Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Women Bishops: The Morning After

Do you ever have those chats where the other person takes ages to get round to what they wanted to say in the first place? It's felt a bit like that as a vicar in the CofE over the last few years - we were going to get round to having women bishops (or 'bishops' as they're now called) eventually, but by 'eck it's taken a long time.

Self-indulgently long in fact.

I tweeted a couple of things on the #synod hashtag yesterday, which got 75 retweets/favourites between them, so must have struck a chord:

"Looking forward to the day when 85 people want to speak at #synod about evangelism" (85 people had indicated that they wanted to speak in the debate)

"Well done #synod, good call. Now back to that tedious old stuff about making disciples of all nations."

It's scandalous that we have taken up so much time, energy and angst over this - yes it's an important issue, but I don't see people queueing up to talk at General Synod about the main thing Jesus set the church up for in the first place, to make disciples of all nations (involving baptising new believers and teaching them the ways of Jesus). It doesn't matter whether a man, a woman or a goat is dressed in a purple shirt if we are not actually making disciples. Yes lets get this right, but lets also remember that it's not the main thing. 

Alongside this  - and this is where I get thrown out of the CofE completely - is whether we really understand what a bishop is in the first place. The CofE claims to have a 'threefold order of bishops, priests, and deacons'. It doesn't of course, it only has a twofold order of bishops and priests, Deacons used to be a holding pattern for women who were called to the priesthood but not allowed to go there by the church. Now it's something that priests do for a year before, through an episcopally-applied software upgrade, they're then allowed to bless people and run a church (I simplify, of course...). 

Several dioceses don't have permanent deacons: people who have a call to be a deacon in the church, and have been ordained specifically to that role. Which makes a bit of a nonsense of the 'threefold order' claim. In the meantime we take a word used for a member of the team leadership of a local church in the NT (overseer/episkopoi) and freight it with 2000 years worth of historical and theological baggage. The God and Politics blog summarises the early part of that history. It's always seemed a bit odd for evangelicals to be debating who should or shouldn't be a bishop, when our understanding and practice has such a slim biblical basis in the first place. 

But then, perhaps that's what God intended. The first batch of deacons hardly stuck to the job description: they were supposed to oversee the distribution of food, but we know of one who became a travelling evangelist (Philip) and another (Stephen) got himself killed after doing lots of miracles culminating in a showdown with the authorities. The labels and roles matter less than the authorisation, and the priority, in everything, to get the word out. 

In all this there are positive signs - the national priorities of the CofE now include growing the church, and reshaping ministry, so there are signs we're alive to the issues above. 

Final point: in the inevitable 'who will the first woman bishop be?' over the coming months, lets keep coming back not to the personalities or the politics, but to the mission of the church. Because if we aren't doing what Jesus set us up to do, then we are not truly the church. Female or male, I'm not that fussed who we have in leadership in the CofE as long as they have the same priorities as Jesus. 


  1. Jonathan Tallon15/7/14 9:11 am

    Three points:

    1. Women bishops is an evangelism issue. It's difficult to persuade people to listen to us when they perceive us as institutionally sexist (and were right to do so). If we can't get this right, why listen to us about anything else? (There is a further problem which will take up much synod energy in the future - same-sex relationships. This is because large numbers also see us as institutionally homophobic. But that's another day).

    2. It's a bit unfair to wonder why 85 people don't queue up to speak about evangelism. Synod is where to debate things that need discussing; where there's disagreement about the best way forward. Telling people good news about Jesus just isn't that controversial (thank God) in the CofE.

    3. The CofE position on bishops, priests and deacons is even more confused than you say. As you note, in practice it's two: bishops and priests. Theologically, however, the big distinction has been between deacons and bishops/priests. Bishops and priests have been seen as the same (hence you don't ordain a bishop, but consecrate one).

  2. As a former member of General Synod, can I add here that the debates on evangelism were some of the most tedious I sat through? Evangelism isn't what Synod is about; it's what we should all be doing in our own places, and whatever reports Synod produces it's back in the parishes where evangelism happens. I'm a Street Pastor and I find that being out with people in the early hours is where they share their fears and their hopes and their questions - and it's great to be there to answer them, and a lot more real than General Synod ever felt!

  3. Jonathan, I'm a member of the Anglican Church of Canada, which has had female bishops for fifteen years now. Sorry to say, it hasn't caused our culture to see us as any more relevant than before. If female bishops is such an important evangelism issue, how come having them doesn't result in more effective evangelism?

    Tim Chesterton

  4. While having women as bishops will not make us evangelically effective, not having women as bishops undermines the possibility of effective evangelism in the Western context. But our problem with evangelism is less about structures than about an institutional culture that clings to the rotting corpse of Christendom and which fundamentally believes (at least in effect) that there is no need to evangelize in a Christian society - even though the society hasn't been Christian in decades (if ever it was).

  5. Jonathan Tallon15/7/14 11:34 pm

    Tim, I'm with Malcolm here. Not being seen as sexist is necessary just to get a hearing with younger generations. Evangelism doesn't get a look in if people already perceive the Church as toxic.

  6. The Lord's Holy Witness19/7/14 12:30 pm

    ALMIGHTY GOD forbids woman to become Ministers, Priests, and Bishops.

    Read the HOLY BIBLE and know the TRUTH.

    1. You need to understand that the Holy scriptures to be be properly understood: 'marked, read and inwardly digested' before attempting any pronouncement like yours. Reading alone is not enough. A proper reading of Scripture would tell you (via St. Paul) that 'In Christ, there is neither male nor female' - either in the larger society, or among God's sacred ministers.