Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

The way forward for women bishops


The Church of England has reached a small moment of uncertainty over moves to ordain women as bishops. It is not that the church is unsure whether women should be bishops: there is overwhelming support for sexual equality in the highest order of the church’s ministry. The debate is over how those who are opposed to the ordained ministry of women are best accommodated.

The current discussion revolves around Clause 5(1)(c), the second amendment inserted by the House of Bishops into the measure, making explicit the accommodation to be offered. It has been frustrating that this amendment was added (by an all-male body) after dioceses had discussed and voted on the measure, leaving the recent General Synod no choice but take or leave the amended measure. Thus, it was the most vocal supporters of having women bishops who led the vote for an adjournment so that accommodation could be properly debated. The talk was that we should take the time to get the legislation right.

For most of us in the Church of England, we talk compromise as if it is our mother language. However, there are real theological problems with any compromise on this issues, which is the nub of the problem. For conservative evangelicals, women may not teach or lead men, and biblical verses are beaded together to support this. For traditionalist anglo-catholics, women in sacramental ministry is a rupture from the sacramental fount of ecumenical church history and doctrine. These groups can outline their views far better than I, but there should be a theological insistence from those of us who variously use the labels ‘open’, ‘inclusive’ and ‘affirming’ that our views are strong, pure theology. I believe that the church should embody equality without discrimination, and this should insist that women have equal status throughout the church. Allowing any room for churches, groups or individuals to opt out of equality is to give acceptance to discrimination. We should make it known that the compassion in search of compromise with those who believe differently has long be lead by those in the progressive mainstream.

Yet we are pragmatic in our compassion. Since the debates about women priests in the Church of England in the early 90s, we have given a pledge that those who are theologically opposed to women’s ordained ministry would always have a place, an honoured place, in the church. The difficulty has always been how to interpret this pledge into good practice. Up and down the country, parishes opposed to the ministry of women as priests virtually dropped out of the church’s structure. When I was a curate, my neighbouring parish disappeared from deanery and diocesan involvement, and forged connections of its own. The resolutions taken then forged a broken church, with one part turned in on itself. It was compromise driven by horse trading not sound ecclesiology. Although support for women’s ministry is much greater now than it was then — mainly because we have since seen women at our altars, in our pulpits and at our moment of pastoral need and it is good — opposition has become structurally entrenched by the agreement.

None of us can realise our pure theologies and remain part of a real church: there is always compromise, driven by hospitality and compassion for the other. However, we can neither abandon ourselves to pure pragmatism or the lowest common denominator. We have sinned here in the past, by our failure to build a church honest enough to be different yet united. The bishops’ amendment is difficult to see as anything more than a continuation of this same furrow, providing for the possibility for the continuation of a hermetically-sealed churchlet in which women do not minister. It is a shame that those who belong to that environment see no irony in pointing to their high theological position in opposing women’s ministry while living in such a poorly constructed ecclesial bubble.

The secretary-general of the General Synod has circulated a paper outlining seven options on the way forward on the troubled amendment. I do not believe that the paper is worth discussing, being as it is an attempt to tweak a flawed way of being church. Most of the seven options are matters of vocabulary, not theology.

There are two basic principles that are now foundational to finding a way forward

  1. We are one church, with one structure: there is no room for parallel or coordinate anything without damaging church unity.
  2. Each parish should have the option, exercised by its parochial church council, to have its ordained ministry provided by men, not women: this purely, simply meets the promise that has been made.

Although the second point sadly enshrines gender discrimination in the church, we have promised that those opposed to women’s ministry should have a place. However, it has too long been seen that accommodation is a one way street. As a church we should make clear that those who reject the mainstream view of the church (to ordain women in all orders) are assured a place that is a part of the church, not apart from the church: hence, the first point. This leads to two further points

