Wednesday, 25 April 2012

Why the women bishops legislation shouldn't be changed

In the next few weeks, the House of Bishops will be meeting to discuss whether to try to 'tweak' the delicately balanced compromise legislation to allow women to be bishops.

Why don't I think this would be a good idea?

Because any further changes are likely to make the legislation pointless, by undermining the legitimacy of having women as bishops at the same time as saying they can be. How patronising! Those opposed to women's ordination - and, worryingly, many who say they support it - seem to think that this is just about a few ambitious women wanting the pointy hat. How hopelessly, and sadly, wrong that is. This is about the church finally and unambiguously proclaiming that women and men are both equally made in God's image and able to relate to God in the same way. That gender is not a fundamental dividing line, let alone one that necessitates a hierarchical relationship, between two fundamentally different parts of humanity.

Some people - normally those who want to slow things down - keep repeating that we haven't done the theology properly yet. That normally seems to mean that we haven't arrived at the answer they wanted.
Well, I have done the theology, and I seem to have submitted this to countless drafting groups and revision committees, so its not exactly new.

For anyone interested, here is my summary of why this is important:

1.1.  As a body, the Church of England cannot hold two opposing views on women’s ordination simultaneously. It is clear that, as individuals, we all hold our very different views on this subject in good conscience and with integrity. But that is very different from saying that official church policy is that both views are equally correct. A church cannot with integrity ordain people whom it simultaneously considers both validly and invalidly ordained.

1.2.  Since women have been ordained to the priesthood for nearly 20 years, it is clear that the Church of England is a church that ordains women. Synod has repeatedly affirmed since 1975 that there is ‘no fundamental objection to the ordination of women’, and the recent diocesan synod voting shows that the consecration of women bishops is the will of the church. It is important that the legislation to allow women bishops is not framed in such a way as to throw doubt on the legitimacy of very thing it is legislating for. Historically, the whole point of Canon A4 was to make explicit that the Church of England has both the legal right and the ecclesiastical power to legally and validly ordain its own clergy. It would be invidious to undermine that statement now over this issue.

1.3.  Some argue that it is simply impossible for a woman to be a priest or a bishop, and so wish to avoid both our ministry and that of male priests or bishops tainted by association. But this cannot be accepted as valid simply because it is a deeply held belief. The key theological principle at stake is Gregory Nazianzen’s famous phrase, ‘the unassumed is the unhealed’. If this is accepted, then Christ, as the fully representative human being as well as fully God, must be understood as essentially having assumed humanity, rather than maleness. In Aquinas’ sacramental terminology, Christ’s maleness must be essentially accidental, the substance of the incarnation being Christ’s humanity. If the maleness of Christ is to be understood as a key salvific characteristic of the incarnation, or if gender is understood as a fundamental division within humanity, then the theological implication is that women are not included in the saving activity of the incarnation. On this understanding women, to put it bluntly, not only cannot be ordained, but cannot be saved.

1.4.  The Church of England must firmly and decisively distance itself from any such suggestion, and this is why the full incorporation of women into the threefold ministry of the church is of such immense theological value. It is therefore crucial that the legislation does not compromise this fundamental understanding of gender as an essentially secondary characteristic to humanity.

The current legislation is a major compromise for all parties in this debate, and we can’t find a better compromise than this. This has been debated extensively for many years, and options either to have simple legislation without any provision for opponents, or to have more legislative ‘safeguards’ against women’s ministry, have consistently failed to achieve the necessary 2/3 majority. Several commissions and revision committees have repeatedly investigated the implications of all the options. It is almost inconceivable that a last minute ‘tweak’ could improve the legislation.

This legislative compromise has, in contrast to all the other options considered over the years, commanded widespread support. It has been scrutinised at deanery and in many places parish level throughout the country, and debated in detail at diocesan synods. 42 out of 44 dioceses have approved the current legislation. Following motions calling for some amendment to the existing legislation to be considered were passed in 10 dioceses, but lost in 30 dioceses (GS 1847).

This is a compromise package. But we can’t compromise away the entire point of having women and men together in the threefold ministry, or the theological integrity of our church. There is no point having this legislation just to get women bishops at any price. If the House of Bishops can’t bring itself to wholeheartedly endorse women’s ordination, I think I will feel I have to vote against the Measure at Final Approval, rather than vote for enshrining theological incoherence and gender discrimination in Canon Law.


  1. Love it. One comment: the substance of the incarnation would indeed be the humanity of Christ, but in his maleness his practice of radical equality, humility and self-sacrifice has an impact that it would not have from a woman, and thus is purposeful. In other words, since women are expected to be humble servants through gender oppression, humility from a female Christ would not have had the same significance. In freeing women to take their rightful place in the church leadership, we echo that radical statement which shakes oppressive boundaries.

  2. I left the Roman Catholic Church as a Permanent Deacon and Hospital Chaplain in part because of the sectarian attitude toward women. Other more experienced writers have suggested that we should have got women ordained as bishops to start with. This would have removed the previous painful periods concerning women Deacons and Priests. Please, can we just get on with it, in Jesus Name. Amen