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Church reform is systemic not personal

  • 19 July 2022
Listening to various interventions and discussions within the Second Assembly of the Plenary Council reminded me that there are deep fault lines between reformers and those wedded to the status quo. When those, like myself, seeking reform speak of systemic change to church structures those opposed to change see disrespect towards those holding positions like bishop and priest within the established order. When reformers seek the equality of women in governance and ministry those opposed to change see disrespect towards lay men and male religious as well as to other women. 

Many, perhaps most, occupants of these positions do not see it that way just as many men do not see the advancement of women as devaluing their position or role within the church. That was clear at the Assembly where warm friendships and relationships were the norm. But it is an enduring point of view which must be addressed because it lay behind many passionate viewpoints expressed during the Assembly. Reformers are bemused by these defences of the status quo which seem to be deeply held and impenetrable because they are embedded in our culture. 

This approach to defending the status quo is not restricted to the Church. The monarchy-republic debate is an example. Republicans are often criticised for being disrespectful of the Queen. Closer to home I was once taken to task by one of the children of a Governor-General for being critical of him for defending the status quo. We came to amicable agreement that rather than being personal I was just arguing for systemic change and the Governor-General was a representative of the monarchical structure I was seeking to change.  

The now controversial Part 4 of the Motions and Amendments for the Second Assembly on “Witnessing to the Equal Dignity of Women and Men” is a case in point. Some members clearly misunderstood or misinterpreted the title of this section. It was not about men at all. The bulk of the text and all the motions were about advancing the role of women in the church. Yet some members saw the thrust of this section as disrespectful to men. This led to pleading from the floor to expand references to men in the document. We even heard one suggestion from a man that the Assembly should create a separate section on the dignity of men.  These interventions were not taken up thankfully. 

'The point should be repeated. Reformers are