Women Bishops in Wales: Just Conforming to Culture? 24 October 2013
The debate on women bishops is sometimes presented as being between the conservative and progressive elements of the church; Andrew Grey argues that there is a missing voice, those who believe women bishops is what God wanted.
On 12th September, the Church in Wales made the historic vote to allow women priests to become bishops. The result of the vote actually presented quite a strong contrast to the Church of England General Synod’s own vote on the issue last November: whereas it was the Church of England’s House of Laity’s opposition that stopped the motion being passed, in the Church in Wales’ vote a strong majority of the laity were in favour: 57 out of 73 (with 2 abstentions).
Many will rejoice at this as a triumph for equality and feminism, whilst others will lament the apparent betrayal of Scripture and tradition. But the often silenced voice in this debate occupies neither position: the voice of the many faithful Anglicans who support women bishops, but do so on the basis of strong theological convictions.
Many of those who lament the vote regard it as another triumph for the lobby of ‘liberal’, ‘wishy-washy’, ‘not really believing’ Christians, making a judgement based on the assumption that the vote lacks theological convictions. Yet both the current and previous Archbishops of Canterbury, neither of whom is shallow or theologically uninformed, have supported women bishops, not to mention the countless other theologically serious bishops, clergy and lay Anglicans.
Nonetheless, some will undoubtedly ask how this is possible. If a Christian is truly serious, will they not take the Bible seriously? The Bible makes clear that “women should be silent in the Churches…they…should be subordinate” (1 Cor 14:34-5), and the author of 1 Timothy writes “I permit no woman to teach or have authority over a man; she is to keep silent” (1 Timothy 2:12). For those who regard the Bible as perspicuous (that is, fully comprehensible without further analysis or information), and to contain universal truth from cover to cover, the matter will always be clear: women must always be subordinate to men. But for many Christians, the Bible does not function in this way. Passages need to be set in their historical context (in this case, an inherently patriarchal one), and it must be discerned whether they apply to the Church today.
The insights of biblical studies from the past three centuries have been immensely beneficial. One of the long-held assumptions that may be questioned is that both of these passages were written by Paul: there is a popular view among scholars that the letters 1 & 2 Timothy were actually written long after Paul’s time, and the two verses from 1 Corinthians seem out of place in the passage in which they arise, suggesting the possibility that they were later inserted into the passage (a common practice in antiquity), to meet a later author’s agenda.
Of course, even if it could be proven that neither of these passages was authored by Paul, this does not automatically undermine their authority. But it does cause us to question long-held assumptions on biblical authority.
Nonetheless, whoever wrote these passages, the modern Christian is faced with the question of whether they offer principles that should govern the Church’s operation in the twenty-first century. To assess this, they have to juxtapose what they read in Scripture with their own experience. Does it make sense in today’s context to continue to regard women as subordinate in the church?
I should make clear that the argument here is not ‘society is embracing gender equality, so the church should conform’. Whilst there might be a political argument to be made along those lines, on the basis of the Church of England’s privileged position, this is not what I am advocating. We often hear the objection that ‘liberals’ simply think that the Church should conform to whatever current is popular in the surrounding culture at the time. On one level, this is a legitimate concern: the Church is primarily accountable to Christ, not to society. But if the argument comes from a position suggesting that the Church never changes to reflect wider cultural or societal reform, it cannot be sustained. The church today looks very different to how it did in the first century, or in mediaeval Europe, or even a century ago. Why? Because Christians are called to be the Church in the society in which they are living, and must be able to reach people in that society. This is not an argument for women bishops, but an argument against the notion that the church cannot change with society.
However, when it comes to the debate on female bishops, this argument is often a straw man. Not all Anglicans are advocating women bishops on the basis of pleasing the surrounding culture. What they are advocating is reflecting on our experience of women in leadership both in the church and outside of it. Such experience suggests to many people that women are perfectly capable leaders, and in many cases may bring qualities that are lacking in some male leaders. For such people, the New Testament passages reflect the culture of the time rather than how God is calling the church to live out its witness today.
For Welsh Anglicans with these convictions, there is a cause for huge celebration. Many women who feel called to the office of Bishop may finally faithfully take up that calling. For the sake of women priests in the Church of England who are in the same boat, may the next vote also go in their favour – on the basis of genuine theological and spiritual convictions.
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