How’s your French? I first realised that there was a difference between objective reality and our perception of it in the 1960s, when listening to a pop song by Antoine called ‘Madame Laure, Messenger de Dieu’. Here are the lyrics:
Madame Laure Messenger habitait une grande maison
Vide où elle gardait pour seuls compagnons
Deux poissons rouges fort jolis
Qu’elle nommait Claude et Jérémie
Madame Laure Messenger soignait fort bien ses poissons
Tous les jours, à cinq heures, elle changeait avec précaution
L’eau du grand bocal brillant
Claude et Jérémie pouvaient être heureux vraiment
Claude et Jérémie se disputaient parfois
L’un disant «Dieu existe», l’autre «Dieu n’existe pas»
Jérémie a eu le dernier mot
«Bien sûr Dieu existe ! Qui crois-tu qui change l’eau ?»
God exists. Or he does not exist and has never existed. Or he is dead. That is the objective reality.
All the rest is our perception and understanding as mere mortals. We are the goldfish.
We plough the fields and scatter the good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand.
Or it is fed and watered by the forces of nature with no divine supervision.
All religions are based on perception, which may or may not match objective reality. As Bishop Desmond Tutu famously said, ‘God is not a Christian’, but for Christians, Christianity is our map of the universe, how we perceive it. (Bear with me, I’m nearly there!) And for members of the Church of England, including its priests and bishops, the Church of England represents the model which we find most congenial as a framework for worshipping God.
When it is said that the Church of England represents the Conservative Party at prayer, this is taken as mocking criticism (and it was indeed probably intended that way). But it is the Conservative Party at prayer. And the Labour Party. And the Liberal Democrats. And even UKIP. It is the Church of the people of England.
Two things which should be quite distinct have got muddled, in my opinion. The collective faith of members of the Church of England in God is not negotiable. But the way in which the Almighty is worshipped is something else again. If our way of worshipping God does not reflect the way the people of England live, move and have their being it will die. It is showing signs of this already, and the refusal to appoint women bishops will only distance the Church of England from the realities of life of the people whom it exists to bring to God.
Women have taken their place among men as leaders of the nation: to state the obvious, we have just celebrated 60 years on the throne of our Queen, and we live in a post-Thatcher era which is now part of our history. Women are surgeons, professors, bankers, politicians and, yes, church leaders. They are not yet bishops, but an overwhelming majority of dioceses (42/44) voted in favour of the raising of women to the episcopate on the same terms as men.
I am sorry that there are those in the Church who feel that their ways of worshipping God are being ignored. But it is important that the Church continue to reflect the community as a whole: it is a physical impossibility to alter the geometry and square the circle. There is no principle of any value at stake here, merely the force of ingrained habit.
Mrs Laure, messenger of God, lived in a large empty house with only two goldfish for company; she named them Claude and Jeremy.She looked after her goldfish very well – at five o’clock sharp each day she changed the water in their bowl. Claud and Jeremy really had good reason to be happy. But they argued sometimes, one saying ‘God exists’, the other ‘God does not exist’. Jeremy had the last word on the matter: “of course God exists! Who do you think changes our water?”