Wednesday, February 08, 2012

A few thoughts about women bishops

It's a bit depressing following the shenanigans at General Synod about Women Bishops. (+Alan expresses why quite succinctly). I thought I'd put a few thoughts down about my own position.

1. I believe that the CofE has authority in this matter. If I didn't believe that I'd be a Roman Catholic.

2. My understanding of ordination and episcopacy is that they are indissoluble - the former derives authority from the latter (and not just in the ordination of a priest but in any subsequent ministry - "this ministry which is yours and mine"). So to my mind the fundamental decision was made in the early 1990s. What is happening now is about taking the process to a logical conclusion. For what it's worth, I suspect that the *specific* decision made in 1992 was the wrong one, for all sorts of reasons. However, what's done is done, and there is no going back.

3. I believe that there are objections to the ordination of women that are non-trivial and that are not rooted in anti-women prejudice (there are, of course, many objections that are trivial and rooted in prejudice). In particular, this is not a matter of 'equality', 'discrimination' or 'justice' - except derivatively so, from a broader theological framework. That is, there is a genuine debate to be had here about what it is to be a priest, what it is to be a bishop. The greatest sadness for me is that the argument has been hijacked by secular thinking (on the pro side) and reactive, panicked negativity (on the anti side). In so far as there has been higher quality theological reflection on it (and there has been some) it hasn't filtered down.

4. To my mind, the root issue is that vocation is not reducible to biology. That is, to be a priest or to be a bishop is not a matter of having the correct chromosomes - nor is that a necessary condition - but rather it is entirely a question of character. Who or what is this person called to be? If we had a better theology of ministry and discipleship, and a clearer understanding of what it meant for any individual Christian to be called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, then we wouldn't have gotten ourselves into this mess. We are reaping the bitter fruits of several generations of theological illiteracy. Which is the real reason why the CofE is dying.


  1. The greatest sadness for me is that the argument has been hijacked by secular thinking (on the pro side) and reactive, panicked negativity (on the anti side). In so far as there has been higher quality theological reflection on it (and there has been some) it hasn't filtered down.

    And I suppose that is one reason that I chickened out of the Anglican Communion 27 years ago. I really didn't want to spend the rest of my life consumed by such trivial debates.

    And as Colin Morris wrote more than 40 years ago in his book Include me out: confessions of an ecclesiastical coward

    "That phrase Revolutionary Christianity is fashionable. But what it describes is more often a way of talking than a way of walking. It is revolution at the level of argument rather than action. We take daring liberties with the Christianity of the Creeds and the traditional ideas about God. We go into the fray armed to rend an Altizer or Woolwich apart of defend them to the death. We sup the heady wine of controversy and nail our colours to the mast -- mixing our metaphors in the excitement! The Church, we cry, is in ferment. She has bestirred herself out of her defensive positions and is on the march! And so she is -- on the march to the nearest bookshop or theological lecture room or avant garde church to expose herself to the latest hail of verbal or paper missiles. This is not revolution. It has more in common with the frenzied scratching of a dog to rid itself of fleas than an epic march on the Bastille or the Winter Palace. Revolutionary Christianity is so uncomplicated in comparison that it is almost embarassing to have to put it into words. It is simply doing costly things for Jesus' sake."

    The whole debate is trivial, like a dog scratching to rid itself of fleas. As G.K. Chesterton said, "the modern young man will never change the world for he will always change his mind." And as long as the church is busy changing its theology it will make no difference to the world, which is why, like Morris, I became an ecclesiastical coward and opted out.

  2. Steve - that's a brilliant quotation. There are so many areas of life where the answers were known 40 years ago but nothing was done...

  3. Hi Sam, I bow to your insider knowledge of maleness in the priesthood, but I'd like to pick up point 3 in a much more general sense. This is the problem shared with almost every human endeavour these days, from science to politics, secular or religious.

    Mass communication favours the two extreme arguments, that make the problem look like some dichotomous choice. We can only "hope" the more subtle considerations "filter down" to affect outcomes - but in reality the decisions will at some point have t be communicated in the wider world and will have to fit the dichotomous picture (the established meme, dare I say) to be recognized as relevant.

    And Steve's comments are relevant too. Most of these issues "were ever thus" - the best facts have been "known" from time immemorial the only novelty in current crises is the growing ubiquity of mass communications that reinforce the (trivial) dichotomies. (Memetics favours the trivial- the simplistically irrelevant and misguided).

  4. Here's a case in point :

    The system requires a choice between illegal or legal. The idea that this is an issue for common sense and human courtesy solved every day at council meetings around the country, counts for nothing.

  5. The day before I wrote a doctrine exam I had the choice of reading the magic book that would guarantee that I passed (Doctrines of the Creed, by Quicke, I think) and Colin Morris's Include me out. I chose to read the latter, and trust in the inspiration of the Holy Spirit for the exam. I passed.

  6. So you and the Orthodox and the Catholics are never going to be united? Ecumenism is pretty much down to gestures now-and some ceremonial and artistic borrowings?


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