A Question of Bishops

Women Bishops of the Anglican Communion.Lambeth 2008

I spent most of Tuesday listening to the live audio feed and following the Twitterfall of the General Synod debate on the Ordination of Women to the Episcopate Measure. When the result of the vote was announced I was bitterly disappointed. The C of E decided in 1975 that there were no fundamental theological objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood. I expected that to be properly affirmed on Tuesday, and full equality of women and men in ministry to be achieved, but it was not to be.

Much has been written about the vote, which affirmed the wish of the vast majority of both bishops, clergy and laity for female bishops, but which was lost by the failure to reach the required two-thirds majority in the House of Laity.  I just want to make two comments on the debate.

I was disturbed at how inward-looking the contributors to the debate were. It was all about the Church of England, as if we were not part of the Anglican Communion and Churches Together in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Ecumenical relations were mentioned by some speakers, but with one exception that I heard, only with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.  These speakers were concerned that the ordination of women as bishops would place further barriers to unity with these churches.

However, the prospect of unity with these churches is light years away! They don’t recognise the orders of our male priests and bishops as valid; the Roman Catholics don’t even officially believe we are a proper church. To ask the Church of England to delay making a change in its orders because it might obstruct unity with these churches is living in cloud cuckoo land!

I was amazed that no-one mentioned the many churches with whom the Church of England does have close links, which already have women in the episcopate or equivalent leadership roles. Bishop Nick Baines hinted at this, but by the time he spoke, speeches were limited to one minute, and there was not enough time for him to elaborate, so the point was not strongly made.There are the many churches in the Anglican Communion, in the USA, Canada, New Zealand for example; there are the Lutheran and Evangelical churches in Scandinavia, Germany and France to whom we are linked through the Poorvoo and  Meissen Agreements and Reuilly declaration; and there is the Methodist Church, with whom we have a Covenant. These agreements pledge us to welcome clergy of each other’s churches to share ministry, worship and pastoral care. The Anglican/Methodist Covenant pledges us to work for full visible unity. How can we do that when we can’t acknowledge their women in authority as bishops?

More worrying than the lack of attention to real ecumenical considerations was the failure to address the theological issues behind the vote, particularly the Biblical and ecclesialogical ones.

No-one challenged the repeated assertions that ‘male headship’ was Biblical. John Walker has written at length on why this interpretation doesn’t stand up.

What particularly struck me during the debate was the way those who could not accept female bishops were demanding oversight by ‘a bishop who thinks like us’. This seems to me to be a distortion of the role of a bishop. Bishops are called to be signs of unity: the introduction to the Ordination and Consecration of Bishops says “they are to gather God’s people and celebrate with them the sacraments of the new covenant. Thus formed into a single communion of faith and love, the Church in each place and time is united with the Church in every place and time.”

I know that our present bishops come from different traditions in the church; but when I have watched them in the Cathedral or in the parish church, I have never been able to tell, from the way that they exercise their office, which tradition they come. Good bishops are able to become all things to all people, and to rise above the relatively unimportant differences of tradition and churchmanship.

It is alien to Anglican ecclesiology for a bishop to say he won’t minister to a particular parish because their theological tradition differs from his; and no parish is able to reject the authority of the diocesan bishop over them.

The Act of Synod after the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood in 1992 opened the door to this fundamental change in the understanding of episcopacy by allowing parishes to petition for alternative episcopal oversight; but they had to ask their diocesan bishop to nominate someone, they couldn’t pick and choose. The demand to have a bishop of their own theological persuasion is simply one step further to schism. If they don’t accept the authority of their bishop, if they will only obey a bishop who shares their theological approach, how can they be said to be in communion with the rest of the church?

What next? Obviously when the church comes to debate the question of whether gays may be bishops, people who object will feel entitled to bishops who object. Will we than have parishes who believe in Creationism asking for bishops who believe the same; and those who don’t refusing to accept the authority of bishops who do? This can only lead to further fragmentation.

Sarah Coakley has written that “we cannot compromise on the historic theology of the bishop as locus of unity”.

I am coming round to the opinion that, in spite of the pain and hurt that the vote on Tuesday caused to women in the church, both ordained and lay, and the men who support them, it may well have been a good thing, since it gives the Church of England the chance to think again, and to bring in a measure which does not redefine the role of a bishop in a way that can only lead to more and more division and fragmentation in the church.

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5 Responses to A Question of Bishops

  1. Chris says:

    Excellent reflection – thank you! The implications which you have drawn out never receive appropriate attention or weight in the attempts to conciliate the opponents of women’s ministry. Perhaps good may come of the whole debacle.

  2. In the congregation this morning when I led worship and preached at a Methodist chapel was a visiting female Circuit Superintendent from Wales. She is very much involved in a 5 church Covenant between the Anglican Church in Wales and 4 non-conformist churches. It is coming up for renewal, but she told me the non-conformists are debating whether the Covenant needs revising, since the clauses talking about moving to full visible unity are nonsense while the Anglicans don’t have female bishops, so can’t accept the women in episcopal level leadership in their church as equals.

  3. Chair of WATCH reflects http://www.womenandthechurch.org/chairsblog/advent-reflections
    and the Bishop of Ebbsfleet http://www.ebbsfleet.org.uk/ Not much hope of any compromise in these!

  4. And now some sections of the Roman Catholic Church are arguing publicly and theologically for the ordination of women to the priesthood. http://ncronline.org/news/people/editorial-ordination-women-would-correct-injustice#.ULzODvmgmA0.twitter

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