Women bishops – a short guide to the arguments

Why are some people against consecrating women as bishops?  Broadly speaking there are two lines of argument, reflecting characteristic views of two of the main groups in the Church of England: Catholics and Evangelicals – although there are many Catholics and Evangelicals who are in favour of making women bishops.

The first line of argument is one made largely by Catholics.  Catholics emphasise the historic continuity of the Church and the Church of England’s relation to the wider (especially Roman Catholic) Church.  A big part of the issue for them arises from their understanding of ordination and priesthood.  A woman cannot be a priest because a woman cannot represent Christ, because Christ was a man.  Moreover, it is important to them that bishops today can trace their historic line back to the apostles (the ‘apostolic succession’).  As the apostles were all men as well, then their modern counterparts must be men too.  Catholics also say that the Church of England does not, on its own, have the right to introduce such a novel measure.

There are problems with these arguments, even on their own terms.  The same logic that says priests must be men because Christ was a man might lead us to believe that priests must be Jews because Christ was a Jew, but no-one does.  Even if you accept the premise that the role of the priest is to represent Christ, particularly in the eucharist or communion service, it is missing the point to emphasise Christ’s maleness.  The thing that matters is his humanity.  And even if you accept the premise that the apostolic succession is important in the sense ascribed to it by some Catholics, it is by no means true that all the apostles were men.  The twelve associated with Jesus in his ministry were men, but there were a number of women in leadership in the early Church and at least one seems to have been called an apostle – Junia.

The second line of argument is made largely by Evangelicals who are concerned with authority.  The New Testament contains a number of passages, mostly in Paul’s letters, where women are forbidden, apparently, to take roles of leadership.  The argument rests on the assumption that what Paul believed and taught in the New Testament letters is definitive because it is part of the infallible and finally authoritative word of God.   This argument has problems on its own terms too.  Paul seems a little confused on the subject himself and on some occasions mentions women in leadership roles without complaint and there are other passages in the New Testament that refer to them positively, including the aforementioned Junia.  But, in any case, I don’t accept the assumption.  I do not see either St Paul or the scriptures as decisive on every subject.  For me the scriptures are a human record, first of the people of Israel (the Old Testament) and then of the early Christian Church (the New Testament).  I cannot begin to see why we should take any other view – and it is one that still holds the Bible in high regard as a vital account of the foundations of Christian belief.

In other words, the mere fact that Paul or the Bible says something does not clinch anything.  The Christian faith has, in fact, developed in both belief and practice over the centuries since the scriptures were written, and in ways that no-one now disputes.  For example, the New Testament accepts and does not oppose slavery.  Christians were simply not able to recognise then (probably because the practice was so widespread and ancient) that the institution was at odds with fundamental Christian ideas of justice, the unique value of all God’s children, and the command to love all unconditionally.  They eventually did realise it.  In the same way women may or may not have been seen as leaders in the New Testament (they probably were) but we can now see that the Christian commitment to love, justice and equality before God makes it entirely right that that they should be leaders today.

An irony of the current painful progress to making women bishops is that the critical decision has already been made.  Once the Church agreed to ordain women as priests in 1992, making them bishops became, logically, a formality.  In other words, this has been going on for long enough.  I fervently hope it goes through this week – but it may not.  There is  a majority in favour but there has been a last-minute attempt to create what many (including me) see as unacceptable special arrangements for priests who oppose consecrating women – alternative supervision by a male bishop if the bishop of their diocese is a woman.  This is a foolish compromise that creates a church within a church and undermines the authority of women bishops.  Decisions on big issues usually have winners and losers.  Tomorrow the Church may decide to do something I abhor.  If that happens I hope I will be able to lose a little more gracefully.

There is a good article filling in some of the biblical discussion by Diarmaid McCulloch, the church historian, in the Guardian.  It’s well worth a look: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jul/07/female-apostles-fine-for-jesus

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