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CofE women bishops?

women bishops

UPDATE: CofE’s General Synod vote on women bishops was lost. Votes for the measure were:
House of Bishops: 44 in favour; 3 against; 2 abstain
House of Clergy: 148 in favour; 45 against; 0 abstain
House of Laity: 132 in favour; 74 against; 0 abstain
It needs 2/3 majority in all houses.

The Church of England General Synod is meeting to vote on women bishops. For women to be ordained bishop there this measure needs to pass with a two-thirds majority in the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy, and the House of Laity. Then it will need to pass in both Houses of Parliament, and receive the royal assent.

Here’s the live audio stream of the General Synod (H/T Ruth Wells)

[Why is there no live visual feed?! Oh, that's right; I forget; it's the church...]

The Church of England has had women priests since 1994.

The Anglican Church has never been clear whether bishops are senior priests/presbyters to whom priests delegate some of the powers that are theirs by ordination; or are bishops the primary ordained clergy, and priests are, as it were, delegates of the bishop in a particular meeting of the church, the fullness of which is the diocese around the bishop?

Should the theological work have started at whether women can be bishops – and discussion about women priests would have followed consequentially?

In any case, nowhere, as far as I know, has followed this principal. All have followed the pragmatism of let’s-ordain-women-priests-first-and-see-how-that-goes, and much of the momentum has derived from catching up with the equality that “the world” in the church’s local context takes for granted, rather than engagement with our theological tradition. I would be one of the last to say that the Spirit does not speak to the Church through “the world” – but the acceptance of that bears on the more-heated debate about the place of homosexuals. Around the debates, then, on gender and sexuality, are other debates on authority, and how we discern God’s will.

As far as I know, only four Anglican provinces have women bishops: The Episcopal Church, the Anglican Church of Australia, The Anglican Church of Canada, and The Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. [Updated: Anglican Church of Southern Africa - see comments below].

The arguments against women bishops are approached from two directions. One is that men and women have different, complementary roles to play, and that God has not made women to have oversight and headship. Biblical texts are used in support of this position which applies from marriage and family to church. The other direction is sacramental – that sacraments are only valid with right intention, matter, and form. Matter refers to what is used (you cannot ordain a bicycle, or use a wig as the “matter” in a Eucharist,…). Form refers to the rite (a couple cannot marry merely by reciting the Gettysburg Address to each other). This second direction would hold that women (like bicycles) are just not the right matter for ordination.

My own province (all the way to episcopacy) has played pretty fast and loose with matter and form and I suspect if you stopped our clergy on the street, only a minority would even be able to come up with this threefold requirement for the validity of sacraments; but in the Church of England there will be many more who not only understand the concepts, but find them important and convincing.

women bishopsThe arguments in favour of women bishops will focus more on underlying trajectories in the Christian teaching evidenced in the scriptures. Jesus’ treatment of women, the surprising place of women in the early church, analysis of patriarchy, and understanding of God to include imaging by the feminine will be amongst the arguments adduced. Women’s place in leadership beyond the church has a place in the discussion. The use of the scriptures in changing attitudes to slavery, race, and divorce affect the discussion. This approach, once again, will affect other debates current, and those against women bishops know this – as, obviously, do those in favour. You can no longer pick your biblical proof texts on one issue, but denigrate such choosing on another.

Some see a danger of departing from catholic Christianity and consequences on ecumenism. But the majority of catholic officialdom have not withdrawn the claims that the current male Church of England bishops are little more than deluded laymen parading in expensive fancy dress. The effect on ecumenism may appear noisy, but inconsequential in our lifetime.

The issue of women bishops in the CofE is in the detail. If the measure passes at General Synod (and it is only in the House of Laity that people expect it may not), it includes a statement of respect for those who cannot accept women bishops. After passing, a code of practice would be drawn up to implement this respect. The issue is, of course, how do you draw up such a code of practice without undermining the place of women bishops, nor diminishing the issues of those who disagree with them. If the CofE succeeds in having that cake and eating it, there may be a model for the other controversies confronting the church.

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38 Responses to CofE women bishops?