  1. Episcopal oversight is properly exercised by the diocesan bishop, the Ordinary, and then shared with episcopal colleagues holding licence from the diocesan.
    • Rather than create the divisive option of alternative or coordinate oversight, the diocesan (male or female) should reserve the right to appoint a bishop (ideally one already part of diocesan structure) to minister to the needs of a parish that votes not to accept the ministry of a woman bishop who would normally be expected to minister to them (be she diocesan or any assistant).
    • In all matters, not just this one, all bishops are expected to meet the reasonable pastoral needs of the parishes in which they minister. Many a bishop develops a chameleon-like ability to fit the style of worship wherever they find themselves that service. It is wrong in this case, and any case, for a parish to refuse the ministry of a male bishop for not being ‘suitable’.
  2. A priest is a priest and a bishop is a bishop through ordination given by the church, and they cannot be deemed not so by sections of the church. If a male bishop ordains women, those who refuse the ministry of ordained women, while being allowed to refuse the women, should not be allowed to refuse his ministry.
    • This is the ‘tainted hands’ teaching that has developed among those who oppose women’s ordination. Although many reject the term, their practice reflects this poor theological model. It is this practice that has allowed opponents of women’s ministry to become separate, by not just refusing women in ministry, but also the many men who support them.
    • It is a heresy to impute heresy in those who are in good standing with the church’s teaching. We can disagree, with each other, but to consider a bishop not a bishop for doing what the church asks of its bishops is more than a point of view: it is the exercise of heresy, and should be known as such.
    • Article 26 (of the 39 Articles of Religion) speaks of the unworthiness of ministers not hindering the effect of the Sacrament. At best a male bishop who ordains women might be considered unworthy (even ‘evil’) by those opposed to women’s ministry, yet that does not invalidate his orders nor his sacramental authority.
    • Although we shall have to live with the problem of male priests who are ordained by women bishops being rejected along with women ministers, a male bishop who is ordained by a female bishop should not be rejected if at least one consecrating bishop is male.

It is still wrong, to me, that such an accommodation still leave ordained women unwelcome in a small section of our church. However, it would prevent that section of the church rejecting all mainstream ministry of the church, and say most clearly that the development of separate structures is not an option ecclesiologically. As a male priest who supports my women colleagues in the church, I realise that this is a call for the acceptance of my ministry while still allowing the rejection of my women colleagues. Yet I believe this is the only way we can move forward honestly as a church.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

4 thoughts on “The way forward for women bishops

  1. My own opinion on an acceptable compromise:
    Parishes may opt for a male bishop ordained/consecrated by male bishops, but NOT for a male bishop that has never ordained a woman.
    (Reasoning here and here, though I am told I misunderstood the TradCath position in the earlier post.)

    However, I can see that from a “maintaining separate structures” point of view, my acceptable compromise might be a step too far, and the ecclesiology you propose is quite straightforward.

    I am concerned about the legislation not getting through Parliament if it includes too much entrenched discrimination, and would prefer the matter of appropriate provision to be left to the Code of Practice.

    • I don’t think Parliament is going to block any measure of General Synod anytime soon. There is a convention now that Parliament passes church stuff unamended, and the Tories are the last party to pick a fight with the church.

      On the division of labour between the measure and a code of practice, the measure should carry the weight of an ecclesiologically sound solution, while the code should spell out pastoral issues that help all of us live within the measure.

      Each PCC should only have the option of rejecting women as bishops, not of requesting a certain type of bishop. Thus, it would mirror the resolution available on women priests. The Ordinary, regardless of their sex, should have the final say which bishops minister where in their diocese. To say that the Ordinary must provide a ‘suitable’ bishop is going to cause problems: parishes can simply claim everyone but who they want is unsuitable. We all have to accept the leadership of our bishops: we have evangelical bishops confirming in catholic parishes, and catholic bishops ordaining evangelical ordinands, and we get on with it as one church. The same principle should extend to those who reject women’s ordination: we’ve agreed we won’t send a woman bishop to your confirmation service, but otherwise the diocesan says who it’s going to be, end of argument.

      Oh, the number of times a traditional catholic has said ‘you don’t understand our position’ as a conversation closer! The point is the Anglican way is that we accept diversity in belief and practice within very broad limits, as long as each accepts each as being part of the same church. In fact, it’s a low view of the sacrament that says that my ordination is somehow invalid because my bishop ordained women. A man bishop put his man hands on my man hand, and that differs in no way sacramentally from any other man ordination within the church.

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