Sunday, 27 May 2012

A Nettle the Church of England Can't Seem to Grasp

I made a promise a while ago that I would only write about women bishops twice - once when our Diocesan Synod debated the issue and once when General Synod debates it. So, in preparation for the General Synod debate in July, here goes!

We have got ourselves into an unbelievably silly place.

The House of Bishops has amended the Measure to allow women bishops in two ways. One is about how a bishop exercises his or her authority legally and in terms of his or her 'ontological status' as a bishop. Most people seem able to agree that this is helpful.

The second amendment is causing problems. It goes something like this; the Code of Practice which will be drawn up to protect those who don't want women bishops will have to contain something that says that parishes who don't want them (or their male colleagues who ordain women) must be provided with a bishop who has similar beliefs to theirs. On a first reading this sounded fairly innocuous (though quite a departure from normal Anglican practice which is that you accept your bishop whatever his particular theological 'flavour'). You could say that it is common sense not to suggest a conservative evangelical bishop for an anglo catholic parish and vice versa and to remember that bishops for the anglo catholic parishes will need to be those who can be guaranteed not to have been ordained by bishops who ordain women.  However, the more I think about it, the more I believe that the House of Bishops has snuck a dangerous time bomb into the legislation. This amendment, together with the little paragraph that says that a 'supply' (interesting word) of non-women-ordaining-bishops will be maintained, is going to ensure that the Church of England remains divided, if not for ever and ever, then until our grandchildren's grandchildren are looking at their grandchildren. To quote Nick Morgan, this is a 'schism in waiting.' The Church of England claims to be a church for the nation. In a society where excluding people from things on grounds solely of their gender or race is increasingly unacceptable, the Church of England is going to find itself in an untenable position and the pressure from our culture is going to tear the church apart. I have not yet heard a convincing argument for why excluding women from things because they are women is good for them, much less how it is Christ-like behaviour.

Logic suggests that the Church of England has now reached the place where either we go for it and ordain women to all orders of ministry without reservation or we decide that our relationship with those who believe women cannot be bishops has such a vital contribution to make to the future of Christianity that we go down the counter cultural route and exclude women from leadership. Given that 42/44 of the Diocesan Synods voted for the Women Bishops Measure with only 10 asking for legislation to protect those who object, to follow the latter route would seem perverse.

The time has come to acknowledge that the Church of England cannot go on having it both ways. Broad church is one thing; two entirely conflicting integrities is another. People with split personalities are ill. The Church of England will, I fear, get sicker and sicker if it doesn't now grasp the nettle and resolve this issue one way or the other.


Is it important to acknowledge that women are fully human in the image of God (male and female God made them) and that the crucial thing about Christ's incarnation was His humanity, not his maleness? Did He show by His life and words that there is 'no Greek or Jew, no slave or free, no male or female but all are one' and that, in the new order of things, race, power and gender are not to condemn people to a particular place in the ordering of society or to oppression by others?  Or is it important to acknowledge that, in the past, Christianity has demanded that women keep to a particular place in the order of things and that either theologies of the priesthood or interpretations of the Bible show they cannot be priests, leaders or teachers in the church? We have to decide.

For 18 years the Church of England has been trying out an approach that says, in effect, 'both groups are right'. A lot of us thought we were doing this in the patient expectation that one or other group would eventually become less sustainable. How else are decisions made and people able to move forward? You pray, you argue the rationale, you try things out, you put it to the vote. In the Church of England, we seem now to be saying that however small the number of people who want to be protected from women priests becomes, we will continue to order the life of the church for their benefit and at the expense of all who want to see women in leadership.

Well, I can see that to pass legislation that is completely unacceptable to those who do not want women priests and bishops is a very hard decision to take (and not, at this point, one that is open to Synod) but let's look at the cost of continuing with this 'two integrities' approach
  • It seriously endangers the coherence of episcopacy in the Church of England. The bishops will be trying to move in two directions at once over a good number of issues to do with gender and the ordering of the church.
  • It will cause arguments in parishes where there is a divergence of view about women's ministry, particularly as the 'supply' (to use the bishops' word) of clergy gets smaller.
  • It makes for a national church that treats women as second class, something parts of the church have to be protected from.  How proud of that can we be?
  • It means that language about 'taint' and 'the unsuitability of women having authority' will continue to be a norm of church life. (As Desmond Tutu so famously pointed out, what you say about people in fact shapes the possibilities of your behaviour towards them.)
  • It endorses the notion of different churches within the Church of England needing different types of theological leadership - will other grounds for being able to petition for a different bishop begin to emerge? This leads to chaos!

