Women bishops - really?
There was much media interest in the Church of England’s General Synod vote in July about women bishops (see August’s EN).
It is well known that Synod has been considering this for some time; part of the question has been how to provide for those churches which disagree. The significance of the vote was that it set a course for the ordination of women as bishops, which makes no legally binding arrangements for dissenting congregations. More than that — but less well-known — is that the proposed legislation would also remove the right of a local church to specify that it wants its own minister to be a man.
The press coverage could easily give the impression that those in favour of women bishops have won the argument; that those who are against it are reactionary, odd and chauvinist; that it is mainly Anglo-Catholics, and not evangelicals, who are concerned; and that there is no difference between the ordination of women as presbyters and bishops. Moreover, we evangelicals say to each other that we have other battles to fight at the moment; why be awkward about this? But these impressions need challenging. Here goes!
First, the argument for women bishops has not yet been won. General Synod has simply set in motion a process which will need a further Synod vote and then agreement at the more local Diocesan Synods, before going back to General Synod. There remains opportunity for evangelicals who are opposed to this to make their case — so long as they get on with it.
Nor has the case for women in overall church leadership been won at a theological level. One outcome of the past 30 years of debate of this issue on both sides of the Atlantic has been a furious re-examination of the Scriptures. The careful scholarship of John Piper, Wayne Grudem, Don Carson and many others has shown that the passages in Paul and Peter which bear on this issue have been rightly translated in our modern English versions (for instance, the Greek word kephale really did mean ‘head’, not ‘source’ in ordinary Greek usage).
Moreover, these passages also speak to us. While the situation in Ephesus which lies behind 1 Timothy 2.9-14 is, like everything in that letter, a local one, the apostle replies with a universal principle. This, of course, is what we normally do ourselves: when the sun is strong (a local issue) we tell our kids to put on sun cream (based on the universal principle that the sun burns). The onus is surely on those who read these words differently to explain what these words do mean for us, and why, under the supervision of God’s Spirit, they are in the Bible.
Of course, there are questions about exactly how to apply this teaching to the roles of men and women on church staff teams and so on, which different churches resolve differently; but surely no one is in any doubt that bishops (whether you like them or not!) have a ‘headship’ role.
Secondly, those who believe it inappropriate for women to become bishops are caricatured as reactionary and as chauvinistic. On the contrary, we (and the many women amongst us!) believe that honouring the Bible is the right way to honour women. With Paul, we affirm that ‘there is neither male nor female’ in terms of worth: far from it! But we do not equate worth with power as the world does (and as seems to be done, in such an unseemly way, in this debate).
At Christ Church we are glad to include a ‘complementary’ view of gender roles in our teaching on marriage, family life and church. We hope and pray many happy marriages will result — and they do! In such a context, the oversight of a woman bishop would be hard to explain, however great her merits in other regards.
Some of my friends would disagree with those of us who take this view; but I would ask them to understand that we do so genuinely, for reasons of scriptural conviction. I hope they will show us, in this debate, the same courtesy Paul urges the Roman Christians to express to one another in Romans 14-15 (a sensitivity the Synod looks, so far, as if it does not want to extend).
Third, it is not true that it is really only Anglo-Catholics who are opposed to women becoming bishops. Many Anglican evangelical churches have passed ‘Resolution B’ during vacancies, expressly requesting that only a man be the senior pastor of their church. I cannot think of any larger evangelical churches which have a woman in charge. If it is true that we have not spoken strongly on this, it is perhaps because our attention is focussed on the same-sex issue, which simultaneously dogs our denomination, or because we don’t know exactly what to do.
Fourth, it’s said there is no difference between women as incumbents and women as bishops: now we’ve had one, why not the other? It is quite true that it is hard to differentiate the exact meanings of the words translated ‘elder’ and ‘overseer’ in the New Testament. But in the Anglican situation, there is a practical difference. While the incumbent of the neighbouring parish has no authority in your church, your bishop does. When the Ordination of Women as Priests Measure was passed in 1992, provision was specifically made for those churches which wished to retain male overall leadership (indeed, the vote would not have been passed without this). Both at the level of bishop and incumbent, all this may now change.
Finally, on an issue like this, is it really worth bothering? It is true that it is less serious than the same-sex issue, but that does not mean it does not matter: it is still an issue addressed by the Bible. And if it is God’s ordering for us, we neglect it at our peril. The leadership of a church is never an insignificant issue; on the contrary, it is of great importance. We need to think: how, in ten, 20 or 30 years are we as churches to witness to a society profoundly confused about sexuality and gender? How will our young people learn God’s beautiful pattern for family life? In the end, will we trust in the Lord with all our hearts, or lean on our own understanding?
It is easy for us to be lulled into defeatism by the myth of irreversible social change: ‘everyone thinks this; society is heading this way; we must go along with it’. Those with long memories will remember that there was a time when every civilised person thought we could sort out our inner cities with tower blocks! Or when, for that matter, in feminism’s heyday, men were from Mars, and women too.
So let us bother. Anglican churches should courteously seek to persuade their Synod reps. And all of us should pray. Please would our sisters and brothers in the free churches do so too. You do not even need to agree with bishops to do so! When one part of the body is weak, we are all weak, but if the Bible is upheld within the Church of England, that can only be good for witness to our nation as a whole.
Alasdair Paine is Vicar of Christ Church Westbourne, Bournemouth.