Tuesday, 23 July 2013

An Equal Episcopate? Theological Explorations

This is the text of an article of mine that has been published in the most recent volume of Modern Believing, July 2013. It is about 3,000 words. Some of the arguments have been aired by me before, either here on this blog or in conferences, but not all have been previously published. It was, of course, written before the most recent developments in restarting the legislative process. The footnotes are not reproduced here.

In November 2012 the General Synod of the Church of England voted against legislation which would have both opened the episcopate to women, and established a package of provisions for those who did not accept that this was a legitimate development. This article analyses how that decision came to be made, and discusses subsequent developments. Some of the key arguments that have been made against the ordination of women to the episcopate are then considered. The concept of ‘sacramental assurance’ is critiqued, and the question of a theological anthropology of gender is explored.

In November 2012 the General Synod of the Church of England voted against legislation which would have both opened the episcopate to women, and put in place a legislative package of provisions for those who did not accept that this was a legitimate development. The votes of just 6 members of the House of Laity prevented the legislation from achieving the required 2/3 majority in each House of the Synod. Almost immediately the bishops, and notably the newly appointed Archbishop-in-waiting, Justin Welby, were insisting that new legislation would be brought forward as soon as possible, spurred on by howls of outrage from press, Parliament and the general public.

Bishops were quick to point out that it was not them who had voted down the legislation - the bishops had 'come good in the end', according to one prominent episcopal supporter of women clergy, voting overwhelmingly in favour. Yet a great deal of anger, hurt and disappointment was directed at them, reflecting the fact that it was widely considered to have been the ill advised intervention of the House of Bishops in May 2012 that was responsible for the failure of the legislation.

The changes that the House of Bishops made to the legislation at that point threw out of balance the delicate compromise that had been achieved over past years, and which had received an astonishing level of endorsement at diocesan level, with only 2 dioceses declining to endorse the legislation. As a result, many strong supporters of women's ordination indicated that they would be unable to support the legislation at final approval, since it now entrenched and gave tacit approval to misogynistic ideas about women and damaging theologies of gender and ecclesiology.

There was a storm of protest, from myself and many others, which initially greatly puzzled the bishops, many of whom appear not to have realised the full implications of the changes they had approved. The final approval debate, initially scheduled for July, was hastily reconsidered, and was replaced in July by a debate on whether the House of Bishops should be invited to think again - a motion that received an exact 2/3 majority (though it was not counted by houses).

The legislation was recommitted to the House of Bishops for further consideration, and one minor change was made – ‘the Appleby amendment’, after its writer, the Revd. Janet Appleby. This then comprised the legislation that was presented in November 2012. That legislation having been lost, a consultation process was quickly started to try to discern a way forward. Facilitated discussions were held with a handful of selected participants in February and April 2013, and following the first of these a consulation paper was issued inviting responses. At the time of writing, it is not yet known what fresh proposals the House of Bishops will bring to General Synod in July 2013, but the expectation is that no new legislation will be proposed immediately, but rather further rounds of consultation.

Squaring the Circle
The ongoing problem for this legislation is that from the beginning, it has tried to acheive two irreconcilable aims. Throughout the debates, the term ‘squaring the circle’ has been commonly used as a shorthand for this. The two aims were to have women as bishops on equal terms with men, and to make some sort of provision for those who do not believe that this is a valid development in the ordering of the church. A glance through any of the documents emanating from Forward in Faith, the Anglo-Catholic pressure group formed to oppose the ordination of women, reveals a consistent concern with ‘proper provision’.   The rhetoric of those opposing the legislation was that the provision on offer was simply not protection enough from the contamination of Catholic order that women bishops would entail. The difficulty, of course, was in finding ‘provisions’ which did not, by their very nature and existence, imply that women would only be second-class bishops.

For some of those who supported the legislation, simply having women as bishops was the primary aim. Whatever compromises of principle might be necessary to acheive that were therefore considered worthwhile. This is what lay behind the House of Bishops’ ill fated decision in May 2012 to alter the legislation. It also underlies much of the rhetoric of ill-placed ambition that is targeted at those who campaign for women bishops. Some men seemed unable to believe that we women clergy don’t simply want an equal episcopate in order to become bishops ourselves; they were therefore incredulous in July 2012, when they realised that we would vote against discriminatory legislation.

