Most of what follows has also been published in our parish magazine. The Church of England’s General Synod is currently consulting the dioceses’ about proposals that would allow for women to be ordained bishop. The proposals also make provision for those who cannot accept this on grounds of conscience. I think it is fair to say that during the forth-coming debate it is unlikely that anyone will change their mind. The issues have been discussed for many years and I, for one, have not heard anything new recently to make me change my mind – much as I respect those with whom I disagree.
In 1975 the General Synod of the Church of England resolved that “there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood”. It took some twenty or so years before that became a reality. Since then there has been much debate, discussion, and argument over how to interpret the Bible, and much soul-searching over the issue.
What follows is my personal opinion but I hope it will be useful whatever side of the discussion you find yourself on.
In the 1980s, when I first considered the question of the ordination of women, I was told that it was contrary to what the Bible taught, against the long-held tradition of the Church and to ordain women as priests would be to give in to the spirit of the age rather than to spread the good news of Christ.
However, when I came to look up the Bible references for myself, I found that the New Testament did not necessarily confirm that view. Some of the texts quoted were not about ordination as such – and were routinely ignored by churches. For example, in 1 Timothy it says that women should not teach yet they were allowed to be Sunday School teachers and college lecturers.
Some of the texts were ambiguous: the word “woman” could be translated as “wife”, which meant that the objection would not to be women being in charge but to wives bossing their husbands around! There is more in the New Testament, of course, but I have not found that it conclusively forbids the ordination of women in particular or the leadership of women in general.
Another objection at that time was that ordaining women was something the Church of England could not do unless the rest of the Christian churches did. I found that puzzling, since I thought that the reformation, which brought about the separation of the Church of England from Rome, was, in part, about national churches being able to make decisions without waiting for approval from somewhere else. I could see that not every Christian would agree with that point of view (the Roman Catholic Church for instance) but I could not understand how you could be in the Church of England and yet strongly disagree with one of its basic principles.
Now in the 21st century, the Church of England is considering the possibility of having women bishops. As before, the discussion, debate and arguments have been rumbling on for a couple of decades or more. It cannot be said that the C of E is making a hasty decision!
Bishops are understood to stand in the apostolic tradition – that is to say they have received their authority and their teaching from predecessors who go back to the time of the apostles including St Peter and St Paul etc. In Romans chapter 16 verse 7 Andronicus and Junia “are prominent among the apostles”. Junia, a woman, stands out amongst the other apostles. Here we have a woman in that tradition. Elsewhere the NT stresses the complementarity and mutuality of men and women. E.g. Galatians chapter 3 verse 28 “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ.” (NRSV) In other words our role and status as a member of Christ’s people does not depend upon an accident of birth.
As well as the Bible there is the Tradition of the Church to consider. An ancient title of Mary Magdalene is “apostle to the apostles”. This is because, when it came to being sent by Jesus to tell the good news of his resurrection, she was the first to do so. Meanwhile, having women Bishops is not a modern idea: the ancient Celtic church included women among their bishops.
In the Church of England, the person under God who has supreme authority, the person who has oversight (episcope) of the church is the Monarch; namely, Her Majesty the Queen. She has authority over the bishops – it is under her authority that they are appointed. She is defender of the (Christian) Faith and at her coronation she is anointed in recognition of her divine calling.
It seems illogical to me to be in the Church of England today and yet oppose women in the episcopate when we already have one at the top!
And finally, I believe that the Church of England should ordain women bishops not because it is what I like but because I believe that it is what God wants.
Each diocese is being asked to consider new legislation which would allow women to be consecrated as bishops and would also continue to take into account those who have conscientious theological objections. The Measure requires every diocesan bishop (be they male or female) to appoint another male bishop from the House of Bishops to have pastoral care of those parishes who have made a special request in writing. Meanwhile, as and when a parish has a vacancy, they may also request that only a male priest be appointed as incumbent/priest-in-charge.
Please add your prayers for the various meetings and discussions that are going on. I believe that the main tests for us will not be just whether the church makes the right decision; but also how we treat those with whom we profoundly disagree. There will be some people who will feel that they have “lost”. Will there still be a warm welcome for them in our church?