Saturday, 24 November 2012

We need to talk about women

I don't normally get back ache.

When I think back to the day it started, I remember it was Tuesday 20 November, the day the Synod of the Church of England voted against the Measure to ordain women to the Episcopate.

I have tried to rationalise this back ache in other ways - it's been quite a busy week, tiredness can creep in, I raked up a lot of leaves in the garden last weekend. But none of this is the real explanation. As it creeps up my spine and along my shoulders into my neck and head I know in my bones it's nothing short of a huge spiritual sadness over a missed opportunity and a deep sense of injustice.

I've never thought of myself as radical but I can feel my patience to listen to those who take issue with women bishops running out somewhat. Before Tuesday, if you had asked me, I would have said that proper provision needs to be made for those whose reading of Scripture is different from mine. 

There are two distinct theological sets of objections to women bishops. There are those, like members of Reform who take St Paul's injunctions to the NT churches about women leading and teaching men as a trans-cultural mandate for what they call 'headship', concluding that women cannot ever be priests in charge, Incumbents, Bishops or..............'dignitaries' (this is the list from the Reform website. Sorry...dignitaries? what? what?) 

Under this prohibition I'm assuming that women may be ordained priest but must always serve under an ordained man in some way. I can't quite imagine how this theology is worked out in praxis, but I don't expect there are hundreds of Reform women queuing up to be ordained so maybe it doesn't feel like a problem to them.

Then there are also those on the Catholic wing who cannot accept women's ordained leadership because it involves (as I understand it) receiving the sacrament from someone whose gender debars them from embodying the true priesthood of Christ, rendering the sacrament 'ineffective'. They also argue that the church universal has stood by this traditional interpretation for 2000 years (a little more than the time we stood by slavery): departing from it puts our relations with the Roman Catholic church on a parlous footing and flies in the face of unity.

I am a reasonable person and I take seriously Paul's teaching that those 'with a weaker conscience' should be respected (1 Corinthians 8:7-13). I may have a 'weaker conscience' on some issue one day and I would like my views to be respected then. But I like to think that during that time I would be searching the Scriptures and reflecting on culture and tradition to see if perhaps I was wrong on that issue and needed to embrace something that other Christians have already come to accept as God's will.

But the question I'm asking myself now is when does respecting someone's conscience turn into a growing feeling that they're just plain wrong about Scripture and tradition? Did St Paul not also imply that theologically some people have been on baby milk too long and need to move onto solids now (1 Corinthians 3:1-4)? As one blogger said this week, perhaps Conservative Evangelicals 'need to get out more'.

But therein lies the problem. When we operate in churches and groups where everyone subscribes to the same view, and that view is reinforced every time the church gathers and no one sees a women in charge, or a woman with teaching responsibility or a woman standing behind the altar, then of course the very thought of it is going to seem peculiar and 'wrong'. Many who were unsure about women priests at first, after actually seeing them in operation couldn't really remember what all the fuss was about. Take The Vicar of Dibley's David Horton, Church Warden from Hell, 'converted' to the reverend's biggest fan by the end of series three. 

The further worrying thing about enclaves of like minded objectors is that other aspects of 'theology' group themselves around their primary theological objection One such is the idea that women in the Episcopate will adversely affect mission as 'young men' in the conservative traditions are deterred from offering themselves for ordination.   Well, I could speak of the young women who are, even now, reconsidering whether the church whose founder treated women with radical equality is really a welcome place for them now. 

I am not sure that after nearly two decades of women's ordination those with 'consciences' are going to change their minds about any of this. Reform-types are always going to take some bible texts and build 'headship' out of them, whilst ignoring the NT injunction 'slaves obey your masters'  for cultural reasons. Forward in Faith are always going to elevate and particularise priesthood so that only certain men can preside whilst ignoring the anointing given Jesus by a woman in Matthew 26: 6-13, which Jesus described as 'a beautiful thing.'

It is in theory possible to change your mind though. The cross fertilization of the charismatic movement with evangelicalism has brought with it a welcome theology of female inclusion - after all, the Spirit gives as he wills (1 Corinthians 12:11) and if that means he gives leadership and teaching gifts regardless of gender, we'd better not ring fence those gifts. And there are also those faithful women within Roman Catholicism who believe the Holy Spirit is calling them to the priesthood. I have listened to both Evangelicals and Anglo Catholics who, after being exposed to such influences and having an informed mind towards Scripture and tradition, have concluded that the hermeneutical direction of Scripture is towards equality of role as well as of being. 

