The Church of England has a lot more to worry about than women bishops

Well it’s been a little over a week now since the Church of England’s General Synod decided not to make a decision on the ordination of women bishops.  Until now I’ve managed to restrain myself from wading into this debate.  It’s not because I don’t care, but instead due to it being a Church of England internal affair.  It certainly causes many in the Church of England to get incredibly wound up, but many both on the inside and outside are looking on in confusion and wonder.  I’m finally feeling the need to say something.

I ought to make it clear before I get going that I am a member of the Church  of England and have been for my entire life.  My father was a vicar and I feel like I’ve got to know it very well, warts and all, over the course of time.  Having said that the Church’s General Synod is still a complete mystery to me.  I also get the feeling I’m going to upset a few people with what I’m about to say.  Apologies in advance…

Firstly, I have to say that I think Synod made the right decision in delaying the vote until November.  Despite my general frustration over the glacial speed of the C of E’s decision making process, this time round they weren’t in the right place to go forward with such an important vote. The clause 5 (1) (c) amendment has thrown a big spanner in the works and it needs time to fix.  If you want to try to make some sense of the finer details of the draft measure then I would suggest you read the BBC’s attempt at explaining it.

I could go into a theological discourse on the biblical position on women priests, but this isn’t the place to do it, but here is my thinking on it:

Whilst I understand the need to stick to scripture when living out our faith, I don’t think the Bible is clear cut on this issue.  Some will argue that when the Apostle Paul in 1 Timothy says, “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man” it apples universally, but the thing is we already have women priests in the C of E, so the precedent has already been set on how that scripture has been interpreted.  I don’t see how you can allow women priests but not women bishops.  If the C of E is willing to allow parishes who disagree to have a male bishop oversee them, then that shows a gracious willingness to make suitable accommodation for those who maintain that viewpoint.  Making further demands just comes across as stubborn and misogynistic.

Sometimes I feel the Church of England doesn’t really understand what it means to be a priest.  In chapter 1 of Revelation John writes, “[Jesus] has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father”.  It doesn’t imply that priests are the few who have gone to Bible college and wear a dog collar, but rather it says that we all are.  Vicars and bishops have a defined leadership role, but that doesn’t make them any more holy or closer to God in some privileged way.

Having said this I’d like to make an observation about women vicars.  I’ve met many women vicars and know several.  They are very committed and faithful, often with excellent pastoral skills.  However, I have seen very few who I would say are natural leaders.  Maybe it’s just the ones I’ve seen in action, or maybe it’s because those who are able haven’t been given the chance, but I suspect that those are not the main reasons.  When women finally are allowed to become bishops my fear is that the C of E will feel the need to start operating some sort of positive discrimination policy to swell the number of women bishops.  If women are promoted into these positions without being ready or suitable, it won’t be good for them and won’t help their cause in the long run.  The job should always go to the best candidate, with the right balance of gifts.  If that means in ten years time we only have a smattering of female bishops, then as long as those seeking to become bishops are treated fairly, it shouldn’t be seen as a problem and nobody should claim that it is.

As I’ve been reading around this subject, I’ve found two blog articles by C of E vicars that say something very important about the way Synod has acted over this issue.  David Keen writes this:

“The sad thing for me is that the desire for finely-tuned legislation is a symptom of a deeper problem. Normally, if a family has brought in the lawyers it’s a sign that the relationship is struggling. We only resort to law to codify our relationships when love, trust and community have broken down, it’s an external sanction on behaviour. It’s apparent that many Anglicans don’t trust each other sufficiently to live without safeguards. Whether that mistrust is well grounded, I don’t know. But it doesn’t look like people are willing to take the risk of finding out.” (full article)

Sam Norton writes in a similar vein:

“The dying of a church is not a management problem, it is theological and spiritual. In my view, the real issue is that there is a hole where our understanding and practice of the gospel should be.

“This can be seen  most clearly in the present debacle concerning whether or not to have women bishops, and how that might be carried forward. Manifestly, at this point in time, there is no single understanding to which all give consent; therefore there is fragmentation and each party simply seeks to advance its own interests.  The discussion is not being carried forward as between brothers and sisters in the faith, but in the manner of opposing and mutually despising political parties. There is, in short, a spiritual collapse which has this faction fighting as a consequence. The debates that are taking place in Synod, and more broadly, seem indistinguishable from the political struggles that we are familiar with in Parliament. How can we get sufficient numbers to drive through our agenda? How can we get sufficient numbers to prevent the enemy faction from succeeding?” (full article)

David and Sam highlight my main concern about last week’s Synod.  It very much has become a political arena where different factions are out to move the debate towards their standpoint.  Rowan Williams in his sermon that Sunday acknowledged his frustration over this.

