Earlier this month, the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion to allow for the appointment of female bishops for the first time. This move has been a long time coming: as far back as 1988 the global Anglican church agreed at the Lambeth Conference that, in principle, its provinces could, if they chose, appoint women as bishops; and women have been ordained as priests in the Church of England since 1994. This move hasn’t been universally accepted within the church, and the degree of opposition coming from some quarters must appear bizarre and archaic to outsiders. I’ve meant to write about this for some time, in order to explain this controversy to those unfamiliar with the internal politics and theology of the Church, being delayed only by my inability to get down to it! Hopefully, this will make clearer the history behind this move, and its significance for the future of the church.
In order to understand the politics of the Church of England, it’s necessary to know its history as an organisation. The C of E sees itself as part of the one historic church that was instituted by the first apostles of Jesus after his death and resurrection. The unity and continuity of the church is hugely important within Christian theology, being enshrined in the creeds that form the basic declaration of faith for all, orthodox, Christians:
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church
with “catholic” meaning universal and apostolic meaning, as instituted by the apostles. The Church of England, along with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, sees its hierarchy as being a continuation of that of the early Church. It was also heavily influenced by the theology of the Reformation, which sort to move away from the authority of tradition, and a centralised hierarchy, and towards authority directly from a correct understanding of the Bible. The Church of England could be described as a halfway-house between Protestantism and Catholicism. The Reformers find their intellectual descendents in the Evangelical – or low church – wing of the Church (for an excellent summation of its constitution and internal groupings see this article from “Fulcrum” a website that represents “Open Evangelical” Anglicans). Since the Oxford Movement of the 19th century there has been an increased emphasis on more traditionally Catholic styles of liturgy and theology from a certain section of the Church- called as the Anglo-Catholic or “high” Church. There is also a growing Liberal section, sometimes known as the “broad” Church. It is in this hodge-podge of different ideas and interests that some kind of agreement has to be found.
In fact, there is a growing consensus, from all wings of the Church, that the authorisation of women is both appropriate and necessary. The remaining controversy is about how best to accommodate objectors, who mostly come from a conservative Evangelical and traditionalist Anglo-Catholic background. The conservative Evangelical objections – as represented by the Reform network – centre around the concept of “headship”; in other words, that the divine order is that men should be the “head” of women and that women holding authority over men is completely forbidden by scripture and therefore inappropriate. They justify this by appealing to such proof-texts as Ephesians 5, 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2. They would like a system put in place whereby objecting churches would not be under the authority of a female bishop, but an alternative appointed bishop. Naturally, I wouldn’t agree with this conclusion and support the position put forward here in an article by Tom Wright, a respected Evangelical scholar and, up until recently, the Bishop of Durham, that these passages have been significantly misinterpreted, and that women serving in the Church at all levels is not as unprecedented as many think. This demonstrates the pitfall of a literalist interpretation of scripture – that divorcing it from the human context in which it was written and first received leads to interpretations that are incomplete and often anachronistic.
Even stronger objections come from the most traditionalist Anglo- Catholics – represented by the network Forward in Faith. Indeed some of them have threatened to leave the Church. In addition to many arguments shared with conservative Evangelicals, their objections arise from the emphasis they place on the “orders” of the Church (deacons, priests and bishops) as being both representative of Christ and succeeding from the, supposedly all male, apostles; and the Eucharist as, as FiF describes it, “really and substantially, the Lord’s Body and Blood”; gaining its authenticity from that of the administering Priest, who in turn has been ordained by an authentic bishop, and so on. The importance placed on this, by both Roman and Anglo-Catholics, explains, in part, the recent decision by the Vatican to put the ordination of women, along with other “crimes against the sacraments” amongst its most grave offences, including child abuse. This places traditional Anglo-Catholics in a quandary, as, if there are dubious innovations, as they see it, with any of the Church’s orders then they cannot know for sure if the sacraments are truly authentic. They would like to be shielded completely from this decision, with their own Dioceses, ministered by male bishops. FiF even argues for an additional Province, with complete autonomy, for traditionalists. Another Anglo-Catholic objection is that this move would completely alienate the Church of England from the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches, irreparably damaging ecumenical relationships. I believe – perhaps betraying my own low church viewpoint – that while the Church’s traditions are important in maintaining a continuous witness to its founding events, to place such emphasis on the substance of its rituals is to detract from the spirit of what they represent and the sovereignty of God over saving events. Also to elevate the institutional Church, ecumenical relationships and male “headship,” as the conservatives would have it, to such a level is to place weight on all three, that none of them can bare. This is, amply, demonstrated by the Catholic Church’s present woes, as well as the fact that, as pointed out by Bishops Tom Wright and David Stancliffe, ecumenical relationships have long been fraught, with the Roman Catholic Church refusing to recognise any of the Church of England’s orders – women bishops or no women bishops – and the Eastern and Western Churches having a long and checkered history.
With the appointment of women to all orders of the Church, now widely accepted the question remains as to how to provide for dissenters. On what should we model this dispute? Firstly, it is emphatically not the place of the Church to follow blindly the mood of the times as suggested by a recent Guardian editorial, nor is this one of those stand or fall issues where the Church must contend over its basic principles. How then should we deal with those who want to place restrictions beyond what is demanded by scripture or principle. The model for this is ironically a dispute that doesn’t involve women at all. In the early days of the Church, as it was just growing beyond a small sub-sect of Judaism, there was a dispute over whether non-Jewish converts to Christianity were required to follow all the ritual laws of Judaism, including circumcision. St Paul, who was central to the spread of the Gospel to Gentiles, was not shy about condemning those who hypocritically insisted on applying the most exacting standards on the new converts, just as Jesus had opposed the hypocrisy of the religious leaders of his day in the strongest possible terms. However as St Paul would go on to say in his letter to the Romans we must also have respect who genuinely feel they cannot, in good conscience, go along with this move. Clearly, there are many, within the Church, who object to these changes, in good faith. This is not to let opponents off the hook, entirely. It is clear from reading the objections detailed in the Bishop of Rochester’s report (Chapter 5) on the theological issues raised by appointing women bishops, that many of the arguments are highly patriarchal and this cannot be divorced from a desire – conscious or otherwise – to maintain men’s privileges, both individually and institutionally. This doesn’t imply that women’s involvement is unimportant, only a need to be patient with others’ weaknesses, even when it matters.
The current draft of the legislation instructs female bishops to delegate some of their responsibilities to a male colleague. Many of those who object to the proposals feel that this does not go far enough to deal with their concerns. The Archbishops of Canterbury and York proposed an amendment to make this delegation of responsibility a function of the legislation rather than the authority of the main bishop, but it was rejected as it was felt to undermine the authority of the office of the bishop and construe female bishops as in some way second class. Perhaps a better option would be to give objecting parishes a one time opportunity to opt out of the current hierarchy and into a new diocese or dioceses led by bishops of their choosing. In this way female bishops would maintain authority over all parts of their dioceses at the time of their consecration and objectors would be free to maintain their own standards.