Women Bishops – an honest reflection

Having seen the reaction to the failure of the women bishops legislation to get passed at the Church of England’s General Synod today, it somehow feels right to give my thoughts on it.  From previous posts on the subject you will be able to see that I have given my full support to the Yes campaign.  When the results were announced I was shocked and surprised.  I honestly thought that this time there would be sufficient support and that finally we would see a momentous day in the history of the Church of England.

As it turned out this wasn’t to be the case.  Seeing the faces of those talking to the TV cameras fresh from the Synod meeting, the sense of despair and frustration was palpable.  Watching it all didn’t make me angry, but instead I just felt a deep sadness.  It’s not easy to come to terms with the fact that something you’ve been hoping and praying for isn’t going to happen for another seven years.

I doubt very much that the world is going to cave in as a result of this vote, nor do I think the Church of England is going to fall apart.  My faith is not built on the C of E and if anyone’s is then they need to do some serious thinking about what they believe. In one sense we will just carry on as we were.  Nothing has changed.  The C of E has been around for centuries without women bishops and it ought to be able to cope with the status quo for at least a few more years.  If we worry about those on the outside thinking the Church of England is an antiquated and outdated organisation, then perhaps we need to remember most people thought that was the case before today.  Very, very few people are going to be turned off being or becoming Christians because one branch of the church doesn’t have women bishops.

What happens next will show whether those passionate about this issue care more about a cause or God’s church.  It’s time for both sides to be gracious and accept the outcome without pointing the finger.  With democracy we regularly don’t get the results the majority want.  This was certainly the case today.  The system can’t be blamed and there shouldn’t be a knee-jerk reaction seeking to fiddle with it.  It’s there to stop bad decisions being made, but sometimes that means good ones don’t go through either.

Let us not forget that God’s church is bigger than our man-made offices.  Bishops may be an integral part of the Church of England’s structures but the church is owned by all its members.  Just because it still won’t allow women to have the chance to take the top positions, it doesn’t negate any of the wonderful work huge swathes of women do serving God in all areas of the church.  At this time their roles and contributions need affirming.

The two people I feel most sorry for at this time are Rowan Williams and Justin Welby.  Their desire to see the legislation passed has come to nothing.  For Rowan it would have been a fitting way to finish his term as Archbishop of Canterbury; a success at the end of a difficult and demanding time as the leader of the C of E.  Justin Welby on the other hand, rather than being able to lead the church into a new era and encourage the church to look outwards still has this hanging over his tenure.  Much time and energy will be consumed again when the women bishops debate is next brought to the General Synod.  It’s a distraction he could well do without.

If there is one thing that ought to be scrutinised from today’s vote, it is the fact that the House of Laity is so out of step with the rest of the Church of England.  Dioceses and the bishops and clergy who voted were overwhelmingly in support of change.  It makes you question how those members are chosen.  I fear that I know the answer already.  In the churches I’ve been part of, becoming a member of the General Synod is seen as a tedious affair.  Who would want to spend their time debating legislation when they could be doing something much more practical and worthwhile in their own church?  Also the General Synod meeting during the week prevents those with full-time or inflexible jobs from becoming involved.  The sea of grey hair in the assembly today indicated that many of the laity at Synod are retired and, as a personal observation, more conservative in their outlook.  Perhaps it’s time for those churches who have previously not paid a great deal of attention to the workings of synod to think about how they can get the house of laity to more accurately reflect the make-up of the Church of England throughout the country.

So now, to those who are hurting or disillusioned by the events of today, I would say do not let your trust in God falter.  Maybe He does not want to see women bishops in the Church of England and if so, who are we to question Him?  But maybe it is more about His timing.  Perhaps more good will come out of the next few years of waiting than if the vote had been a ‘Yes’ today.  Maybe other reforms will come about as a result or perhaps more hearts will be stirred and those who otherwise would have not become engaged will now do so.  God’s timing is a curious thing and patience is something he likes to teach.  Jesus had to wait the best part of thirty years to begin his ministry.  Do you think some days he would ask his father, “Can you just hurry things along a bit?  I’m itching to get going!”

If we stay faithful to God and put our lives in His hands then it’s up to Him to decide how to use us.  Wherever and whenever that might be, we should be content with it.  Getting angry because we didn’t get our own way really isn’t the way to go.

Categories: Archbishop of Canterbury, Church

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18 replies

  1. I don’t get why a woman should be allowed to be a priest not to speak of bishops.
    1.Timotheus 2,12: “I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet.”
    Sounds harsh, but it is the word of god. I wonder what your position is on that?