  1. Brian Ralph says:

    In July 2012, Revd Ellinah Wamukoya of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa became the bishop-elect of Swaziland and the first woman to be elected a bishop in any of the twelve Anglican Provinces in Africa. Her episcopal consecration was on 17 November 2012 at All Saints Cathedral, Mbabane. In October 2012, Revd Canon Margaret Vertue was elected the diocesan bishop of False Bay; she is thus expected to become the second female African Anglican bishop, and the first in South Africa

  2. Peter Carrell says:

    I stand to be corrected if I am wrong, Bosco, but are you in error when you write, “In any case, nowhere, as far as I know, has followed this principal. All have followed the pragmatism of let’s-ordain-women-priests-first-and-see-how-that-goes, and much of the momentum has derived from catching up with the equality that “the world” in the church’s local context takes for granted, rather than engagement with our theological tradition.”?

    I thought that in our church (ACANZP) we decided in one go that women may be priests and bishops.

    But then I could be wrong …

    • Bosco Peters says:

      I would be delighted to be proved wrong on this, Peter. A quick glance at the Proceedings of the 1970 & 1972 General Synods supports my contention. There is only talk of “ordination of women to the priesthood”. I will not comment on how inadequate I find the theological thinking in the report… I’m not sure that I own the proceedings of other General Synods into the ’70s. Others, certainly were not in that part of my library – but there have been quake consequences to the organisation of my library. I suspect you will have easier access to them. I don’t know when I will be able to find/make time to confirm either way. Maybe you can; or someone else can. Blessings.

      • Peter Carrell says:

        I am thinking not of that stage in the process but the decision to permit the ordination of women as priests (in 1976 or 78?) which I recall as being a decision to also permit women to be ordained as bishops.

        • Bosco Peters says:

          Thanks, Peter. I await your confirming that either way. If you are correct, are you understanding that the church proceeded without any provincial commission/report produced on women and episcopacy? Blessings.

          • Peter Carrell says:

            Given some time constraints it might need to be happy fortune that brings to me some confirming evidence. No time right now to research …

    • Julianne Stewart says:

      I have been told that the Episcopal Church of Sudan also agreed at the same synod that women could be priests and bishops. Currently there are women priests but no bishops as yet. Unfortunately I cannot refer you to the relevant synod record. The information was told to me by a long term English missionary theologian in Maridi.

      • Bosco Peters says:

        Thanks, Julianne. Surely before this turns into “Chinese whispers”, someone could actually check when NZ authorised women bishops. It cannot be that hard – even in a church well known for the poverty of its communications and information sharing. Blessings.

  3. Hugh Rangiora says:

    You forgot South Africa….
    This blog in international news!
    Posted: 18 Nov 2012 10:42 PM PST
    Yesterday’s post about the consecration of Bishop Ellinah has even made the news in the UK’s Guardian Newspaper!

    See http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/18/female-bishops-history-church-of-england

  4. Zane Elliott says:

    Oh Bosco, you forgot to mention South Africa….. There are some ladies in pointy hats there too!

    • Bosco Peters says:

      Nope, Zane. You are incorrect. When you read the blog there were no mention of “ladies in pointy hats”, but there was mention of women bishops in the Anglican Church of Southern Africa. Blessings.

  5. Ali says:

    The resolution under debate is messy, but that messiness is a necessary result of the decisions made in England 20 years ago and the implementations of resolutions A, B & C. Its sad that we have found ourselves in this state.

    I was ordained in Scotland, where the vote to allow women priests was passed after that in England – and at that time Scotland made the conscious decision not to follow down the same path. The vote to allow the Ordination of Women to the episcopate had the same tensions for and against, but was passed much easier as a result.

    Since moving to England, and becoming part of the “eastablished Church”, I’m not sure church structures here would have allowed things to be different 20 years ago.

    Listening to the debates is extremely uncomfortable – the pain on both sides is palpable. whatever happens, this will be a Pyrric victory.

    • Bosco Peters says:

      Thanks, Ali. I was impressed by the quality of speaking. There will also be reflection on Archbishop Rowan’s leadership, and for Bishop Justin. Blessings.

      • Ali says:

        some of the speakers were excellent, others merely rehashing the same old stuff. deeply disappointed at the result. Hoping that the group of 6 (the Archbishops, the Prolocutors and the Chair and Vice Chair of the House of Laity) decide it is worthy of bringing back before 2015, given that it failed by a mere 6 votes in one house.

  6. Jesse says:

    If I had to marshal an argument against them, I wouldn’t bother with the doctrine of headship or the intricacies of sacramental assurance. I’d just assemble a slide show of Presiding Bishop Schori wearing each of her truly atrocious mitres. Somehow those images wordlessly convey the impression that she and I don’t share a common understanding of the office of a bishop or of Apostolic Succession… (And then, to contradict my slide show, I’d have people read this: http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/archives/005112.html)

  7. Tracy Pace says:

    I’m not sure how in the UK it can even be legal for a man to hold a job a woman is barred from…it’s time people took the matter to court and time Parliament takes action.

