The turn of the year is a moment to look forward. My hopes for 2014 are a mix of both personal and professional. This year we hope as a family for the safe arrival of a new grandchild and I will be 60. It gives perspective. When I was a teenager I realised that if God exists this is the most important fact of our existence. ‘Fact’ in this context is a complex word but what we see of God in Jesus Christ is enough for faith to base a life on.
I hope we will constantly be renewed by God’s love and that the Church will know how much we matter for the sake of those around. Often we are reminded of this by what others ask of us. Every week the Church of England takes 5,000 baptisms, weddings and funerals. When we provide a service that attends to people’s needs there is a deep encounter with God. Most people have realised that to be human is to be religious and that the worship of God is a natural response to the wonder and beauty of creation. So the Diocesan clergy conference in the summer will be about the centrality of God renewing hope.
One of my hopes for the year is that the General Synod will finally give approval to the ordination of women bishops. No one can accuse the Church of England of moving hastily on this matter. At my ordination as Deacon in 1979 my mother said she wouldn’t fully believe in the Church of England until there is a female Archbishop of Canterbury. The case for women priests was being made in the 1920’s. The first woman priest in the Anglican Communion, Florence Li Tim Oi, was ordained 70 years ago on 25 January 1944 by the Bishop of Hong Kong. It was said to be a war-time emergency to provide the ministry of a priest in the Portuguese colony of Macau. Even so there was quite a fuss and after the war Li Tim Oi adopted what she described as ‘the deck chair principle’. She was willing to be folded up and put in the corner until she was thought to be useful again.
That ambivalence about the ordination of women is nearly over. The Church of England now says clearly and unequivocally that we want the ministry of women on the same basis as that of men but that we will continue to provide for the small minority of those who do not accept this. It is a principled and generous way forward.
Like it or not this coming year will also see the first same sex marriages in the UK. The Church has been divided. Some of us are in favour, some are not. There is a striking difference between those over 60, mostly against, and those under 40, mostly in favour. The Church of England cannot perform such marriages, even where a priest or congregation think it would be right. Society is moving on and the debate in Church will continue. We do not need to rush but we will need to work out how we regard those who are legally married.
In South Africa the Anglican Church has recently issued pastoral guidelines which seem to be honest and helpful. My hope is that we can do similarly and live gracefully with diversity within the Church.
The addition written in our Christmas cards, “and a peaceful new year” is something that doesn’t just happen. Stating our hopes can be like forming a prayer. What do we want for the year? What do we ask of God and what can we do to help make it happen? We have to want it and work for it. Reinhold Niebuhr’s much loved prayer is a help:
God grant us grace to accept the things we cannot change,
the courage to change the things we can change
and the wisdom to know the difference.
The Right Reverend Nicholas Holtam
Bishop of Salisbury