    • If there is one passage that suggests women should not be leaders in the church, then this is the most famous. The way I approach it is trying to understand whether this is contextual passage, i.e. aimed at the original readers or a universal passage written for and applicable to everyone. Whilst I must admit that I cannot guarantee that I am right, my conclusion is that this passage is contextual. The reason being that in Romans 16 Paul mentions Phoebe a deacon and Junia an apostle. You also have Deborah in the Old Testament who was a judge. If Paul was making exceptions to this rule then it suggests we should be able to as well.

      Jesus never mentioned anything to suggest that women should have these restrictions placed upon them. If it was important to him, I would have expected him to have been recorded talking about it.

    • Raphael, this may help. The link looks briefly at the verse you mentioned and the possible contextual reading of the passage (and similarly ‘other’ notable passages including from 1 Corinthians and Ephesians) http://www.peter-ould.net/2010/02/12/submit/ – I think it is a helpful and sympathetic glance at several passages, from a generally conservative (i.e. high view of scripture) vantage point.

      I am also reminded of 1 Corinthians 11:19 ‘No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval.’ — This is a painful and drawnout time for so many christians but may be what is needed in the end to improve the mission of the established (and disestablished) churches.

    • So, what else would you not permit women to do? Work? Vote? Learn?

  2. I couldn’t agree more about the need to reform the way in which synod is elected. I tried to stand last time around for precisely the reasons you imply; I am a committed member of the church and concerned to do my bit (also, hopefully, to help the organisation become more representative. I am not retired and certainly not conservative). However, since the only people to see my “address” were deanery synod members, and all the questions I received from them were specifically about this one issue, I was not surprised not to be elected. I’m afraid I have to admit to being somewhat cynical about the whole process. There definitely appeared to have been a huge (and, it would appear, successful) campaign to weight the synod with anti-women bishop supporters.

  3. Good point about the make-up of the HOL. To be honest I’d never heard of it before this. But interesting how decisions we make about process, scheduling, etc can be the dominant factor in determining policy outcomes. My viewpoint on this vote is that the whole issue is orthogonal to the real problem: that the leadership and organisation structure in the CofE is under-effective and out-dated. So the question I would pose is not, “Should we or shouldn’t we have women for Bishops?”, rather, “What are the right leadership, management, professional, consultative roles to lead the church today, how do we best organise them, and how would we get there from here?”. And, yes, I’d see the best person for the job in those roles.

  4. Colin – curious!

    On the Timothy passage, imagine it were the other way round: “I do not permit a man to teach or be in authority…”. Now imagine a culture, a time, where manhood has become so distorted and damaged that the position would be justified. Not so hard. So I can see that we might take this as contextual. There may be a clue in “I do not permit…”. Either way it points to a set of criteria for selecting and deselecting people into leadership positions. And these should be distinctive in the church.

  5. It’s important to remember that the C of E has not rejected women bishops; on the contrary, it has voted for them, by an overwhelming majority. What it has rejected is the draft legislation. Whether the tail should be allowed to wag the dog in this way is another matter entirely, but women bishops will happen, just not as soon as many of us had hoped for…

  6. … there’s also a bizarre irony in the fact that those opposed to women bishops have overwhelmingly rejected the leadership of the male bishops they claim to support…

  7. The concern of some conservative evangelicals about having women in authority in the church as bishops has at least been shown to be unfounded as the bishops clearly do not have any authority!

  8. The word used in the Timothy passage, now commonly translated “authority”, is not used anywhere else in the New Testament. The word is “authenteo”. “Exousia” is used about 100 times to mean authority. Outside the New Testament, the word authenteo is used in a variety of ways associated with domination, violence, sometimes in a sexual context. So here, in the letter to Timothy, it is hard to know quite what it means, but it seems to mean some kind of domination that is unhealthy and demeaning. The word “silent” again, does not seem to mean making no noise. Paul uses a different word for that. The Greek dictionary defines it as “keeping one’s seat” or “peaceable, quiet”, which is a different thing. Here are a few links – there are many other sources.
    And of course, women at that time were never educated, and that may be connected to the prohibition against teaching in this case. Elsewhere in the NT women do hold positions of authority.

    The Bible is full of great truth, but I think it helps to approach it humbly, aware that we often do not grasp the full meaning of the original text, and to seek Godly wisdom in such matters that can cause pain.


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