    The Bishops should come out of the House of Lords- which has had women peers since 1957- and it’s time to lose the designation of official religion of England when they are so out of step with the rest of the legislation not to mention the people.

  8. Bosco;

    Should pleasing the public and parliament really be important to a church which – to those outside – confesses folly, preaches an incomprehensible foolishness, and brings the very stench of the grave?

    Rather, as a church, should we not rejoice when we are ridiculed, and so contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. (1 Cor 1:14,18; 2 Cor 2:16; Jude 1:3)?

    Personally, now the political pressure of feminism has burned out, I should like to see the whole issue of the ordination of women reopened in the Church of England – with the argument being made from hermeneutically sound Scriptural exposition.

    That way, we build our decision upon what cannot be changed or denied, and so we may establish in one cut women priests AND bishops; or else reject them both together.

  9. Tracy Pace says:

    ‘establish in one cut women priests AND bishops; or else reject them both together.’

    one third of the UK Anglican clergy today are women.

    • Tracy; I’m not sure how that affects what I wrote? The two issues are clearly linked – and so when we examine one, we must also re-examine the other.

      There’s a trend towards pushing an issue until you get a ‘yes’ vote; and then assuming it is closed. If one ‘no’ wasn’t sufficient close the matter, then one ‘yes’ should not be considered any more sufficient – or its outcome any more lasting.

  10. Tracy Pace says:

    My point is women priests are already well-established in the UK Church of England; that cannot ( and should not ) be changed.

    There is no way forward for this issue except to embrace UK laws and values and for men and women to be treated equally.

    While it’s the oficial religion and because bishops of the Church of England automatically sit in the House of Lords they are inextricably wrapped up in the judiciary and government of the UK and need to abide by the same laws which govern everyone else.

    It is illegal in Britain to discriminate in employment situations since 1970.

    • Thanks Tracy.

      A few minor clarifications, which may help you see what I’m trying to say;

      * First – the well-establishment of something is no impediment to it being changed; a policy of no female priests was much better established than this present policy, and yet it was changed.
      * Second – priests in the CofE are not usually legally employed by the Diocese; they are treated by Common Law as employed by (servants of) God and supported by the Diocese by a stipend.
      * Third – I am sure that you, as all Christians who seek to be faithful, would agree that should we hypothetically realise at some future time that the Biblical weight indicates that women should not be priests, that we absolutely must cease having such. It would be plainly wrong to continue in something we believe to be repugnant to Scripture.
      * Finally – and this is my main point – I, and I hope you and all other Christians who seek to be faithful, must be guided by Scripture in the closely linked question of women bishops. If the Biblical weight favours women teaching and holding authority, then we must necessarily and universally affirm women priests and approve women Bishops. It would be plainly wrong to continue in something we believe to be repugnant to Scripture.

      Thus: let us all submit ourselves to God’s Word and to solid hermeneutics; ignoring cultural, politics and even the very longings of our hearts.

  11. Simon says:

    A question from an interested newcomer. What happened in the Anglican Church in New Zealand to those parishes and individuals opposed to women priests and bishops? When the legislation was passed, was there ever a need for an equivalent to the C of E’s Act of Synod and resolutions A, B and C? And if not, why not?

    • Bosco Peters says:

      Welcome here, Simon. I think the short answer would be that nothing “happened”. There was no legislation around those who differed with the decision. In part, possibly, there is more pragmatism. In part, NZ Anglicanism is very small (about the size of one reasonable CofE diocese) – this makes things more like an extended family/whanau, with disputes being between people who know each other quite well; 2 degrees of separation would be a NZ understanding of ourselves. If there were parishes who were strongly uncomfortable with women priests – well, they wouldn’t seek or get a woman priest. Generally, even they probably, as they saw how it worked in practice in a neighbouring parish, with positive priestly experience from a woman, they mellowed. NZ, remember, was the first country to give women the vote. I hope that goes some way to answering. Blessings.

      • Paul Powers says:

        Accomodating a parish that cannot accept a female priest seems easy enough. But what about a parish that cannot accept a female bishop, especially in a diocese where the bishop is a woman? How does your province address that situation?

        • Bosco Peters says:

          Thanks, Paul. Can you give a specific example of how a parish that struggles with women bishops needs to have that bishop leading and preaching at a service? That seems to be how it works in practice. Blessings.

