Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Women Bishops - a contribution to the debate

Deaneries and parishes in the Diocese of Chelmsford have been asked to consider the issue of the consecration of women to the episcopate. The Saffron Walden Deanery recently hosted an Open Synod at which Dr Sue Atkin, General Synod member and Lay Chair of the Diocesan Synod, Revd Ray Montgomery, the vicar of Thaxted, and myself each spoke. Here are the notes from which I spoke to the meeting:

Saffron Walden Open Synod on Women and the Episcopate


I’ve been asked to present to you tonight the evangelical case against women bishops, and I want to begin, as Christina Rees did when she spoke to our diocesan synod, with some background.

The ordination of women was made possible by a legal Measure passed by General Synod in 1993. That measure began with two clauses, one positive, the other negative. The first clause said this:

It shall be lawful for the General Synod to make provision by Canon for enabling a woman to be ordained to the office of priest ...

The second clause, however, said this,

Nothing in this Measure shall make it lawful for a woman to be consecrated to the office of bishop.

Now why did the 1993 Measure do one thing, but not the other? Why did it propose the ordination of women as priests, but not their consecration as bishops? There was, in fact, one very good reason.


Quite simply, the debate over women’s ordination was not settled in 1993, and the General Synod wasn’t being asked to settle it.

On the contrary, the 1993 Measure specifically allowed parishes to ‘opt out’ of having women as priests, by passing one or both of two Resolutions, A and B, contained in the Measure itself. Those who voted for the Measure did so knowing it was not binding.

Furthermore, in November that same year, the General Synod passed an Act of Synod to provide for what it called “the continuing diversity of opinion in the Church of England”.

This allowed A and B parishes to pass what became known as ‘Resolution C’, to opt for episcopal oversight from a bishop who shared their viewpoint.

Even more strikingly, that Act, passed by the Synod, explicitly recognised that the decision to ordain women might be wrong. Clause 3 says this:

The General Synod regards it as desirable that ... all concerned should endeavour to ensure that ... discernment in the wider Church of the rightness or otherwise of the Church of England’s decision to ordain women to the priesthood should be as open a process as possible ...


So what has changed since then? Regarding the situation on the ground, obviously we have women priests, and this increases the pressure to have women bishops.

But as regards the arguments, nothing has changed. There are still people on both sides of the fence — and, moreover, there are still people being added to both sides of the fence. It is is not the case that one side is dying out, whilst the other is replacing it.

And I want to suggest to you that this is because whilst the arguments for changing the Church’s position are undoubtedly rooted in reason, the arguments for not changing it are rooted in tradition and Scripture, and those are powerful arguments for a Church.


So what are the Scriptural arguments? (As an evangelical, I want to concentrate on those.) Christina Rees said the issue is about how the church views women. I would want to say it is about how the Bible views women and men in relationship. And relationships are very important.

Let me take you, then, to Scripture, and specifically to Ephesians, chapter 5, from v 21:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. 22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Saviour. 24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. 25 Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 28 In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. 29 After all, no one ever hated his own body, but he feeds and cares for it, just as Christ does the church — 30 for we are members of his body.

This passage says some wonderful things about Christ and the Church, but it weaves them into what it says about husbands and wives so that the two are entangled — you can’t separate them.

And this passage doesn’t stand alone. Salvation and marriage are intertwined as a theme throughout Scripture — in the Old Testament and in the New. John the Baptist, when he sees Jesus, says,

‘I am not the Christ but am sent ahead of him.’ The bride belongs to the bridegroom. (John 3:28-29)

But if you accept what Ephesians 5 says about husbands and wives, then our understanding of salvation and marriage has practical consequences for the Church.

In fact, I would argue that the other passages in the New Testament which relate to this issue, such as 1 Corinthians 11, on covering the head, and 1 Timothy 2 on women not teaching men, can best be understood in the light of what this passage teaches about salvation and the way marriage is to reflect that.

With these passages in mind, however, I believe that the ministry in the congregation should reflect the relationship between Christ and the Church modelled in marriage.

And that being the case, I basically hold on to what the 1977 National Evangelical Anglican Congress said, which is that whilst leadership in the church should be plural and mixed, ultimate responsibility — at parish and diocesan level — should be singular and male.

The challenge

Please understand, though, I am not at this stage trying to persuade the doubters — and I am simply trying to explain to you why there are people on both sides of the fence, and what this side of the fence looks like from an evangelical perspective.

Our challenge is not to resolve the debate — it didn’t happen in 1993 and it isn’t going to happen in 2007. Our challenge now, as it was back in 1993, is to consider how we are going to live with the differences.

One thing we need to do it get back to the position of fairness and openness which was present in 1993.

Back then, it was declared that what people believed about women’s ordination should be no barrier to selection, either for ordination or higher office in the Church of England.

At the end of June, however, the Church received a report from a group chaired by Sir Joseph Pilling, which admitted that exactly that sort of discrimination had been taking place.

