are opposed to women bishops will agree that any one system would give them the protection they are looking for.

The other problem, which is related to this, is that if you go too far in making provision for people who, for whatever reason, refuse to acknowledge the authority of a woman bishop, you will to some extent make that woman bishop less than, or certainly not equal to, a male bishop. Not surprisingly, that’s not acceptable either.

Our bishop, Bishop Christopher, has been taking part in various meetings of bishops aimed at trying to come up with proposals to put to the next meeting of General Synod in July, so that the impasse can be removed.

He has said that the bishops have decided not just simply to put the same proposals, which were rejected in November, to the vote again. It is thought that they would not get through – and there might even be more votes against than last time.

However, there is a silence about what proposals they are going to put forward. No one seems to be minded to compromise, and indeed some groups appear to have hardened their position.

There is apparently a school of thought, following the Bishop of Gloucester, that there is so little chance of agreement, given the current membership of the Synod, that the only thing to do is to wait until new Synod elections have taken place in three years’ time, and new people will be there to consider the whole thing afresh.

I think, from what I have read, that this wait-for-three years idea is really based on the assumption that the majority in the church, who support women bishops, will get themselves elected in bigger numbers, so that the opponents will be overwhelmingly defeated, and there will be no need to have any provisions for dissenters – you will either have to accept women bishops or, ultimately, leave the church. But then again, the antis might organise their supporters too, and come back in greater force.

I have recently discussed all this with a leading Forward in Faith minister (FiF are against women even as priests, let alone bishops) and with various people, lay and ordained, who can’t see why we shouldn’t have women bishops – and who think that the church is losing out, for as long as it doesn’t happen.

My own perspective is that the Church of England is a ‘broad church’ with a fine tradition of accommodating a wide variety of views on all sorts of important things. We range from High Churchmen, who are practically indistinguishable from Roman Catholics, who sometimes use Roman Catholic service books and pray for the Pope as Vicar of Christ on earth; we range from them to Low Churchmen, who don’t wear any vestments, who may not use the prescribed forms of services either, but incline to Pentecostal worship, speaking in tongues and so on: and we include all shades in between.

We accept that all these varieties are Anglicans. We turn a blind eye to the fact that Canon Law actually lays down the services to be used, the vestments to be worn, and the doctrine which is supposed to be authoritative – you can find it in the 39 Articles in your Prayer Books, beginning at page 611. There are an awful lot of churches that don’t go along with these requirements – and no-one tries to kick them out as a result.

It has given me the idea, (which you might think is an odd one coming from a lawyer), that perhaps it is not a good idea to try to draw up legalistic solutions to the women bishops question. Codes of practice, Measures in Canon Law and so on, will never command unanimity. But should that stop the whole process?

I wonder whether in fact a better way would not be simply to recognise that not all Anglicans agree, even on quite fundamental matters – but that we all worship the same God and proclaim the same Lord Jesus Christ. So we should simply get on with ordaining bishops. Some would be men, and some, women.

Perhaps we would have to do it on the basis that all the language we use now is really gender-neutral. Just as in a legal contract it usually says that words connoting the masculine also include the feminine, so we could either actually change the relevant words in the consecration service and in Canon Law, or adopt a definition clause similar to one in a contract.

Then what if a particular parish doesn’t accept the bishop’s authority, if that bishop happens to be female? I would suggest that a parish in that situation should do what a number of parishes already do, even in this diocese, and would just carry on regardless.

If they need a bishop, they can ask one to come and give them ‘episcopal oversight’, for example to ordain new priests. There is a good historical precedent for this in the beginnings of Methodism, when John Wesley (who with his brother Charles, remained Anglican priests until they died) found that there were many congregations in the new colonies in America who had no priest – but that the Church of England would not send bishops to ordain people.

So the Wesleys, who were not bishops, ordained ministers for these congregations. Although in the end it was a factor in such congregations becoming Methodist rather than Anglican, there was no difference – there is no difference – between Anglicans and Methodists doctrinally, and the Wesleys weren’t kicked out of the Anglican Church.

Today’s Americans have arguably done it again – they have ordained women as bishops, and indeed the ‘Presiding Bishop’, as they call it, their leading bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is female. But although there have been rumblings, the Episcopal Church has not been chucked out of the Anglican Communion.

This would seem to me to be very true to the practice of the early church. First Jesus himself, and then St Paul, set up the gospel message over against the religion of the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus said, according to St Matthew, (5:17) ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.’

But He went on to preach the Sermon on the Mount, which went far further than the old legalistic approach. A Christian goes the extra mile, turns the other cheek: that is much more important than the letter of the law. Could we not adopt a similar approach to consecrating women as bishops?

I would suggest that if we did look at it in a less legalistic way, then we should not draft precise codes of conduct or detailed provisions. We would simply acknowledge that in this area, as in others, some congregations would not entirely conform: but the hierarchy would turn a blind eye.

I hope you get the idea. Sometimes a sermon isn’t a ready-made prescription: do this and your passage to heaven is secure. Sometimes the preacher has to challenge their flock, to ask you to work out how you would put the gospel message into practice in your lives. This is one of those. Let me – let Bishop Christopher – know what you think.

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