Women and the Episcopate - St Bride's: Reflection

St Bride's: Sermons

Women and the Episcopate

I remember the old joke that if it had been three wise women instead of three wise men visiting Joseph and Mary and Baby Jesus, instead of gold, frankincense and myrrh they would have brought really useful gifts like a nice hot meal, warm blankets and clean nappies.

Women, and the women's perspective will be very much on the Church's agenda this year as the Church of England debates the issue of women bishops. The issues have been discussed by General Synod and the proposals have now been referred to the Dioceses for discussion. 2011 promises to be a year of lively debate as deanery and diocesan synods, and if they wish PCCs, tackle the issues and express their views.

Each Diocesan Synod is required to vote by houses (clergy and Laity) on a motion to approve the proposals contained in the draft measure and, if a majority approve, then final approval by the General Synod could be as early as July 2010 after Parliamentary legislation is drafted.

So what are the issues? What the Church is being asked to vote on is not so much the principle of consecrating women as bishops, but whether there are sufficient safeguards within the draft legislation to safeguard the rights of those who in conscience cannot accept women as bishops: but inevitably all the arguments about women's priestly and Episcopal ministry will be chewed over again. So let me briefly rehearse the arguments.

Those who argue against the ordination of women use three 'lines of attack':-

  1. The priest, when he stands at the altar is standing in the place of Christ, and re-enacting Christ's sacrifice on the cross. As Jesus was a man, only a man can do this, only a male priest can represent the person of Christ and offer humanity to God and God to humanity in the Eucharist. This is the Anglo-Catholic objection.

  2. The Bible (ie the Gospels and St Paul) clearly shows that Jesus chose only male apostles to carry out his mission, and states that women are subordinate to men and should not be allowed leadership roles within the church - male headship is the Biblical norm. This is the Evangelical objection.

  3. In terms of Church history and governance one branch of the Church is not entitled to make such a radical change without taking the whole church with it - so Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican and other churches all need to agree to change the tradition before change can happen. We are not entitled to 'go it alone' - there needs to be much more convergence and an international Council before women can become priests/bishops.

Those in favour of women's ordination (and remember, they are in the majority) disagree on all these points.

  1. "In Christ there is neither male nor female but all are one." God, the Deity, encompasses both male and female, the masculine and the feminine, and so does the Risen Christ. So both men and women can stand at the altar and offer humanity to God and God to humanity.

  2. The fact that Jesus chose male apostles was because of the cultural conditions of the time (he used women a lot in his ministry and inner circle). St Paul, too, taught within the constraints of his time, and we know that even then women played a large and significant role in the life of the early church, (see the book of Acts). Times change, and the Spirit of God calls us to respond to those changes in our own day.

  3. As far as decision-making is concerned, historically change has occurred not by waiting for everyone to draw up level with each other, like cars at traffic lights, and move forward together; but by one branch of the church testing the Spirit, making an innovation and seeing whether it is a development that is 'of God' or not, by the fruits it bears. Others then gradually follow suit. So pioneers are needed to lead the way.

Those are the basic arguments for and against, and since 1975 when the first debates were held it is clear that the majority of people in the C of E believe that women should be ordained to the priesthood, and that the logical/theological consequence is that they can become bishops. Subsequently the discussion has been largely about timing and safeguarding the rights of those who remain opposed.

These are the issues that will be debated this year, and I hope there will be an opportunity to discuss them in the PCC, although this will have no influence on the debate in Diocesan Synod. I remain a firm supporter of the ordination of women, and their eventual consecration to the episcopate, and believe that the ministry of women has greatly enriched the life of the Church. But I hope, above all, that this internal church issue, important though it is, will not distract us from some of the much bigger issues we face - proclaiming the Gospel afresh to a new generation and in a more aggressively secular context - responding to the Government's call to create the Big Society in which churches can play a key role as vital community hubs and resources to help knit society together in an economically testing time.

In the face of these bigger issues I hope we can keep a sense of perspective in relation to the women bishops' issue, but also look honestly and openly at the wider issues it raises - the relationships between the genders, attitudes to women in authority, the roles we instinctively assign to people and our changing understanding of human sexuality.

Yes, the church has been late off the mark in recognising that women do have souls and spiritual gifts to offer, and it has taken us over 15 hundred years to recover from that confusion. But at the beginning of this third Christian millennium I rejoice that we are addressing these issues which other major Christian traditions seem so reluctant to confront.

A final word from Canon Lucy Winkett:-

For Christian women and men, these are times when it is vital to proclaim the dignity of humanity, the freedom to be the people God created you to be, to believe that there was no mistake in Creation when you were made, and to share in the public square the faith that God in Christ has given us. Just one of the ways in which the Church has stepped forward in faith is in ordaining women, thereby sharing that public ministry.

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