So let me state plainly: having women as bishops is not an end in itself. It is, rather, a necessary but not sufficient means to the end of demonstrating, by our ordering of our church, that the Church of England believes men and women to be equally and jointly made in the image of God, and to be theologically in the same category.There is therefore simply no point in allowing women to be bishops on different terms to men, or in redefining what a bishop is in order to let women in. That would be only allowing women to dress up like bishops whilst retaining a separate class of 'real' bishops.

That is why I support the simplest possible legislation, simply stating that both women and men can be bishops, without putting any supplementary provisions in place. In fact, I would go further: I would prefer us not to enact any legislation at all, than enshrine discrimination in the episcopate in law. Were we to do that, the Church of England would be officially saying that gender discrimination is acceptable theologically.

It is of course worth noting that every province of the Anglican communion that already has legislation in place to allow both men and women to become bishops, has such simple legislation. No other province has any ‘safeguards’ or ‘provisions’ for those who disagree with this development. In every case where there are women bishops, it is simply left to them to make appropriate provision for those of their priests who have difficulty in accepting their orders or sacraments. In all cases such priests do need to accept the legal authority of the female bishop, and have been prepared to do so. They have been helped in doing so by the existence of considerable precedents for women holding ecclesiastical jurisdiction, as in the case of abbesses and of course the Queen. Notwithstanding some high profile clashes in the Episcopal Church of the USA, in most cases there, and in all other provinces, such informal arrangements have worked well for all concerned. There does not seem to be any reason why the Church of England should need or desire more complex arrangements.

It is also worth noting that in 2006-7, simple legislation (popularly known as a ‘single clause measure’) was the preferred option of Forward in Faith as well as groups such as WATCH. I remember being asked then by New Directions to write an article explaining why I supported a Single Clause Measure, just as they did, but for different reasons. At the time I recall suggesting that perhaps they wanted a Single Clause Measure because they thought it would be more easily defeated, but I was assured that it was because it was the only theologically coherent way forward. The ease with which such groups have shifted the grounds of their arguments has been quite astonishing to watch, and rather destroys any claims to ‘integrity’. In recent months, as already noted, the argument has been presented as having always been about ‘proper provision’, and the simple legislation that this group once purported to consider the only coherent approach has been characterised as a radical and cruel suggestion. One recent contributor to New Directions was refreshingly honest about the shifting grounds of argument, noting breezily: ‘pressure’s off for the moment to think up fresh arguments against female episcopacy, and to suggest hiding places from it’.

The consultation document issued in February 2013 was largely uncontroversial, but ended with the proposition that the legislation should aim to achieve 'a greater sense of security....[of] an accepted and valued place in the Church of England' for those who do not accept the ordination of women. Whilst such a sense of security is arguably desirable (a question I will return to below), this is not, of course, a viable aim on which to base a piece of legislation. Legislative aims must be measurable, but a 'sense of security' can only ever be measured by whether those involved say it has been given.

More fundamentally, at least some people demonstrably oppose women's ordination on theological grounds that are at best mistaken, and at worst heretical. At least one speech in the Final Approval debate in November 2012, for example, argued that women should be subordinate to men based on a supposed inherent subordination within the Trinity: a view clearly beyond the bounds of orthodox Christian belief. So if we are to aim for a 'sense of security' of being 'accepted and valued' within the Church of England, then we need to be very clear indeed that it is the people who hold these views who are 'accepted and valued', not the views themselves. Or, if certain views contrary to the mainstream doctrine of the Church are to be declared 'accepted and valued', then we need to be very clear indeed which ones these are. Otherwise the effect of this aim, were it to be realized in legislation, would be to say that anyone’s idiosyncratic views - on creation, the Trinity, the Bible, or whatever else underlies their belief that women cannot be ordained – are all necessarily 'accepted and valued'.

This would be an astonishingly ‘liberal’ statement for the Church to make, were it not for the fact that this theological permissiveness extends only to those who oppose women’s ordination and consecration. In other words, the Church is in danger of saying that women are so fundamentally divisive that a desire to avoid the ministry of women is the one thing for which legislative permission to disregard the canons will be given. I would be horrified if we were to enact legislation that said this: and yet this very option is consistently presented as simply being ‘generous provision’ for a minority that fears it may become oppressed.

