Women bishops? Yes, please! The Church of England desperately needs a Margaret Thatcher

Published by Daily Mail

Women Bishops3‘Most of us laugh at the woolliness of modern Anglicanism,’ writes Charles Moore in The Daily Telegraph, ‘but it is, though somewhat debased, the true heir of (England’s) national history. It offers an authentically Christian approach to life which seeks peace and a common life. This builds trust and good neighbourliness. It is not an accident that, today, most other Christian denominations and other faiths in this country happily shelter under the protection of the Church of England, and fear a secular state.’

Setting aside the welcome latitudinal ecclesiology of a prominent Roman Catholic who is content to talk of his own church as a ‘denomination’ – that is, simply one among many valid expressions of Christianity in an ocean of human difference and diversity – the observation that the Church of England ‘seeks peace and a common life’ is not only historically foundational but acutely missiological.

From its inception, the Church of England has plodded along the via media – between Geneva and Wittenberg if not between Rome and London. And it must be the role of a national church to mediate between extremes and walk a narrow path between conflicting conceptions of the good: if it cannot somehow articulate the common life of the whole nation, it ceases to be truly national.

But it is important to understand what this means. It is not, as some aver – and, to be fair, some Anglican vicars and bishops occasionally propound – an exhortation to compromise on the fundamental ‘first order’ issues of the Faith out of ‘respect’ for a postmodern, relativist, multi-faith context. ‘There is no God but God and Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God who died for our sins’, is the sort of creed I consider ‘first order': just about everything else is secondary – modes of baptism, worship, liturgy, communion, eschatology, ecclesiology… and women bishops.

In what way did the ordination of 5000 women as priests compromise the fundamental purposes of the church? How did it detract from God’s plan of salvation or damage the unity of communion? Certainly, the role of women in ministry is a valid point of debate, but it is not a theological heresy which ought to lead to schism: it’s not quite up there with the debates surrounding the divinity and humanity of Christ, for example, for which the ecumenical councils of Nicaea (AD325) and Chalcedon (AD451) were convened, and the church purged of heretical doctrine.

If admitting women to the episcopacy is a ‘second order’ issue, there is nothing to be gained by either side taking an entrenched position: compromise is both possible and necessary, for the maintenance of visible unity. And the Church of England simply needs to discover a bit more of Charles Moore’s latitudinarianism to acknowledge the historic and biblical reality that wherever and whenever men have failed, God has raised up a woman.

It is invariably unwise to appropriate selective scriptures for a personal cause, not least because, devoid of context and culture, we can debate forever the nuances of meaning and significance of each jot and tittle. Those who quote the egalitarian ‘in Christ there is no male or female’ (Galatians 3:26-28), and insist that therein is proof that God wants female bishops, are as theologically naive as those Christians who look to Aaron and Zadok to defend an exclusively male priesthood, or those who fish out ‘let women be silent in the churches’ (1 Corinthians 14:34-5) to defend perpetual female subordination.

One may arrive at a wider New Testament theological vision by arguing that Jesus had female disciples and privileged their testimony of his resurrection during an era of undeniable patriarchy. And we may look to the fact that St Paul permitted women to prophesy (1 Corinthians 11:3-16); to become deacons (Romans 16:1); and to work alongside him in ministry (Acts 18:18-28). And we mustn’t forget his salutation (Romans 16:1-16) to Mary, Tryphaena, Tryphosa, Persis and Junia – all women singled out from the rest of the church because of their significant positions in the apostolic mission team.

Ah, I hear you say: Hilton is simply ‘appropriating selective scriptures’ for his personal use to bolster his particular bias. And here I must declare a ‘Low Church’ instinct for reformation constrained only by a ‘High Church’ respect for catholicity. I’m prepared to acknowledge that there is – at the very least – a certain ‘tension’ concerning the role of women in the Early Church, and for that reason I’m content to support the motion before the General Synod this week. It’s not perfect, but neither is any word which has proceeded from the mouth or hand of man.

I don’t agree with those like the Rt Rev’d Pete Broadbent, Bishop of Willesden, who demands a ‘yes’ vote so that the church does not ‘look completely stupid in the eyes of society’. Much of Christian theology is distinctly counter-cultural and may appear ‘foolishness to the Greeks’. The role of the Church is to transform culture rather than be transformed by it. But, within the Erastian Anglican settlement, it is a delicate balancing act.

The New Testament teaches that men and women are one in Christ, but manifest gender differences remain. For as long as women bear children and men are charged predominantly with testosterone, there cannot be gender ‘equality’ in nature. But in social, legal, economic and cultural hierarchy – secular and sacred – it seems unjust to perpetuate the belief that men are necessarily ‘better’ than women.

Charles Moore is of the view that modern Anglicanism is ‘somewhat debased’. If he is right (and I happen to believe he is), it is an incontrovertible truth that this debasement came about under the leadership of men. One wonders how many believed that Queen Elizabeth I – ‘Gloriana’ – was simply ‘a weak and feeble woman’ following the mighty Henry VIII, yet she eclipsed a dozen of her predecessors with ‘the heart and stomach of a king’. And what of Boudicca, Queen Victoria, or Margaret Thatcher? Or the present Queen? Not to mention those abroad – Catherine (‘the Great’), Mother Teresa, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir or Aung San Suu Kyi? Is it not arguably often the case that whenever a woman has risen to the top, she has eclipsed a dozen men in knowledge, learning, political skill and pragmatic leadership?

I respect those who insist that church leadership is exclusively male, but I favour pragmatism in matters of religion, and we must ‘proclaim the faith afresh in every generation’. By supporting the motion before Synod, there is manifest compromise on all sides: both the Catholic and Reformed wings of the Church are troubled and satisfied in equal proportion. There will be women bishops, but these cannot be imposed without ‘respecting’ those traditionalist parishes whose consciences cannot accept them on theological grounds.

So, like Margaret Thatcher before her, it will be for the Church of England’s first female bishop to prove that she is not a ‘second-class’, weak and feeble pushover, but is instead capable of exercising all the authority of her office without having to pretend that she is a man. Margaret Thatcher never did, yet she not only possessed the heart and stomach of a man, but seemed to have more balls, too.

The way forward demands spiritual humility, political determination, theological conviction and a holy wisdom. If the Church of England stands now where the United Kingdom stood in 1975, when Margaret Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party, I look forward enormously to 2014, when the first woman priest might be consecrated bishop, and thereafter to 2025. If she manages to reform a diocese like Thatcher revived a nation after 11 years of leadership, I think Archbishop Justin Welby might just make way for the first woman to sit in the Chair of St Augustine at Canterbury.

And, yes, the Church of England will still be part of ‘the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’, at least in the benevolent eyes and gracious ‘broad-church’ spirit of Christians like Charles Moore.

 

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  • Trudi

    When they wanted women priests, they claimed it would increase congregations, due to making the Church more ‘inclusive’ and ‘approachable to women and children’. No such claims this time you’ll note.

  • Peter L. Griffiths

    If the author of the New Testament had wanted women bishops she would have said so.