Friday, September 15, 2006

Women Bishops (Part 3)

Part 1
Part 2

This was probably the best bit of the debate. Mr Allister spoke on "the current situation and ways ahead". He spent quite a while explaining why it was important to stay united with other evangelicals under the authority of Scripture, even and especially when we disagreed over what it said, and that it was important to love one another rather than throwing labels around.

He then went on to explain why the current situation has reached an empasse at General Synod, and may well remain there for a few years.

He answered a question about what to do when people on each side think their side is not only right, but also have conscience arguments for it very well. He spoke about the idea of "corporate conscience" - that we can essentially submit to the corporate conscience on issues such as this, even if we personally don't agree with it because we recognise that to do otherwise would be to offend our Bible-believing brothers and sisters who disagree with us on one point of interpretation. That certainly seemed to offer a genuine way forwards within the C of E for both parties, whatever happens with this issue.

This contrasts with what looks to me an awful lot like pride and status-seeking by those at both extremes - those women who are demanding exactly the same status as male bishops (i.e. not allowing respect for the conscience of those who have good theological reasons for rejecting them), all those who seem to have pre-decided the issue and aren't open to persuasion, those men who insist they will leave rather than be in the same church as female bishops.


There were a few other good points raised in discussion - that the nature of ordination and bishops were essentially still ill-defined, that authority in the church comes from being given it by predecessors and so on (back to Jesus) and that the authority given us by our predecessors did not include the authority to consecrate women as bishops, the fact that history suggests that the C of E makes new rules by old ones being broken rather than by discussion, ...

Reflection on the Debate

I thought the debate was helpful, especially for newcomers to the issue. However, I didn't think either of the main speakers really either got beyond the standard arguments or engaged with the other person's arguments beyond a superficial level, which was a bit disappointing.

My Opinion

I think there are a few things we can say for certain, but that they don't clearly define a single position in the middle - I think they define a range of positions. I think some of the things we can say for certain are:

  • Men and women are equal - both are equally saved, equally incorporated into Christ, equally valuable to him (e.g. Gal 3).
  • Men and women, while equal, are also different.
  • One of the ways in which they are different is in terms of roles in marriage. Husbands are to be the loving, self-sacrificing head; wives are to be loving and submissive - to model the relationship between Christ and the Church (Eph 5)
  • Women have an important role in church leadership. This role should include teaching women (Titus) and they should not be excluded from praying or prophesying in church meetings (1 Cor 11). Roles clearly open to women also include the role of deacon.
  • All too often in the past, the church has used a clergy-only model, which has been hugely damaging to the valuable work of lay people, and women in particular.
  • Because men and women are complementary, and designed to be so (Gen 2), I would expect their work in the Church to be complementary (body metaphors). However, since there are as many different roles as there are people in the Church, that might include roles for which the C of E requires ordination as presbyter or bishop.
  • The relationship between husband and wife should not be damaged or subverted by what goes on in the church (which is certainly one meaning of the controversial bit in 1 Cor 11).

I'm not convinced (at the moment) by the argument that men are in some sense the head of women outside marriage. Nor am I convinced that the Bible is clearly in favour of women in the role of "presbyter" or "episkopos". I would imagine that there would be extra tensions in the marriages of married women elders or bishops - care would have to be taken to help there (screening of clergy husbands??)... Of course, there are arguments from history (though a few groups in the early centuries, did have women presbyters and bishops), and arguments both ways from unity (Methodists have women bishops, RCs and Orthodox don't).

So in short, I don't know. I am happy to work alongside female clergy that I know, including those in roles of oversight. I would of course expect them to have worked through the issue in good conscience in their own mind and to be satisfied with the outcome, as well as to trying to model the relationship between Christ and the Church in their marriages (if married). But at the end of the day, all that is between them, their husband and God. I personally think it's far more important that they teach and are faithful to the teaching of the Bible than that they have a Y chromosome. If the C of E finally agrees to appoint women bishops, I guess I'll be happy to work alongside them, respecting the collective conscience of the Church.


PamBG said...

Followed link from SOF.

To me, the basic problem with the male headship stuff is the underlying assumption that the bible recommends that we order human relationships such that "headship" means one person telling another what to do. The "someone has to be in charge" argument.

As many Christian married people will testify, the "someone has to be in charge" model doesn't work for them. For those of us used to ordering our marriage such that decisions are made equally, there is no problem at all with a married woman elder.

Personally, *I* don't see how anyone reads the entirety of the New Testament and comes up with the idea that mutual decision-making is ungodly (which is essentially what one is saying if one says "God commands male headship in marriage")

John said...

Thanks for this. I don't think I went much into the nature of what headship in marriage means.

I don't think mutual decision-making is ruled out by Scripture, but I think whatever we say has to be consistent with, but also centred on, what the Bible says about marriage rather than what our society says about marriage.

It's very interesting, for example, that the famous "wives submit to your husbands" in Eph 5:22 is immediately preceded by "submit to one another" in Eph 5:21.

Actually, on reflection, the commands to wives and husbands in Ephesians 5 seem directly targeted at the relevant problems in married life described in Genesis 3:16 - the husbands told not to "rule over" the wives but to lay themselves down for them and the wives told not to "desire for their husbands" (often argued to be an authority thing) but to be submissive. Hmmm - that was an interesting thought.

Back to the point though - the Biblical model of marriage, while loving, mutually submissive, etc is clearly also asymmetric - husbands and wives are seen as taking different roles and are commanded to do different things.

Would you agree?