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.

image source and here

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