Sacramental Assurance and Risk

One of the recurring themes of the opposition to women's ordination is the element of doubt versus assurance. The arguments vary, but a common theme is that it is unclear whether women should (or can) really be ordained, and so it is unclear whether, when an ordained woman is functioning as a priest or bishop, anything is actually happening. So the elements at Holy Communion might not really become Christ's body and blood if the service is presided over by a woman. A priest might not be really ordained if the ordination is done by a woman. God has promised the church that he will work through the sacraments, and our confidence in our salvation is rooted in that promise, so it shouldn’t be disturbed.The point is not that women definitely can't be ordained, but that it is uncertain, and that introducing an unnecessary element of uncertainty into the sacraments is foolhardy.

Proponents of women's ordination, myself included, have usually responded to this sort of argument by simply ridiculing the idea that women can't be ordained. My own response is primarily to argue that a false theological distinction is being drawn between men and women (of which more below).
But I suggest, too, that the very concept of sacramental assurance is itself problematic.

The parish profile for my new job asked, among other things, for 'a prayerful risk taker'. A sampling of job advertisements over recent months suggests that such risk taking, 'ministerial entrepreneurship' in one inelegant phrase, is increasingly seen as valuable. The new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, when he was Dean of Liverpool, established its strapline as ‘A safe place to take risks’. The parable of the talents comes to mind, suggesting that it is better to take risks for God than to worry about protecting what you have (though I would have loved Jesus to have included an example of someone who invested 7 talents but lost them all due to changed market conditions, or bad weather).

But if risk taking is good - if risk taking is Godly, as the parable would seem to imply - then is sacramental assurance something to be desired and supported? How Godly is a desire for certainty?

Synod papers discussing the women bishops legislation repeatedly use the phrase 'necessary but not sufficient'. We are told that for some, the maleness of their priest or bishop is  necessary but not sufficient - to really feel safe, they might need a man who has been ordained by a man, or even by a man who has never participated in or supported women's ordination. This is to give 'sacramental assurance' - the feeling of certainty that the sacraments they are getting are real sacraments. Women's ordination, because it introduces an element of uncertainty, is seen as something that it is valid to want to avoid, since certainty is a good thing.

But I wonder if in fact we should embrace women's ordination as valuable precisely because it challenges such a desire for certainty?  It is worth considering the history of infant baptism, which provides something of a historical parallel. In the Reformation period the practice of baptising babies was hotly contested by some radical reformers. This was because the biblical evidence for the practice is limited at best, and because it was felt that baptising babies risked endorsing the Roman Catholic economy of salvation, in which church ceremonies were necessary for salvation, not merely personal faith.

However, the mainstream reformers consistently resisted this argument. For Luther, Calvin and others, infant baptism was crucial. This was partly because it fitted into their city-state view of Christendom, that the membership of the church was the same as the membership of the community. But it was also - and this is particularly clear in Luther - because baptising babies symbolised very clearly that faith itself was a gift of God, entirely undeserved, not something we work to achieve.

The sacraments are not a magical incantation that need to be done by the right person in the right way to 'work'. Instead, they are God's free gift to humanity, and always depend on God's grace. It is indeed reassuring to think that God has promised to work through them; but that reassurance shouldn't tempt us into thinking that the church and church tradition has tamed and controlled Gods grace and power, and now has a monopoly on it. How sad, and how dangerously limiting, to think of God's saving grace as being constrained to only flow uncertain pre-approved channels. If ordaining women challenges such a heresy, then all the more reason to do it.

Male and female: a category error?

I use the term heresy advisedly, as I do believe that dangerously false theology, not merely misogyny, is at stake in this debate. Fundamentally, the arguments against women being ordained and consecrated rest on an understanding of women and men being theologically distinct categories.
There are clear parallels here with the debates about sexuality and same sex attraction. Indeed, it seems to me that very often the debate about the ordination of women is acting as a proxy for debates about sexuality. Certainly, the two are frequently linked in ‘slippery slope’ rhetoric.

