This week was always going to be a difficult one for the Church of England and I, for one, can’t see myself celebrating either of the possible outcomes from tomorrow’s debate and vote on the Women bishops legislation. I’ve felt for some time that I don’t really feel comfortable in either ‘camp’, but this morning’s open letter published in the Independent has confirmed my view that I am in a real minority.
So let me start by saying something that I hope won’t be a surprise, but which I haven’t made public: I’m theologically in favour of Women’s ordination and so I don’t see any barrier to women being consecrated as Bishops. In theory, I’d be voting in favour of a motion to allow women to become Bishops and thinking it was not before time. Although I don’t like the label, I guess this makes me an egalitarian. Now I realise that according to some of my conservative evangelical colleagues I ought to drop the ‘conservative’ label, but I still feel that this best describes the approach to serious engagement with the whole Bible and the conviction that I should obey what it teaches.
But as the debate currently stands, I can’t find myself supporting the motion that is before General Synod this week, and were I asked to, I couldn’t sign a letter which uses the arguments printed in today’s Independent. Although in agreement with the principle, I can’t say that the “end justifies the means” – I don’t want it for this reason, and I don’t want it in this way.
Not for this reason.
Much of the ‘yes’ debate can be reduced to the single point made in today’s letter:
First, because the Bible teaches that “in Christ there is no male or female”, but all people are equal before God. Just as the churches have repented of our historic antisemitism and endorsement of slavery, so we believe that we must now show clearly that we no longer believe women to be inferior to men.
This is the trump card which is used to defeat all other arguments. ‘God thinks we are equal, so the church needs to come in line with the will of God, and repent of not doing so sooner’.
But to take a single phrase out of context and to elevate it above the rest of the Bible’s teaching is a sloppy way to make a point, and the danger of using proof-texts in this way is that by trading verses in this way we can generate a lot of heat, by no real light.
Over 1000 Bible teachers signed the letter in the Independent, but the challenge to Anglican Bible teachers as we engage with this issue is to heed the warning of the 39 articles, which prohibit the church and it’s clergy from “so expound[ing] one place of Scripture, that it be repugnant to another”. If we favour one text at the expense of another then we are not allowing ourselves to be led by scripture, we are sitting in judgement upon it as we say the bits we like are more valid than the bits we don’t. We need to look at more than one verse as we come to this debate.
So what does that passage in Galatians say, and what does it mean? And as we do so, let’s remember that this verse is written by the man who is often wrongly portrayed of as the arch-misogynist of the New Testament, the Apostle Paul.
“So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” Galatians 3:26-29
The big debate in the letter to the Galatians is whether Jew and Gentile are going to be included and united together in on church. In this context, this verse is not about the abolition of all differences, but it is about the unity of all believers in Christ. The Galatian believers were in danger of going back to an Old Testament legalism, which does talk about differences between the way men and women are included in God’s people. Paul wants to refute that as strongly as he can and we writes “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? … Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?”
So we cannot use this phrase as a proof-text to justify the rejection of all gender distinctions, or any other distinctions for that matter. It is not the trump card that destroys all other arguments or silences all other voices. We need to engage with the whole council of scripture.
As I said earlier, I want to take scripture seriously and I do come to conclusion that gender distinctions should not prevent women from playing a full part in the life and leadership of the church. I come to that conclusion from looking at the accounts of the creation of men and women in Genesis, from looking at Jesus inclusion and treatment of women (as mentioned as the second point in today’s indy letter), looking at Paul’s practice in appointing, training and deploying female leaders and from seeing the way household codes empowered women in the home and in society, in stark contrast to pagan instructions from the same period.
But in this backdrop Paul sees fit to limit the ministry of women in Ephesus and also, to degree, in Corinth. There can be no question that Paul really does write “I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet” (1 Timothy 2:12). This is not a man who thinks that all gender distinctions have been completely abolished.
I’ve taught elsewhere about how I this passage can be understood as the exception to the rule of equality, rather than the general principle which is excepted by Paul’s choice of women as leaders and teachers. But the point is that I come to an egalitarian viewpoint because I believe scripture consistently allows us to do so, rather than because one verse allows us to disregard all others.
Not in this way.
The other reason why I can’t support the measure as it stands and couldn’t have signed today’s letter is that it does not involve the “enormous compromise” which is claimed by the ‘yes’ lobby.
The church of England is governed by an incredibly complicated web of legislation, hierarchy and representative bodies, which allow for a wide diversity of theological opinion and practice. So it shouldn’t be that much of a surprise that such a complicated institution could produce legislation which safeguards the integrity of all its members.
I recently read an e-mail from one of the General Synod members from my own diocese saying that we needed to trust the house of bishops to come up with a non-statutory code of practice to safeguard those who hold a complementarian position. The irony is that just a few months ago, the same people who are urging us to ‘trust the House of Bishops’ were up in arms that the Bishops had attempted to introduce a fairly minor change to the legislation which is before General Synod tomorrow.
My fear is that if (and when) this measure is passed, over time the provision for those who cannot accept it will be weakened and then removed altogether. It isn’t that I don’t trust our leaders, but as I look around the Anglican Communion, and especially in the direction of the Episcopal Church in America, what I see is the dilution of protections to the point where congregations are forced to leave their buildings and dioceses find themselves in conflict with their national church.
So I can’t see myself celebrating either outcome from tomorrow’s vote. Unless that vote is to introduce genuine compromise, which allows for women bishops, while protecting the integrity of all those who want to remain under the authority of scripture.