From what I’ve observed any organisation that is more concerned about its internal workings rather than the people it is trying to serve is doomed to failure.  If you wanted to devise a Biblical model for how a church should be run, I think the Church of England’s General Synod falls a long way short of it.  I am convinced there are groups in the women bishop debate who are more bothered about tradition and secondary issues than considering what God’s view is.

In most parts of this country the Church of England is badly in decline and yet Synod continues to engross itself in issues that have very little to do with the gospel.  Here is are some stark statistics from 2010:

39% of churches have no-one attending under 11 years of age
49% of churches have no-one attending between the ages of 11 and 14
59% of churches have no-one attending between the ages of 15 and 19

In my mind this is a far more serious issue than women bishops.  Jesus didn’t seem to be overly concerned about church structures.  He was out and about meeting people, healing the sick and telling everyone about the good news of God’s kingdom.  In fact when he did have a go at anyone, it was usually directed at the religious leaders for being too tied up in their own legal matters.

Does that sound familiar?  I wonder what Jesus would say if he was here now?

Categories: Archbishop of Canterbury, Bible, Church

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5 replies

  1. You are quite right to highlight the issue of young people in the church as being of huge importance…there won’t be a church to be a bishop of at this rate…

  2. Tracywb – Its interesting that in some areas the church is actually growing partly because of immigration but also because some churches are highly attractive and Fun. Its how do we replicate those models that work particularly in attracting the young. Most positive initiatives do not come from the bishops but the hearts and minds of people on the ground who are inspired by Jesus. I can find no mention in scripture of a bar on women to lead in whatever capacity or any restrictions on how they apply their spiritual gifts. If there were no bishops or church hierarchy would Christianity function better or worse.

  3. One has to agree with this title. The issue of women bishops has all the trappings to tie many into endless debate and pontification, while outside in the real world, “Rome burns”. But Gillan’s final six lines cut to the point concerning the underlying crisis that confronts, and it is this to which I comment.
    As a one-time Anglican, I was always uneasy about the establishment of the Church of England, based as it was on the desire of an adulterous king to legitimize the illegitimate. This might be dismissed as irrelevant, but I don’t think so, believing that establishment is truly foundational to what follows. It should therefore come as no surprise that opinions within the C of E are so undecided on gay marriage, for instance, as Biblical principles clash with wishes of modern society.
    Having said, being the established church has given the C of E the unique opportunity among churches of flying the Christian flag for England. It has left its mark across the land, giving us churches in all our towns and villages and (most significantly to “God and Politics”) endowed British law with the Christian principles upon which, until relatively recently, our legal system was firmly based.
    Ever since Genesis chapter 3, the human race has wanted to go its own way and thinks up every justification for doing so. Nothing new there then. However, while the established church has had the privilege of the ear of Government, this carries the ongoing responsibility to our nation of upholding Christian teaching and moral standards in our society. This it is patently failing to do, to the extent that its lack of conviction has lost credibility with both nation and government. Disestablishment is now looking a real possibility.
    Traditionally, the Church of England has stood for law-abiding behaviour, and its structured conformity of worship provides some safe haven from sectarian extremism. Interestingly, though, history over the last 300 years has shown that the big Christian revivals that have really impacted Britain have emanated not from the established church, but from the likes of Wesleyans and Calvinistic Methodists, whose preachers, in non-conformist churches and chapels, were unashamed to speak and live out the full Gospel message that Jesus preached.
    This is something we desperately need to hear again, before it is too late.

    • Thanks Richard. This is an excellent response. I found David Starkey’s article a while back on gay marriage interesting as it went through how the Church of England came to be. Henry VIII was attempting to legitimize the illegitimate, but at the time the Catholic Church wasn’t doing much better and part of the revolt was against that. The split lay the foundations for the protestant church, so I believe Christianity would look very different in this country if it had not happened.

      You are very much right about past revivals. The Church of England has been much more of a hindrance than a help during these times and in some quarters, it’s not doing much better now. The CofE is facing a very uncertain future. The next Archbishop of Canterbury will have a testing time and depending who gets the job, the outcomes could be quite different. We do indeed need the church to be liveing out the gospel message of Jesus in full.

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