The ordination of women and gay marriage are of course too very different debates, and I know many people who would be considered conservative on one and liberal on the other, and vice versa. The biblical and theological arguments for and against each rest on some clearly distinct grounds. However, there is I think one key respect in which they are indeed linked, and that is the fundamental premise that men and women are two completely different categories of human being. This is not simply a statement of the obvious - that men and women are physically and chromosomally distinct. This is rather the premise that men and women are not just variants of the same fundamental theological category 'humanity', but are two theologically distinct categories, such that what one might say theologically of one cannot necessarily be said of the other. How God relates to one is fundamentally different to how God relates to the other.

It is of course the case that men and women are, broadly speaking, biologically distinct, since human beings – in common with most, but not all, plants and animals – reproduce and evolve through sexual differentiation. However, much debate in this area engages only tangentially, if at all, with the biological reality of sexual differentiation in humans. First, it is often assumed that sexual reproduction implies male/female differentiation. Yet this is of course not the case. Most plants reproduce sexually yet few have distinct male and female variants; whilst snails are probably the best known example of an animal species in which all the individuals are hermaphrodite, and mating involves the mutual exchange of genetic material.

So the simple  biological fact of sexual reproduction does not imply the differention of gender roles. Furthermore, science is increasingly finding that sexual differentiation in humans is not as clear cut as has generally been thought. There has been a strong revision upwards in the estimates of the frequency of intersex conditions, where one individual has some or all of the sexual characteristics of both genders. These conditions were given substantial international publicity when the International Olympic Committee met to debate whether Castor Semenya could compete as a woman when a fellow competitor had complained that she too masculine to count as female.

Other questions still being raised and researched at a very early stage are issues surrounding transgender people - those who claim to feel 'trapped in the wrong body'. The NHS is convinced enough that this is a genuine medical disorder to pay for corrective surgery when psychological investigatons indicate that it will be helpful.

Questions of sexuality and sexual orientation are also interesting biologically. Considerable evidence has emerged in recent decades of widespread same sex activity, sometimes combined with heterosexual mating as in the promiscuous Bonobo monkeys, who appear to use sexual activity as a commonplace social bonding mechanism, and sometimes as a long term same sex pair bond, as in the recent case of the 'gay penguins', which gained considerable publicity. Again, biological research does not seem to support such a rigid distinction between the sexes as much theological argument presupposes.

So the insights of modern biology and anthropology do not encourage us to think of male and female as fundamentally distinct categories. But neither, I suggest, do the Bible, or the other resources of Christian tradition, require us to think that because humanity reproduces sexually, male and female are separate theological categories.

Some decades ago, Ruether wrote a very influential article asking 'Can a male saviour save women?'. Her point was that if Jesus' maleness was a key salvific characteristic - if it mattered theologically that Jesus did not just become human but became male - then women were not saved. It is a basic principle of incarnational theology, particularly strong in the Greek Orthodox tradition, that the incarnation itself is salvific. As Gregory of Nazianzen put it - 'the unassumed is the unhealed'. In other words, humanity - specifically human flesh, embodied humanity, not just our souls - is redeemed by the incarnation. It must therefore be the case - unless you wish to argue that only male bodies are redeemed - that what Jesus assumed was fundamentally humanity, not maleness. In other words, the doctrine of the incarnation cannot be reconciled with a view of men and women as fundamentally different theological categories except by denying that women are as saved as men are.

Jesus maleness must, therefore, be seen as an incidental particularity of his becoming human. Furthermore, a view that sees male and female as theologically and categorically distinct theologically is very often, if not inevitably, idolatrous. Historically, maleness has been given God-like status. God has been consistently imagined as being male, and by extension, men have been assumed to be more God-like than women. As Mary Daly put it very succinctly, 'If God is male, the male is God'. Viewing men as closer to God, more made in God’s image, than women is to make manhood an idol.

And the male ideal that has seen as being most God-like has generally been a particular kind of male - adult, not a child; strong and healthy, not weak or disabled or ill; heterosexual, not castrated, and at various points in history either celibate (showing strong mastery over his bodily urges), or married with children (demonstrating fertility and maturity). Not only have women traditionally been seen as further from God than such men, but men have typically been judged and graded in holiness against this particular ideal.

Regardless of all the many gifts that womens ordination brings, and hopefully will soon bring to the House of Bishops, one of the most important things will be to challenge, simply by their presence, this idolisation of a particular type of adult maleness as more God like than other gender identity.


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