Friday, 23 November 2012

Unity & Women Bishops

Unity and Women Bishops

It’s great to know that so many people are concerned with the unity of the church, and that John 17 is again being quoted freely as the source of our commitment to unity (even though the prayer is about glory and only in a secondary sense about unity).

Having being brought up in a Presbyterian tradition which happily engaged (and engages) in schism over matters that are not to do with the substance of the faith, I am fully committed to upholding that unity which is one of Christ’s great gifts, as well as tasks, for the church’s life.

But I can’t so easily dull the pain of the CofE’s most recent decision with the thought that we/they have maintained unity, even at great cost.

The issue of women bishops may seem, to some, a matter of secondary import in comparison to the church’s mission in the world. But it does not seem so to me. The church’s primary task (if a lapse into Presbyterianism is permitted) is not mission at all, but rather ‘to glorify God and enjoy him for ever’ (cf John 17).  Let’s put that alongside Ireneus’ famous statement, ‘The glory of God is humanity fully alive’ (gloria dei vivens homo). I find it hard to believe that a church with a seriously flawed anthropology is fulfilling its primary purpose of glorifying God.

Women are not ‘fully alive’ when their created and baptismal identity in Jesus Christ is denied. This is not fundamentally a question of human rights and social justice. It’s much more elemental. It concerns basic Christian anthropology.

 It’s all very well for those opposing the consecration of bishops to tell women we’re ‘equal but different’. That reads like patronising rhetoric. What it is saying in effect is: ‘Yes, you women are equal to us but you don’t have the requisite gifts for servant-leadership in the church because God has created you without that gift. The capacity for authority which is a fundamental part of being human doesn’t apply to you. You are not as like God as we men are.’ In other words, we are not equal at all in the sight of God, nor in the ministry of Christ.

And yet, baptism does draw us into Christ, women and men alike: into his saving, sacrificial death, making us one, calling us into his servant ministry. We are all of us clothed in Christ, the Servant of all. We are called to be his servants, servants of one another, servants to the world — servants in leading and in following.

(As a matter of fact, women are quite good at serving. We’ve had years of experience. Does it or does it not qualify us for servant-leadership in the church? Or is it that, the moment the word ‘authority’ creeps in, suddenly servanthood is reserved only for men?)

How is God glorified in an anthropology that in effect denies the validity of women’s baptism, our relationship to Christ, our capacity to be self-giving for his sake and that of the gospel?

I have little comprehension of why Catholic Anglicans, who have accepted the ordination of women as priests, can oppose their consecration as bishops. The consistency of a Catholic Anglican position should be that women are eligible for all three or for none. Why cavil at the last of the three?

As for the conservative Evangelical position, I have some (though limited) understanding of where they’re coming from in terms of certain passages in the New Testament that seem to deny women headship. Here the real issue is the dominance of the husband in the home and, by extension, the church.

Once again, we never hear exactly why women can’t hold leadership in home and church, and yet can do so elsewhere. The position is surely inconsistent. Some of these same men have wives who display leadership in the secular arena, yet that somehow is not problematical. The sheer inconsistency is mind-blowing. It’s based on an uncritical reading of Scripture that refuses to interpret Scripture by Scripture, but runs away with a fistful of text to support a power-agenda.

So, back to the question of unity. The Revd Dr Kevin Giles, in a letter in the latest issue of The Melbourne Anglican, points out that a number of clerics in the USA strongly supported slavery in the South on the basis of certain biblical texts (the same texts, in fact, that oppose women’s leadership). Opposed to them were a number of Evangelicals who read the Bible very differently, with a deeper understanding of the message of the gospel and its transforming imperative.

In what sense would we have been able to maintain unity with the pro-slavery party in the church during that period? Would we have commended unity in quite the same way?

In other words, does the upholding of unity mean we forsake our principles, our core theological beliefs, our conviction of the shape of the gospel?

I can’t support a unity that compels me to accept a distorted theology on fundamentals such as Christian anthropology. That doesn’t mean I have no sense of unity with those who hold a different view. Being with them at the eucharistic table is what I can do; serving them in love is (I hope) what I would do. What I can’t do is accept their interpretation of women’s place in the church — women who are re-made, along with men, in the image of Christ in baptism.

I don’t believe a commitment to unity demands that of me or of anyone else who supports the gracious calling of God and the place of women in the episcopate.

Dorothy A. Lee
24th November 2012


  1. I love this comment:

    We’ve had years of experience. Does it or does it not qualify us for servant-leadership in the church? Or is it that, the moment the word ‘authority’ creeps in, suddenly servanthood is reserved only for men?

    Thanks for these thoughts.

  2. Thank you for this insightful article. You raise some very important points on what this appalling and sad decision by the CofE really means. Rather than being a servant church glorifying God it strikes me as a decision that upholds and projects a very different one - one that seeks to exclude and diminish. My heart aches and yet there is also anger that while we have come so far, we still have a long long long way to go. The patronising rhetoric comment is spot on!

  3. (Have you read my comment at which reflects on the process and its consequences?)