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If it was me, I’m starting to think I’d say no…

A word cloud on the subject of women bishops
Word Cloud by Rt Rev David Hamid

Anyone keeping an eye on the Church of England will not need me to tell them that in July this year, General Synod will be given the chance to provide ‘Final Approval’ to the legislation that will finally allow women to be bishops. I appreciate it is likely to be a close run thing anyway and it’s by no means certain that they will get two-thirds approval in each of the houses of bishops, clergy and laity in order for it to pass.

That said, with something of a heavy heart, I think General Synod should say no and reject ‘final approval’ and thus throw out the possibility, for now, that women can become bishops.

Let me be clear. I support women’s ordination. I think that it is self-evident that they should be in the House of Bishops as well. I can construct a solid, biblically-based argument, to say that women have been leaders from the very earliest days of the church and that St Paul (in particular) has been subject to misinterpretation of a number of varieties that has long contributed to injustices served by men on the entire female gender.

However, I don’t think that WATCH, any of the other pressure groups, my female colleagues in ministry and the rest of the church should be prepared to vote for this legislation. Simply because it comes at too high a price.

I’ve wrestled with this back and forth, as I’m sure have many others. Wouldn’t it be better to just get women in the House of Bishops and then, maybe, we can deal with some of the things that people don’t like in the longer term? Perhaps.

But let me frame this in some theological terms.

In 1975, General Synod agreed that “there are no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood”. 12 years from that point, women were first ordained as deacons. It took until 1994 to see the first women ordained as priests. Provision was made in the legislation of the early nineties to provide for those who disagreed and some left the Church of England as a result. In its wake, the Act of Synod (which one might very generously describe as a loving attempt to keep everyone on board) ended up creating a church within a church.

Ever since, we have been in theological knots over women’s ordination. We’ve recently been adding to our knots with the question of such women’s potential to move into the episcopate. As I’ve blogged recently, we have so-called traditionalists apparently saying they want donatism – a pretty solid and very ancient heresy.

The theological knots don’t end there. As Miranda Threlfall-Holmes has pointed out, quoting Gregory Nazianzen, ‘what is not assumed, is not healed’. If Christ’s saving work was made possible because he was a human being, not because he happened to be a man, then that means all are included in God’s saving work in Christ. If gender is understood to be a fundamental, theological division between us, it affects not only ordination but our whole view of womanhood.

In 2006, General Synod agreed that:

“That this Synod welcome and affirm the view of the majority of the House of Bishops that admitting women to the episcopate in the Church of England is consonant with the faith of the Church as the Church of England has received it and would be a proper development in proclaiming afresh in this generation the grace and truth of Christ.”

I value unity extremely highly. I understand the need to try and keep the widest range of theological views on board. However, at some point or another, we have to say we either believe what Synod said we believe or we don’t. We either think it’s okay for women to be consecrated as bishops or we don’t… and guess what, six years ago the Church of England decided that it was a good thing and a ‘proper development’.

To now pass into law legislation that simultaneously both validates and invalidates women’s orders would be laughable if it wasn’t so tragic.

Continuing the theological line of questions, we also have to ask, do we believe what we say we believe in trusting the Spirit of God to guide the mind of the church? If we take that belief seriously, then again, we have to be mindful that to ignore such a mind is to ignore God’s call upon us.

I think it may be up to the women of our church, WATCH (which contains both men and women amongst its membership) and the other pressure groups to give the Church of England a lesson in how to clear out the theological cobwebs by saying no. Ironic really given that it is the Bishops whose role ought to be the guardians of the theology and doctrine of the church.

It seems to me that, while it would be incredibly embarrassing nationally and internationally to see the legislation rejected, it would be painful and hard to continue to see women excluded from the House of Bishops, and it would set our ability to speak missionally and culturally to our nation back by ten years to reject this legislation, I wonder if we don’t need to give the whole thing a bloody nose and send it back where it came from as being hopelessly theologically flawed.

Either we believe what we say about women or we don’t and if we do, we ought to embrace our beliefs without any further concession.

Do you think Martin Luther King, Rosa Parkes and the rest would have accepted a situation that only accepted their human rights when the KKK didn’t want to use the bus? Would Emily Pankhurst have been happy to have her voice count only when prospective MPs didn’t conscientiously object to her vote?

I understand that women may feel that they have to continue to suffer in silence for the benefit of the mercies their suffering brings. Women have long been subjected to accept a role of silence across the world and down the ages. If they vote yes now, it’s another act of silence. Yes, we see the problems but at least we’ve got the main thing we wanted – women in the House of Bishops. But what further suffering will result? What further silences must be endured because of what the amended legislation allows?

In the last year, 42 out of 44 dioceses voted in favour of the draft legislation. That’s beyond an overwhelming show of support. In tinkering and providing the amendments recently which cannot be discussed by Synod – simply approved or rejected, the House of Bishops have further enshrined division in the church in a way that may be even more damaging to women in the long-term than the Act of Synod has been.

As my friend, Jodie Stowell, has written:

“The amendments may have been offered as a clarification, but as one of my colleagues commented: what could have been a line in the sand over which we could see each other, has now become the Berlin Wall.”

I don’t find it easy to say this having long been a supporter of women’s ordination and women in the episcopate. But I think the legislation ought to be thrown out and all those who are in favour of women bishops be resolute in seeking a measure that embraces their ministry wholeheartedly and without institutionally-provided lines of division.


Liz Hawkes

I agree with what you’ve written, David, I’d say no too!

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