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.
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, doesn’t have women ordained as clergy, it is being remarkably active and successful in mission.
The important point, though, is not that they don’t 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.