The General Synod vote on women bishops is tomorrow (Monday), and I hope that it goes through, with some satisfactory framework for people who can't agree with it. I'm in favour of women bishops for 2 reasons:
1. Women are found in church leadership in the New Testament, a fact made all the more striking by their low social status. If you look at the practice of the early church alongside their teaching, their theology of women and authority clearly didn't bar women from church leadership.
2. I'm not entirely sure we're right to exalt bishops so much anyway - again, the New Testament sees churches led by small teams of people, and terms like elder, presbyter and overseer are used pretty much interchangeably. The idea that the order of deacons was founded in Acts 6 is slightly hilarious - 2 of those appointed sit so light to their job description that they'd be sacked under the Clergy Discipline Measure: Philip abandons the food programme to do mission work to foreigners, and Stephen does lots of miracles then gets himself killed.
My main caution over women bishops is when I look at some of the people who support it. There is a lot of wafer-thin theology which talks more about the rights and experience of women than about God. Women and The Church (WATCH) is one of the main campaigning groups. Their website has quite a thorough and concise digest of the main arguments in the bishops debate. They probably cover quite a spectrum of people, but one of the papers on the website, on inclusive language, caught my eye. Here's an extract:
God, Christology and the Church
The constant and uninterrupted use of language which is exclusive
and used repeatedly can be intimidating or even aggressive:
Almighty God, Lord of Power and Might, Everlasting Father,
Dear Lord and Father of Mankind. Intimidation and aggression
do not give life to the people of God called to grow in wisdom
and understanding. We need to use the full range of biblical
images for God, the tender and nurturing as well as the powerful.
Yet we must recognise that our growing includes encouraging
fresh expressions of language for each new generation. The
gospel always has a reforming, reinterpreting edge to it.
“Almost all of the language used in the Bible to refer to God is
metaphor, with the possible exception of holy...There is no point
in pontificating what metaphors like “God as father” ought to
mean. If God metaphors become problematic for a significant
group of people, it is pointless and patronising to tell them they
ought to understand differently”. (What Language Shall I
Borrow” by Brian Wren). God reveals the Godself to us throughout
the scriptures as mother, father, friend, love, wind, fire. And
for some God is more than static noun: God becomes dynamic
verb. We may leave words behind entirely: “The more I walk
with God, the less words about God will do” (John Spong). The
best God metaphors are those that move us deeply and enable
us to encounter and be encountered by the dynamic dance of
incandescent love that Christian experience names as Trinity.
Aside from having a vague worry about anyone who quotes Spong as an authority in theology, there are a number of problems with this approach to language, God and prayer:
1. The problem is not with the language, it's people's interpretation of it. Fair enough, a bad experience of fatherhood will make it more difficult to relate to God as a loving Father, but the idea that the hymn 'Dear Lord and Father' is intimidating or aggressive is bizarre. It's beautiful. These titles belong to the God who is on the side of his people: 'the Almighty God is our fortress' (Psalm 46). What's more, fathers can be 'tender and nurturing' too, and women can be aggressive and intimidating. We don't do ourselves any favours by caricaturing the genders.
2. I've no problem with finding fresh expressions of language, but they have to be anchored in the right harbour. Yes there are plenty of metaphors in scripture, but there are some key ones, and when Jesus teaches his disciples to pray 'Father', that's not something we can ignore. 'Leaving language behind' can become just a pretext for leaving the language behind which we don't like. The best God metaphors are not those which move us deeply, they are those which are true. Something which moves us deeply can be simply a good bit of manipulation. There are films which move me deeply, but most of them are selling a subhuman myth - the revenge Western, the overblown romance etc. They move me because they manipulate me through image, words, music and mood. Does truth come into the equation at any point?
3. We can't leave words behind - words carry meaning, and God has a big history of using words to communicate with us. God uses meaningful words because he wants to communicate with us, to establish a relationship. If there are no words, there is no revelation, and we are completely in the dark about God.
4. God has revealed himself to us in particular ways. If I introduce myself as 'David' and the other person immediately calls me 'Dave', I get slightly irked. Part of human dignity is being able to name ourselves, and not have other people decide what to call us. If God has spoken, and revealed himself to us, we're not at liberty to ignore that and just find names which we like saying.
and a couple of wider concerns
a) Orwell noted in 1984 that control of language is key to control of thought. If you can outlaw certain bits of language, you make it impossible to think in particular ways. I'm aware that I may be just as guilty of this as the WATCH paper, but we need to be careful with this stuff, and not assume that anyone who calls God 'Father' or 'Mighty' is an unreconstructed patriarch.
b) In terms of fresh expressions, we will find new ways to communicate the gospel to a changing culture, but how do we make sure we stay faithful to the gospel? We can't redefine God completely according to human experience - this experience is limited and touched by sin. God has shown himself to us in scripture and in Jesus, so we must stay anchored to this, whichever direction we paddle in.