          • Paul Powers says:

            If it were just a question of presiding at a worship service, the solution would be fairly simple: arrange for a male bishop to preside at confirmations, etc. That might even be sufficient for people who object to female bishops on “proper form and matter” grounds.

            But it doesn’t completely address the concerns of those who, on “headship” grounds, are unable to accept a female bishop as chief pastor of the diocese. I get the impression that this second group is more significant in the UK than in the US (where most of the objections to female bishops and priests have come from an Anglo-Catholic viewpoint).

            By the way, the idea that a woman can be a priest, but not a bishop, makes no sense to me. Either she can be both, or she can’t be either one.

  12. Tracy Pace says:

    I have had discussions here and elsewhere on how the Bible can be followed by a faithful Christian in the 21st century and I concluded for myself a long time ago that I do not think it can be by using instructions meant for another era as literal to ourselves today.

    As a woman I have no desire nor do I think it is God’s will that I should live as a woman did 2000 or 5000 years ago. Looking around the planet where people try to uphold culturally some of the more barbaric values described in Bible times we don’t see Godliness, often the opposite, cruelty and injustice.

    That discussion could be expanded but this isn’t the place…however my original comments point out the established relationship between the Church of England in the UK and the government basically means the religion can no longer stand as the official state religion.

    It was understood years ago ( I am born English and lived there during the years all this was being debated back and forth ) that there was a gradual move towards the equality laws and values of the UK but it would take time, and now it has failed the Church of England in the UK has exposed something the people of the UK will scrutinise more closely.

    Britain is a democracy, a country firmly committed to equality, no one can quote scripture or any other moral or personal position and use it to be above the law!

    ‘employed by (servants of) God and supported by the Diocese by a stipend’

    Call it stipend, another old word ( it means ‘pay’ ) by UK law it’s taxable income from which, as the employer, the Church of England must deduct tax at source;
    plus Bishops earn around forty thousand pounds a year ( @63 000 USD, $78 000 NZD ) which is higher than the average UK family income…it’s hardly basic living expenses, which expenses must in any case be meticulously recorded and presented and off-set taxation.

    Disestablishment and removal of the bishops from the House of Lords would leave them free to negotiate their own rules within their private religion, but still within UK laws, but the position is untenable now to do that whilst claiming to be the public faith.

    ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England’ is the title of the Queen- a woman- who has during her reign increasingly acknowledged and respected people of all religious beliefs. Religious tolerance is a basic requirement of any free country, and no one is saying that people need compromise their personal beliefs- just that they cannot be willfully imposed on others, or used to discriminate.

    People who think this is some kind of triumph for tradition don’t realise the can of worms they have opened- not just for the Church of England but for all religion in the UK, firstly because people see all this and turn entirely away from the faith, surely not the intended goal of any Christian ministry, but also- these are the pivotal moments in history where laws change, traditional privilege is overturned, and sadly- many people get hurt and devalued.

    • Thanks Tracy; I did think along those lines at one time – but something which really helped clarify things for me was reading the book “Christianity and Liberalism” by J. Gresham Machen – may I recommend it to you? It’s actually been provided free online at reformed.org, if you don’t fancy a paper copy – just do a web search for it :)

  13. Tracy Pace says:

    Thank you sir, I know of the book, but I have to say if I was going the road of orthodoxy it would be one of the Alexandrian Orthodox Churches or Roman Catholicism, not a Protestant faith.

    And certainly not the Church of England which might seem old therefore traditional to younger countries but there’s nothing very orthodox about a religion which began as a murderous King’s attempt to bed who he liked against the orders of his religion’s leaders…

    In truth I am pretty clear in my beliefs and have increasingly less use for most fixed orthodox positions, except as the liturgical illuminations, education and structural starting points they seem meant to be,coming from Judaism.

    I have always felt Christianity should be an ongoing living representation of spirituality: even God didn’t permanently set things in stone…

    Thanks for the suggestion though- I love to read, and to think about these things ( I know most of the world finds theology somewhat tedious- and I remember years ago when a dear friend undertook a theology degree expressing my concerns he might die of boredom! Now he would probably be bored with me! )

  14. Peter Thompson says:

    The Church of Ireland made provision for the ordination of women to the episcopate in 1992, but hasn’t yet reached a point where a woman has been elected

  15. Ali says:

    it will be interesting to see what now comes of the Synod in June, following the most recent news from the Archbishops Council (http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/archives/005779.html )

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