I’m always a bit behind the news with this blog (I work full-time and I’m a dad, which doesn’t leave much time for writing.) So I’m unlikely to surprise many of my readers by announcing last week’s decision by the dear old Church of England – of which I’ve been a member most of my life – not to appoint women bishops for the time being.
I want to say upfront that I see this as a sad and disappointing outcome, and a setback for the church. The C of E has had female clergy for nearly 20 years now; it seems somewhat illogical for it now to reject women bishops (well, apart of course from the logic of accommodating traditionalists and conservatives). Many other churches in the worldwide Anglican communion now have women bishops. Above all, I personally believe that there are no overriding theological or ecclesiological barriers to a female episcopacy.
I’d also like to say upfront that I’m well aware I may be wrong about this, and to acknowledge that I and other proponents of female ordination are apparently flying in the face of church tradition across most denominations, as well as of conservative interpretation of scripture. Of course I think we’re right to do so (and will happily argue this out another time if desired).
However, many of those outside the church who are attacking the C of E for the decision seem to me to be missing the point quite spectacularly. For a start, this was not some patriarchally authoritarian decision imposed on the church from on high by out-of-touch male leaders.
The Synod consists of three ‘houses’, Bishops, Clergy and Laity, and in a vote a 2/3 majority has to be achieved in each house for the motion to be passed; them’s the rules. The Bishops (obviously all male at the moment) voted overwhelmingly – 90% – in favour of appointing women, and both the outgoing and incoming Archbishops of Canterbury eloquently urged Synod to vote for women bishops. The Clergy (a mixture of men and women) voted 77% in favour. It was only in the House of Laity – the representatives of the pesky common churchgoer – where the necessary 67% majority wasn’t achieved (and only by less than 3%, or 6 votes; a majority were still in favour). And notably a number of the lay opponents were women.
So far from it being a case of sexist old male bishops, it was the men – and crucially women – in the pew who obstructed the vote. It seems these were largely members of either traditionalist Anglo-Catholic congregations who (with Roman Catholics and the Orthodox churches) have always opposed female ordination on grounds of tradition; or else conservative evangelical churches who believe the Bible teaches that women should not hold ecclesiastical authority. (Apparently a few others who themselves were in favour voted against out of consideration for these conservatives and traditionalists, seeking unity over progress.)
Next then, I want to counter those who have risen up in indignation against the dreadful institutional sexism of the C of E. It’s hard to see how a clear majority in favour of appointing women (overall, and in each section of synod) is deeply sexist. The problem is not institutional sexism, it’s arguably – ironically – institutional democracy. The vote showed that the church is actually clearly in favour of women bishops; it’s just that the terms of its own internal democratic processes meant that it needed to be just very slightly more in favour to get it through.
For this is the other important point to bear in mind, that the decision was the result of a vote – about as democratic a process as you could hope for in an ancient and hierarchical institution such as the C of E. If we believe in democracy, we need to accept the results of its mechanisms even if we don’t like them (as I don’t in this case).
And democracy needs rules and safeguards, even if in this case we could wish that the C of E’s were slightly less stringent (e.g. requiring only a 2/3 majority overall, rather than in each of the three houses). It seems that many people would rather the church had just steamrollered through the favoured decision; but that way lies totalitarianism. (If you want to influence the Synod’s vote, try and get yourself elected to Deanery Synod; that way you get to have a say.)
What I do think is a great shame is that church procedures mean that the question now won’t be opened up again for another 5 years. It certainly seems a good moment for the C of E to review its rules and processes. If it fails to, it risks the government stepping in and forcing the issue, which I think would be deeply counter-productive.
In the meantime the church plods on slowly and painfully as it has for centuries. ‘Like a mighty tortoise moves the church of God’, as one hymn parody gently mocks the C of E. It seems almost certain that the church will one day appoint women bishops; just not today, sadly.
Not simply sexism
Finally, I’d like to clarify a point that seems to be getting muddied in all the media furore around this issue. Most secular commentators are seeing the appointment of women bishops as a simple issue of gender equality (good) versus discrimination (bad), or of progress (good) versus reactionary conservatism (bad). It seems to me that both these characterisations of the debate again miss the point.
Perhaps there are some who reject women bishops (and women clergy) on the grounds of fundamentally sexist opposition to gender inequality, or of a generalised opposition to ‘progress’ in the sense of any kind of change. (There’s the old joke: how many C of E clergy does it take to change a lightbulb. Answer: [horrified tone] Change??!!!) However, I’d be extremely surprised if anything other than the tiny minority of those who voted against women bishops did so on the grounds of inherent sexism.
Many, perhaps most, opponents of female ordination firmly believe in the equal status of men and women in pretty much all possibly senses. They do not regard women as inferior in intellect, skill or ability to carry out particular tasks. Many support women in secular leadership positions. What they do however believe is that, while equal in worth and ability, men and women are created different, with distinct biological and spiritual roles both in society and in the church. (Please note, I’m not endorsing this; I’m just stating their viewpoint.)
Most of those who voted against a female episcopate did so not on the basis of sexism or anti-progressivism, but rather on theological, scriptural, ecclesiological and ecumenical grounds. The conservative evangelicals (men and women alike) are convinced that the Bible makes a clear statement against the ordination of women, and for them this is the bottom line and cannot be subject to change or question (I think they’re wrong, but those are their beliefs).
The Anglo-Catholics for their part believe that 2000 years of church tradition and teaching about a male-only priesthood, based for them both on the Bible and on the practice of the Church Fathers, cannot be overturned for the sake of what is currently popular or politically correct. They also oppose the change on ecumenical grounds, believing that it would block moves towards desired church unity between Protestants, Catholics and Orthodox believers.
(C.S. Lewis puts the Anglo-Catholic case well in his 1948 essay ‘Priestesses in the Church?’, which you can read in full here. His primary argument is based on the High Church view of the ordained priest as one who stands in the place of Christ as Mediator between God and his people. I personally don’t hold this view of the ministry, which seems to me more an Old than New Testament understanding, so Lewis’s argument doesn’t really work for me.)
The thing is, the church is not a normal secular organisation, like a business, a charity or a government department. Neither then is the ordination of women a straightforward gender-equality issue as it would be in one of these organisations.
The church is of course subject to the laws of secular society. But it exists ultimately to worship and serve the One who it believes to be before and above all human laws and ideas, and whose ways it must follow regardless of society’s views. That is no excuse to be sexist. It is simply a call to be true to its founder and Lord, and I’m naive enough to expect that this is what most of those who voted on either side of the debate were in fact trying to do.
As I’ve said, I’m personally in favour of women bishops and am very happy to argue the case should anyone want me to. In the meantime, here are some posts that put across the main points in favour of women’s ordination:
- Why Arguments against Women in Ministry aren’t Biblical – fairly comprehensive article by Dr Ben Witherington
- Why women should be bishops – nice overview from Rev Will Cookson ( = my vicar)
- Women’s service in the church: the Biblical basis – in-depth study by the awesome N.T. Wright