Women Bishops: Church in all its Fullness
by Stephen Kuhrt
co-published with the Church of England Newspaper by permission
For those of us in support of the full ministry of women, 11th November 1992 will always be a day that we look back upon with affection. A handful of members of the House of Laity in General Synod changing their minds at the last minute was enough to allow the clear will of the church to be reflected by the body elected to represent them as the legislation was passed allowing women to be ordained as priests. Those who changed their mind may have had little sense of the developments to which they were opening the door. But the result has been twenty years of immensely fruitful ministry by women clergy for which many of us are utterly grateful.
20th November 2012 is, by contrast, viewed by those of us who support the full ministry of women with varying degrees of frustration, disappointment and anger. Once again it was an unrepresentative House of Laity within General Synod that held the key but with the crucial difference that its members were now under no illusion as to the significance of the legislation for women bishops being passed. Whilst ‘proper provision for opponents’ was presented as the issue, the debate in reality centred upon the determination of these opponents to prevent women bishops being established in a way that will transform the church. Unlike 1992, no conservatives were going to switch sides for pragmatic reasons because, this time, they knew that too much of what they wanted to preserve was at stake.
But the question for the supporters of women’s full ministry is what happens now? What lessons need to be learnt from 20th November 2012 and its run up? And what is now the best way forward for those of us still strongly in favour of women bishops?
One major lesson is that the positive value of women’s ministry needs to be spelt out a great deal more. Too much of the discussion around the time of the Synod vote was centred upon the issues that its opponents were concerned about. This meant that women bishops was presented far too much as ‘a problem to be solved’ rather than a wonderful opportunity for the church to move forward to greater fullness and enrichment. From this basis, it was not surprising that opponents were unable to see that the ‘safeguards’ they sought would have fatally impaired the proper ministry of women bishops. Even those in favour of women bishops were rather too reluctant to express that this was a development that they believed would turn the church completely upside down. But this now needs saying and clearly enough to be heard. Those of us in favour of women bishops are so because we are determined to see the church becoming far more faithful to the Bible and far more relevant in its mission and ministry. The full ministry of women, is, in our opinion, completely critical to this transformation taking place and whilst opponents will obviously disagree with this, they must understand this as the reason why it is impossible for us to agree with many of the restrictions that they want imposed upon women bishops.
Second, more needs to be done to give those in favour of women bishops a greater depth of confidence in the weighty theological grounds for this. Whilst the ‘biblical case’ against women bishops is overwhelmingly reliant upon the deployment of two New Testament proof texts, it has nothing to compare to the overall biblical theology supporting the full ministry of women. Once again too much of the discussion has taken place on the ground chosen by opponents of women bishops. Convincing responses can and have been made on why 1 Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14 do not prohibit women’s full ministry (not least in Ian Paul’s recent and excellent Grove bookWomen and Authority: The Key Biblical Texts Biblical Series, No 59). But what is now required is a firmer grasp by those in favour of the rich and overwhelming biblical theology in the context of which the proper interpretation of these texts should take its place.
Third, careful consideration and discussion is now needed of the various options in regard to the future legislation to go before General Synod. Many of us now see a single clause Measure as the only option and are ready to hold out for that. But there are others who believe that there are alternative options to be explored that can equally guarantee that the authority of women bishops is not impossibly compromised. These options need to be carefully weighed up and discussed so that those in favour of women bishops can act in a decisive and united manner.
It is for these reasons that Fulcrum and ‘Yes2WomenBishops’ are jointly organising a conference on Women Bishops on Saturday 16th March at Christ Church, New Malden running from 10.00 am – 3.00 pm. Its subtitle is ‘Church in all its Fullness’ representing our conviction about the huge significance that we attach to this issue. The points presented above will form its basis. The conference is for all those in favour of women bishops from whatever tradition and intended to help map out how we can work together to bring about this vital development for the church as soon as possible.
Stephen Kuhrt is Vicar of Christ Church, New Malden and Chair of Fulcrum
The English Evangelical Group ‘Fulcrum’ – as different from the more conservative English Evangelical group ‘Reform’; here shows its eirenical approach to the Ordination of Women as Bishops in the Church of England.
While contending (as I do) that there should be a ‘Single-Clause’ Measure, that would ensure the place of Women in the House of Bishops without prejudice on the basis of their gender; Fulcrum is open to the possibility that their could still be some accommodation made for those in the Church who do not believe that Women are ontologically fitted for sacerdotal ministry in the Church (a’la Roman Catholicism) and that there should be some mechanism in place to ensure them separate episcopal oversight from a male bishop.
Although this sounds very democratic and in line with the need for a charitable attitude towards dissenters in the Church; to have to accommodate what amounts to a double-tiered episcopate is to perpetuate the mistaken understanding of discrimination – enshrined on the basis of gender difference in the clerical ranks of the Church.
In other words, the retention of male ‘episcopi vagantes’ – in the form of ‘Flying Bishops‘ – would signal the Church’s determination to enshrine gender discrimination. Do we need this? And what does such a double-minded attitude towards the gender basis of Anglican Church ministry say to other Christians, raised on the biblical ethic that:
“In Christ, there is neither male nor female” ?
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand