‘Since an overseer [bishop] manages God’s household, he must be blameless – not overbearing, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not pursuing dishonest gain. Rather, he must be hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.’ (Titus 1:7-9)
Interestingly though, when Paul talks about the order of positions within the Church in his letter to the Corinthians, he places apostles first, prophets second and teachers third. This was all about mission as the Gospel spread rapidly throughout the Roman empire.
During the life of Paul and the following few decades, missionary apostles and prophets co-existed with stationary local bishops, who were effectively the leaders of established church congregations. They worked in a sub-ordinate capacity to the mobile apostolic authority. However sixty or seventy years after Paul had written his letters, the prophets and apostles were gone and bishops were in the ascendency. They grew in importance, moving from overseeing single congregations to large groups of churches within cities and provinces. As their responsibilities grew, so did their power and importance. With the advent of a Christian emperor in the fourth century, it became common for the bishops of key cities to be imperially nominated; a situation that was not always free from abuse.
If you read the history of the first few centuries of the early Church, you will see how its bishops shaped and formed both structures and the accepted understanding of Biblical knowledge and the nature of God. There were high moments such as the Council of Nicaea, but plenty of low ones as some bishops promoted heresy and others were imprisoned and martyred.
The episcopate has shaped this country too over the centuries, which has not been without bloodshed, political manoeuvring and corruption alongside great works of good. Who knows if things might have turned out differently if women had been bishops in previous times?
The role and power of bishops has diminished greatly in recent years, but they still have an important role to play, especially the Archbishops and those at the very top, The media attention given to former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey’s remarks on assisted suicide demonstrate that even outside of the church, bishops still have a level of influence. Yesterday’s vote to approve the consecration of women bishops in the Church of England was just another development in the Church’s lengthy history. To some, it may seem like it has been an eternity since the ordination of women was approved in 1986 to get to this point, especially after the failure of the 2012 vote, but in the grand scheme of things, it has been rapid progress. In this day and age patience runs thin.
What makes yesterday’s vote different is that it was never about a change to the roles or position of bishops, nor was it ultimately about women becoming bishops. The episcopate is no different today than it was yesterday. If anyone campaigned from the point of view of increasing women’s political power and control within the church, they were sadly misguided. No one should seek to become a bishop for their own personal gain. Increased authority brings its own sets of problems and now women and men get to share in this together. Paul writes in 1 Timothy that whoever aspires to be an overseer desires a noble task, but he also gives out warnings at the same time. The more responsibility we have before God, the more we need to do to ensure we remain humble. Ignoring this has so often led to damaging conflict that has torn the Church apart in the past.
Neither was the women bishops vote a victory for feminism or any other ism for that matter – it was a victory for servanthood and the position of women in the eyes of God. It affirmed that women can and should be able to serve in all capacities. In Church of England canon law there is now no distinction in ministry between male and female echoing Paul’s words in Galatians 3:28 where he says that in Jesus all Christians are fully children of God. Some have fought for so long to see women bishops, but at the point of success, they have ceased to exist. There are now only bishops with no gender distinctions.
We have been able to get to this position because women have been elevated in our culture and society. Liberals may have approached this issue from a humanist point of view, but more importantly the Synod vote would never have passed without a strong theological consensus from many who take the Bible seriously, understanding that it does not hold women as second class humans, deficient in the ability to lead or teach or born to be submissive to the male sex.
It could be argued that yesterday’s vote is a high point in the Church of England’s long story with the Church becoming more like the way God has always intended it to be. Much as this is joyous news to the majority, it is also time for a reality check. As history has proved bishops can do great things, but also hinder the work of God’s Holy Spirit. Maybe a small number will return to churches or even walk through the doors for the first time because of what has happened. But will it ignite a revival of the Christian faith? It is when the Church has held apostles and prophets in high esteem along with the teachers and bishops, that the Spirit has been able to move powerfully, transforming lives and causing churches to be filled.
Now that the drawn out saga of women becoming bishops has finally reached its long awaited conclusion, with one major distraction out of the way, there is even less reason not to focus on the real mission at hand. The call to evangelism and sharing the Gospel throughout the nation is and always has been the Church’s primary calling. If the same passion and determination to see women become bishops can be turned to saving the lost then great things are possible.
Is that too much to ask?