I don't think the legislation coming before the Synod in July is the way forward. For the health of the church, the Synod should probably reject it and send it back until such time as we can do one thing or the other instead of both at once. It grieves me to say this because, clearly, I would like to see women bishops. Women in the House of Bishops would help to change the ethos of church leadership and government and bring some balance to the things that are deemed important. My fear for any women bishops created under this legislation is that so much of their time would be taken up focusing on arguments about mechanisms to work with those who oppose them that they would be unable to have the balancing effect that we all hope for on the life and agenda of the House of Bishops. I would like to see bishops (both genders) who will quite simply refuse to spend so much time on gender issues and will focus on communicating all the treasure that is to be found in Christianity to the society we live in, meeting people over the concerns of contemporary living and learning from places where people outside the church have more Christ-like ways of behaving than are found in the church. I would like to see bishops who can lead by commanding respect for their work on global and national poverty, universal education (more than just through church schools), health care, peace and reconciliation and economic justice. I don't want to see women bishops with whom we are all disappointed because they are so constrained they cannot contribute much that is of value. 

Ah well, we shall all wait to see what happens - I hope we can get away from anger and over-reaction and from sophistry and press releases no one can understand, but I fear we are in for a turgid time!   


  1. A very good piece. However, what I don't understand is why the House of Bishops amendment has brought this change of heart. This was already implicit in the legislation in Clause 3, and was already explicit in the draft Code of Practice in paragraph 40. As such, this was always exactly what was going to happen. This amendment makes what was already there slightly clearer, but does not change it at all.

    There is now a big danger that this gets voted down in July, which would only strengthen the hand of opponents, who would argue quite wrongly that it indicated their arguments had carried the day and that the next time legislation is brought it should go even further than this.

  2. Thanks for this. Yes, that is exactly the point. The amendment plus the 'supply of bishops' add up to confirmation that the intention of the House of Bishops is to endorse the direction which was previously implied. So, what was implicit now becomes explicit and couched in law rather than the code of practice. No surprise there,really - I am just questioning whether this is the best direction for the church to move in. I guess that if you want to see women bishops at all costs or if you want to remain in the Church of England with a measure of protection (though I think this constituency will be less convinced) the amendments simply confirm that the legislation will be worth voting for. However, many people (and I've been surprised by how many) think that these amendments confirm an unsustainable direction. I suppose I am of the opinion that I think that both the denigration of women and the incoherence of Church of England ecclesiology are worth working to avoid. But I'm aware many see this as the only chance to have women bishops.

  3. I think we need to claim orthodoxy -- or we should have done years ago. Jesus shares our human nature: that's the mystery of the incarnation. Using the metaphysics of the time, human nature is not male or female, it is both. He assumed what we all have in common; and that's why we can all stand in persona Christi -- which we know anyway via our baptismal theology. If FiF types insist that a woman cannot stand in persona Christi, they are implying that they think the maleness of a priest is somehow a better icon for Christ's humanity. They are pointing sacramentally to Jesus' maleness instead of to his humanity. That's actually quite weird, even a bit perverted. His maleness did not and cannot save us, so why are they so attached to it? If they insist that Jesus's human nature was essentially a male human nature, then they are simply wrong in terms again of the metaphysics of the time. Human nature is, again, what we all share: a priesthood of women and men is arbuably a much much more suitable way of pointing to that shared humanity. Anything else implies that his personhood, the union of his divine and human natures, has an essential maleness to it, and that is arguably heretical. I have heard FiF's argue that the fatherhood of the first person of the Trinity is part of the divine essence (which reinforces the maleness of jesus too): they do so not realising that any father that can 'generate' another person is not your average dad and is quite pointedly maternal. Again, it's all too weird.

    I needn't have rehearsed all this here, but the proponents of women's ordination really ought to make a strong claim to the mantle of orthodoxy, not as a weapon of course, but as a simple fact. The CVHurch might have accorded political integrity to both sides, but I find it difficult to see the theological integrity, at least in first order theological principles, of the other side.


  4. Not only to we need to claim 'Orthodoxy', we need also to claim 'Traditionalist', as Crossan has pointed out, the greeting list at the end of Romans is a telling one in terms of the proportion of women in positions of authority, and add to that the woman was taking the letter to read to Rome and, presumably, explaining it in a teaching ministry. Also the idea that Tradition was delivered fully born and immutable wouldn't survive five minutes in an undergraduate seminar, it is a living, breathing, growing thing. Thank you for this post, Archdeacon, it was a welcome moment of clarity.

  5. Good case well made but PLEASE may I say that I do NOT need protecting. I'm not in the least bit scared!!!

    What I do need, is to be certain that when I go to Mass I am receiving the validly consecrated Sacrament of Salvation for my salvation depends on it.

    And I would NEVER talk of taint with all its horrible implications.

    Please be kind enough to reflect my position (and that of many like me) fairly.

    Many thanks.

    1. ...cont'd

      My experience is that the Spirit blows where he or she wills. You can see it on American TV evangelism: some of what you hear is antithetical to the Gospel (say the prosperity Gospel), but there seem to be some (even powerful) manifestations of the Spirit nonetheless. It's as though the Spirit will not let himself/herself be used as a virtual proof text in a theological argument. I would have had I been in the Spirit's shoes, but it's not up to me.