But at the end of this week, back ache and all, if I were Paul, surveying the fall out from a Synod which voted NO and did so for theological reasons, and I looked around and saw the negative impact of this on the standing of the Christian gospel in the nation, I would be absolutely exasperated.

If I were Paul (or Peter for that matter) I think I'd just be very tempted to say: 'It's time to grow up'.


  1. I was bitterly disappointed at the result on Tuesday, but as I've read and reflected over the result this week, I'm coming round to the conclusion it may have been a blessing in disguise. The Code of Practice would have allowed the objectors to remain in their hermetically sealed environments, never experiencing a woman as bishop, priest or preacher. And, as you say, that prevents any possibility of change.
    That would also have seriously damaged the Anglican view of the bishop as the focus of unity. Bishops until now have not been able to pick and choose which congregations they care for; congregations have not been able to choose which bishop they obey on the basis of their beliefs. Where will it end? With fragmentation of the Church of England.
    I think it's about time for supporters of women in the episcopate to say, "Enough is enough. You who oppose have rejected every attempt to assure you that your views are respected. You have made it clear you don't trust the present bishops. Why are you still in the Church of England?"

  2. Your analogy of David Horton hits the nail on the head. He only came round to the notion of the ordination to it through a gentle exposure the fruits of that ministry. Each year the number of the ABC parishes falls as the richness of womens ministry is realised. But if those ABC parishes weren't given the space to come to that conclusion on their own then they would have disintegrated or become a ghetto - neither of which furthers the Kingdom of God. If we trust that the ordination of women to episcopate is a movement of the spirit then surely we must afford those who as yet don't see that the space to come to that realisation.

    As I say, the number of ABC parishes is falling. Similarly compare the diocesan synod votes in the 90s to today. Attitudes are slowly changing. Surely therefore it's better to give those we can't agree with space in which God's spirit can truly be at work. 'Thy will be done'.

  3. Addressing the previous comment, it is not the opponents of women bishops who have rejected attempts at provision but the liberal movement within the church. Time and time again over the past four years the bishops have given majority support to a number of measures which were then voted down by the house of clergy. Just look at the recent vote on the Archbishops Amendment. Support by a majority of bishops and an overall majority in the house, but voted down by the house of clergy (by a margin of 5, remind you of anything?). Were that amendment passed then we would now have women bishops. I thought you need to go back and look at Synod voting patterns to see where the opposition to dialogue is coming from.

    1. Both the liberals and the middle of the road members want female bishops. The liberals would prefer a straight one clause measure with no legal provision for objectors, leaving that to the good sense and pastoral sensitivity of bishops. They have compromised in voting for a measure which includes in the legislation guidance to the Code of Practice. The middle of the road members want a measure that makes provision for objectors but doesn't make female bishops second class bishops, with objectors able to by-pass them and no-go areas in their dioceses. They accepted the Archbishops' and the Appleby amendments as doing that. The Revision Committee explained why solutions put forward by the objectors were unacceptable or unworkable, and that is why the measure went to the dioceses in the form it did. The Archbishops' amendment went too far towards giving parishes individual 'choice' of bishop. The Appleby amendment was still felt by many supporters to go too far towards giving that choice, but was supported by everyone except the extreme Anglo Catholic and fundamentalist Evangelical objectors. It seems to me that they will not approve anything that requires they approach a female bishop for alternative provision; those who support female bishops won't approve anything that sidelines female bishops and gives them less authority than a male bishop. So we're at stalemate.

    2. We really are at stalemate. Cannot see a way forward myself. Increasingly I scratch my head at interpreting Paul in the way objectors do. They are happy to have applied cultural shifts to guidance on slaves but not on women.

  4. I don't understand when you say it's the liberal wing who have rejected attempts at provision. I thought it was the conservatives from both ends of the spectrum who wish to be 'protected' from women's 'headship'/presiding.

  5. Claire, I too am struggling to understand why those who actually voted against are now saying it is the liberal wing who caused the legislation to fail. It seems to me that it is a failure to take responsibility for the result of their actions. They would prefer to pass the buck and say - actually its all your fault it turned out like this - you wouldn't do what we asked... No the Church wouldn't make further provision and there were really good theological, ecclesiological, pastoral reasons for not doing so. Either way the decision to reject the legislation clearly was not made by those pro-women bishops, even the ones who were very uneasy about the amount of legislation in the end voted for. This shifting the focus of accountability looks like denial to me, and I really hope we don't succumb to the emotional blackmail ( you made us do it by being unreasonable) by caving to the demands of more provision.

  6. Thank thank you Linsay. My back ache's gone thank you God!