“We have some explaining to do.”
The above quote, taken from Archbishop Rowan Williams’ remarks to General Synod following the recent vote on the measure for the consecration of women bishops, challenges all members of the Church of England. Whilst for those of us who were hoping and praying that this measure would be passed its failure was a bitter pill to swallow; for the vast majority of the population who have little or no connection with any church it was utterly incomprehensible.
Before going any further it is worth pointing out that 42 out of the 44 Dioceses in the Church of England did in fact give their support to the measure and indeed, in terms of simple majorities, all three houses of General Synod (Bishops, Clergy and Laity) voted in favour. The high bar (a required two thirds majority in each house) led to the vote falling slightly short in the house of laity.
So how come, in 2013, when we have a female Supreme Governor of the Church of England (The Queen!) and over thirty years since the election of the first woman Prime Minister, the Church of England continues to deny its highest offices to women? In thinking this through we must bear in mind that the same theological concerns that led some in the Church of England to be opposed to women priests are equally relevant to the present debate about women bishops. The following is offered as a brief attempt to explain the issues that have brought us to this point as well as offering a personal response to them (which I do understand not all those reading this will agree with!).
The first issue concerns the person of Jesus himself and is a problem for some (but not all) of a more anglo-catholic persuasion. It is argued that, as the priest at Holy Communion represents Christ and Christ was male, therefore the priest must be male. This is linked with a doctrine of ‘apostolic succession’ which understands ordained ministry as being validated by the continuity of the laying of hands at (male) ordination traced all the way back to the original (male) Apostles. The response to this would be that, although Christ was undoubtedly male, he was most significantly a human being and that on the cross he represented and gave his life for the whole of humanity, female and male. If this is true then he can surely be represented by both female and male priests equally.
The second issue, which causes a problem to some (but not all) evangelicals concerns how we interpret those passages in the New Testament that seem to affirm that ordained ministry in the church should be an exclusively male preserve. It should be borne in mind that the world in which the Bible was written was very much a man’s world. So, for example, when Paul was writing his letters, the cultural context was very different to the one we are used to in Britain today where gender equality is widely assumed. So the question is that when Paul assumes, as he seems to in his first letter to Timothy, that church leaders and helpers are male and when, I Corinthians 14, he says that ‘women should remain silent in the churches’, are his words and assumptions binding on all subsequent Christian generations? Some would say that in the context of ordained ministry the answer is ‘yes’; that this is God’s immovable and unchanging blueprint for the church – men must have the ultimate authority.
However I would argue that this approach is fair neither to the Bible nor to women. What we must take into account is that, whereas many of the New Testament churches certainly did have exclusively male leadership (and although there is not time here to look at this in detail, there were, for example, local contextual reasons for Paul’s statements in I Corinthians 14), others very clearly did not. In Romans 16 v 7 Paul refers to a certain ‘Junia’ who is both a woman and ‘outstanding among the apostles’. In Acts 21 v 9 Luke refers to four unmarried daughters of Philip the evangelist who all had a prophetic ministry. Given that apostles and prophets were regarded as the most important Christian ministers in New Testament times it is hugely significant that, at least in the churches in Rome and Caesarea (and surely these are not isolated examples), women undertook these key leadership roles. There is other evidence that women and men shared all of the major leadership roles in at least some of the New Testament churches.
So what about Jesus himself? Yes, he did choose twelve men to be his core ‘disciples’ (in line with contemporary rabbinic practice) but there were many women (a number of them, quite confusingly, called Mary!) among his closest followers one of whom, Mary Magdalene, who had the honour of being the first to testify as an apostolic witness when she told the rest of the disciples that she had seen the risen Lord Jesus.
So I don’t agree that the biblical evidence can justify twenty centuries of excluding that half of humanity that happens to be female from any of the ordained ministries in the church.
So let’s return to the Church of England in the 21st century. The ordination of women to the diaconate and the priesthood in recent years has immeasurably enriched the life and ministry of the church and it has been such a pleasure and a privilege to have worked at Norbury over the years with Karen Martin, Helen Scarisbrick and Jenny Mayo-Lythall; to have recognised their vocation and learned so much from their example as ordained priests. Given that enrichment it feels to me that there is a particular injustice in continuing to exclude women from the episcopate as if to say ‘thus far and no further’. I long for the day when the first woman bishop in consecrated and wish that General Synod had made that possible back In November.
Of course there are those within the Church of England who deeply disagree with the views I am expressing and it is very important that measures are put in place to enable them to remain within the church and to exercise the gifts that God has given to them. In a world where minorities are often treated with thoughtlessness and brutality we must show that the church of Jesus Christ is a place where we allow space for people to be who they are without offending conscience. Such measures were included in the women bishops measure and if some more work needs to be done on them it is important that it is undertaken urgently and sensitively. But this is too fundamental an issue to leave until another day (or five years’ time!) because it is undermining the mission and ministry of the church.
The quote from Rowan Williams with gives this blog its title does reflects how painful it has been for him personally to finish his tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury on such a unhappy note. As we continue to pray and thank God for him we should also be in prayer for his successor, Justin Welby, a strong supporter of women bishops, that he may have wisdom and courage in abundance. I hope with all my heart that we can correct this injustice lying at the heart of the ministry of the Church of England at the earliest possible moment. Tomorrow would be good!
Thank you to all who came to one of the services on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day: it was wonderful to celebrate the true meaning of Christmas with so many friends, young and old. We look forward to welcoming you all back soon!
Norbury is looking very festive at the moment (as a quick glance at some of our recent Facebook photos should confirm), and everyone is getting very excited about Christmas. It’s wonderful once again to be in one of those times of the year when the church is the focus of so much frenetic activity – and perhaps even the occasional moment of quiet reflection.
Preparations are well underway for the Christingle service, which is at 18.00 on Christmas Eve. The church is always packed to the rafters, as there’s no better way to mark the beginning of Christmas than to remind yourself what it’s all about (with a few sweets thrown in for good measure). The picture on the right gives you a little taste of some of what you can expect come Monday night, and – if you’ve been behaving this year – perhaps even on Tuesday morning! To find out quite what’s going on, though, you’ll have to come along to the service. We look forward to seeing you there!
Welcome to our new website! Keep checking back as we’ll be making regular posts through the blog, and continually updating the site.