According to the Pilling report, there has been “unfair discrimination” against traditionalist Catholics, and there is also an under-representation of Conservative Evangelicals amongst bishops, archdeacons and cathedral deans.*

I hope you will agree that is wrong. Furthermore, it is in danger of stifling debate. If you never hear a diocesan bishop speaking up for the church’s traditional position, or the scriptural arguments, it is not surprising if none are being appointed.


And that does matter. In 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 we read this,

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures ...

Our salvation comes from Christ, but our understanding of Christ comes from the Scriptures.

If we stifle Scripture, we will in the end lose our understanding of Christ. Stifling Scripture is therefore a very bad habit to get into, even when, as here, it is very tempting.

By all means, then, let us differ. It is perfectly possible, as far as I am concerned, for someone to take a different view of ministry on Scriptural grounds. But let them be Scriptural grounds we must not take up a position that relies on ignoring Scripture, or dismissing Scripture, or setting one part of Scripture against another part of Scripture. All these would be fatal to the Church — and all of these have been done!

It has been suggested that not having women bishops is bad for mission. I would want to say that where, as in the Diocese of Sydney, the Church, because it is trying to listen to Scripture, doesnt have women ordained as clergy, it is being remarkably active and successful in mission.

The important point, though, is not that they dont have women clergy, it is that they are committed to listening to Scripture. They may be wrong, but we must not imagine we can be right and at the same time ignore or downplay what the Bible says. Let us be a Church that listens to Scripture on this issue and let us be a Church that allows Scripture to talk to us.

* 4.5.4 ... since the ordination of women to the priesthood began in 1994 only two diocesan bishops who ordain women to the priesthood (the Bishop of Manchester, when Bishop of Wakefield, and the Bishop of Exeter) have nominated suffragan bishops who do not.

* 4.5.5 It has been suggested to us, however, that ... the number of traditional catholics is both very small indeed (perhaps fewer than ten out of 303 [deans, archdeacons and residentiary canons]) and very much smaller than the proportion of the stipendiary clergy who belong to that constituency.


  1. John,

    I think you have put it well from a CE viewpoint. However, there is a wider issue here as to what the Bible means by 'equality'. There are many OE's and liberals who see women's ordination as 'scriptural' but I can't help getting the impression that much of this is driven by secular notions of equality -particularly from liberals. I have yet to hear a reasoned argument as to what the nature of equality is and how Scripture views the term. Reading the Bible, I get the impression that God views equality in a quite different way from the Equal Opportunities Act. In what sense for example, does equality exist within the Trinity? I think any discussion on this needs to start from there.


  2. Iconoclast,

    I agree that one of the contributing factors to views on gender and ministry is the notion of equality. However, I would argue it is fairly easy to show that equality is less real than apparent. In what sense are any of us 'equal', except in the broadest that we are 'equally human', 'equally citizens', etc.

    In terms of almost every measurable quality, however, we are unequal. We are not equally tall, of equal weight, intelligence, experience, ability, pleasantness, wit, etc.

    In the end, then, the argument from 'equality' suffers from the fact that either it is untrue (with regard to the specifics), or is so broadly true that it is unhelpful. We cannot argue, for example, from the notion that we are all 'equal' (in the broad sense) to the viewpoint that we are all equally entitled to fly a plane or lead a church.

    When I've argued this through in 'secular' terms, it comes down to saying not that 'everyone is equal' but that we should treat all people with due respect (not 'equal' respect, since some deserve and/or need more respect than others).

    I think, therefore, that biblical notions of the equality of human beings - which begins, I think, with the notion that we are all 'equally' in God's image, and goes on to the understanding that we are all equally sinners and all equally redeemable on the same terms - does not directly resolve the issue of church leadership any more than it does the issue of relationships in marriage.

  3. Good post John

    A couple of things

    Firstly, I was struck by the tone of your argument (this is not a criticism!), you seemed, well, timid. In essence you seem to be saying, look, the Church of England agreed to let us do our own thing and hold our own views, please let us do that, and you can hold yours - were not going to change each others mind. Now I understand that; but it seems a little relativisitic, and is exactly the position that advocates of the homosexual agenda urge us Evangelicals to adopt - let us do our thing and you do yours and we will all leave each other alone. It is precisely because evangelicals refuse to adopt such a 'live and let live' position and assert that this issue has a significance for the whole church that problems have arisen (and we look so bad). Isn't there a case for arguing the same thing re women bishops? Or have you and other CE's accepted that this battle is lost and therefore are fighting not to win the war, but to preserve the homestead?

    Secondly, the language of equality is I think a red herring. No one in reasoned conversation uses equal to me 'identical' or 'exactly the same' when referring to people or groups within society. They use it to mean that individuals should be afforded the same rights and opportunities under law. And I don't think that many conservative evangelicals would disagree with that notion in general, rather how it it is applied areas such as sexual ethics and family life - i.e gay adoption, civil partnerships etc. Thus it's hardly a knock out argument that we are not all exactly the same. The question is on what grounds should the law or civil authorities or the church treat certain groups or persons differently.