      I do have time for arguments that revolve around the Anglican Communion acting out of step with RCism and Orthodoxy. I have some ideas about how realistic that is, but moving as we did has had ecumenical implications (as would our not having done so). Those implications have saddened me. I also have time for arguments about what we as Christians do with gender and with gender differences and how we inculturate in particular times and places. But essentialist arguments that lead to essentialist conclusions seem forced at best; and even if one buys into essentialist metaphysics, those arguments seem to fail even in that context.

      Not sure whether that helps or hurts!

      p.s. The positions I reflected came from a discussion at Synod with leaders of FiF and St Stephen's House at the time. Apologies if the arguments have shifted....

  6. Peter: But isn't this concern about assurance quite odd in an Anglican context? I was ordained as an RC priest, and I was petrified about validity, having proper intentions, and all the rest of it, having been brought up thinking that, if I made a mistake in the words of consecration nothing would 'happen' or if I didn't remember the formula for absolution, the penitent would not be forgiven. Of course, there was the famous Latin principle, ecclesia supplet, which, even though it cannot 'supply' for a defect in intention can nonetheless supply for much else -- this rescued me from my scruples. But there is a more profound appreciation of the radical priority of grace, which is at the heart of all the sacraments, a divine generosity which fully accepts that we are less than God and so less than perfect, less than omniscient, less than worthy, less rthan always theologically correct, etc. Indeed I had to shift from my sharing of that negative RC judgement on Anglican orders (crudely: they're just playing at it; less crudely: their Eucharists have some deficit either for not intending what the RC Church intends or for purporting to express a euchristic unity whilst being not in communion with Rome -- you know the sorts of things). My shift to recognising Anglican orders was no less a shift for me than recognising women's orders. The very same insight allows me to recognise both.

    Perhaps this is not the stuff of theological arguments, but has more to do with the kind of assurance one experiences in prayer, or the emptying of self that occurs when one realises, again in prayer, that the kind of assurance I was seeking was not being offered -- not even for Roman orders. Given the continuing RC stance of not recognising Anglican orders (the present pope cited this as an example of an infallible teaching) and their following through on this by reordaining Anglican priests unconditionally, doesn't prudence require admitting to some doubt about the validity of ordained Anglican males -- if that's a fundamental concern? When I consider what is on offer in the Eucharist, when, now and then, I am overcome by awe, I am zillions of miles away from any concern about validity and I find it virtually impossible, speaking for myself, to imagine Jesus refusing to be present sacramentally because we might have got it wrong about ordaining women. If we have got it wrong, and if it matters, then the Holy Spirit will draw us back to the truth, perhaps as slowly and gradually as the movement to ordain women has progressed -- which is to say over hundreds or thousands of years.

    And despite what I said above about not seeing the christological warrant for excluding women, if I am wrong about all that, and if 'we' have got it wrong about 'women', would God actually punish us for getting it wrong? Would Jesus refuse to use a particular eucharist as a means to commune with us because we made a theological error? Is that what it's really all about?


  7. Spot on, Archdeacon! (and gorgeous photos)

    And well said, Joe.

    It may not be my place to comment, but it seems to me that the Church of England went off the rails when it brought in the Act of Synod creating Flying Bishops. It was one thing to allow for Resolutions A and B, distasteful and wrong, even if well-intentioned. Right-hearted but wrong-headed. But the Flying Bishops scheme created the expectation that any given parish (usually at the prodding of their vicar) can decide whether to accept or reject the ministrations of their bishop. And that heresy has spread like a cancer in the Communion, undermining episcopal authority and polity.

    Better to insist that women be ordained as bishops on exactly the same grounds and with the same conditions as men, or not at all. Half measures will not do. They are demeaning not only to women who would be ordained bishop under such a scheme, but to all of us.

    Incidentally, I happen to serve in the first diocese to have two women in a row as bishop. No-one here seems to worry about validity or proper intention. We just get on, as imperfect as we are, with trying to live out the Gospel.

  8. I feel that the CofE is digging it's own grave with these arguments about the invalidity of women as Bishops - or at any other level. Have these people actually noticed that there is a world out there that has no interest whatsoever in this - other than as a means to ridicule Christianity? Have they read the working party document about any possible union of the URC and CofE which covers an even wider range of arguments. Are they also aware that the Church of Rome is not quite as monolithic as it would like to appear? I know a great many RCs - both lay and ordained - whose views are greatly at variance with the official ones!

  9. Cheers to you, Archdeacon!

    As an American Episcopalian (oh yes, one of "those") I find it inconceivable that an established church whose current Supreme Governor is a woman would even think of denying women a place in the episcopacy. I dare say that many of the Anglican Communion's ills might be remedied with more, not fewer, women in roles of authority: we could all use a stronger dose of common sense and compassion, eh?


  10. Thanks Janet, I've passed this on to a couple of people in our congregations who are interested in (but confused by, a bit like me!) the debates.

  11. Thanks Janet I think I finally get 'it' but how can I worship in a church that is still partially, about 10%, misogynistic?.

    Can the 90% split off?

    Sorry just being a bit naughty.... I am known to you as an ex-chorister Mum ;)