    Finally, Iconoclast I take your point regarding differentiation within the life of the Trinity. However, as far as no convincing arguments regarding the nature of equality, I'd like to turn that around and say I've seen few (none actually) convincing arguments as to the nature of the difference between the genders and to how that precludes women from leadership. Expressions of marriage and leadership are largely culturally conditioned, rather than to do with intrinsic differences between men and women.

    Right that was far more than I intended to write.

    Thanks again for a provocative post

    God Bless

  4. Good evening John and all,

    would just like to offer a ragbag of comments. I don't have the knowledge to try a arguing a half-decent case so am not attempting that.

    - equality. i don't understand where the Trinity fits in here. This may well be a wrong guess about the assumptions being made, but isn't it the case that when 'persons' of the Trinity are talked about, the word 'person' is used in only a faint analogical sense? Otherwise, we'd be tritheists, not monotheists. So i don't understand the point about equality within the Trinity and how that then might bear on this debate.

    - "Our challenge now... is to consider how we are going to live with the differences". At the risk of some tedium (never takes me long to get to this subject when I post on your sites, John...) I would like to suggest this applies to the 'debate' on gay issues too. With this also, there are still plenty folk on 'both sides of the fence'. I realise the two debates aren't exactly the same - for instance it's notable that with the women's ordination debate, there's clear recognition, at least officially, that (if I'm understanding right) it's not a first-order issue, hence the church structures being changed so that those disagreeing with women's ordination did not have to receive a woman priest's ministry. With the 'gay issue' there doesn't seem even to have been a debate (apart from very recently in the Canadian church) about whether it is a first-order matter or not - it just seems to be assumed that it is (or isn't). In fact, other than our debates on the C.A.M. blog, I'm not aware of a discussion of this aspect on the 'net. (I don't think the extracts posted on the main Anglican Mainstream site amount to a debate).

    Not sure quite what point I'm making except to suggest this needs debating, and also to ask a question or two - how can we take the heat out of the 'gay debate'? I know of only one person (James Alison) who has quoted Jesus' words when talking about this debate: "Make friends quickly with your adversary while you are on the way [to court] with him..." (Mt 5:25-26, quoted by James in his 'Human sexuality... or ecclesial discourse?', available at www.jamesalison.co.uk/texts/eng14.html). How do we do this - and I'm not suggesting that we must all agree, or a "we will all leave each other alone" approach.

    - Scripture. Are there, in your view, any arguments from Scripture for women becoming bishops? And if verses such as those prohibiting women teaching men, have been able to be read as applicable to one culture but not to ours now (sorry if that's not a good summary), what of other verses taken to bar women from the episcopate? Echoing Anselmic, what inherent characteristics of men and women are there, which would prevent women being church leaders? (It must be evident by now that women can be and are leaders in 'secular spheres', after all - I say this to suggest that it's very hard to see any inherent characteristics that prevent women being leaders per se).

    - priesthood of all believers. Does this have any bearing on this debate or am i really confused?

    in friendship, Blair

  5. John, you say in response to iconclast:-

    "We cannot argue, for example, from the notion that we are all 'equal' (in the broad sense) to the viewpoint that we are all equally entitled to fly a plane or lead a church."

    I don't think that analogy quite works because you're comparing the lack of aptitude, ability, training or experience which keeps wanna-be pilots out of the cock-pit with the immutable fact of gender which keeps women out of leadership positions in the church. If I'm a properly qualified and experienced pilot, it would be both wrong and illegal for a national or commercial airline to refuse employment simply because I'm a woman. In the church, however, or, rather, in the church you would like the CoE to become, a woman's talents and abilities are irrelevant. She may have stellar intellectual and spiritual qualities, may be an internationally renowed scholar and respected theologian but she would be unwelcome in the pulpit because of her gender.

    And, iconclast, I don't think "secular notions of equality" play as large a role as you assume. Many of us have come to the conclusion that a person cannot be, at one and the same time, both equal in being with men and yet permaently subordinate to them because of something that is an essential and immutable part of her being - her femaleness. It just ain't logical.

  6. Darren Moore (Tranmere)2 August 2007 at 20:53

    I think John's equality thing works as far as the point he was trying to illustrate goes. It's pointless trying to push an illustration too far.

    However, on a woman being qualified to fly a plane, it's an interesting aside, when I was looking at joing the Navy, women were allowed to be pilots, but not fighter pilots. This is because women, generally, are better coordinated than men, but respond to danger and aggression better. So I'd be as happy (maybe happier) for a woman to fly me on holiday, but not to be my wingman in battle.

    That's a world away from the ministry question. That comes down to creation, Trinity & trying to live out what the Bible says, even if the world around us thinks we are bonkers!