Women bishops
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Date: 24 February, 2005

'The basic objection from all sides to women bishops is the same: women can’t be priests, so they can’t be bishops.'


The General Synod of the Church of England last week discussed the possibility of allowing women priests to become bishops. And yet again, there were signs of another schism. Steve Tomkins looks at the arguments

“Groovy” was the comment offered by the great theologian and religious commentator Eddie Izzard when women were first ordained in the Church of England in 1994. He added: “Some people were saying ‘Women priests in the church! I’m going to leave the church.’ And I think most of us were saying, ‘Goodbye.’”

We said good bye to 720 priests altogether. The disappearance of the 720 most ardent opponents of women’s ministry created 720 extra jobs for the girls, made the Church a nicer place, and makes the present inexorable transition to women bishops all the smoother.

That summary of the situation perhaps makes my own position on the thorny issue of women in robes plain enough, making up in clarity whatever it might lack in balance. But can a mouthy liberal like me really understand the objections of priests and laypeople who cannot bear to priest (or even to lay) under an Episcopal lady? Well, let’s see.

1. Not Priests, Not Bishops

The basic objection from all sides to women bishops is the same: women can’t be priests, so they can’t be bishops. Of course in a sense that argument was lost in 1974 when the Church agreed that women could be priests. (It agreed that they could be priests in principle in 1974, and that they could be priests in practice in 1992.)

But those who disagreed with the decision continue to oppose women’s ordination, and naturally object all the more strongly to women bishops. It’s one thing to know they’re in the next village, it’s quite another to have them laying hands on you.

But of course a bishop is a priest in charge of priests, so now the Church has accepted that women are capable of being priests, then, unless it decides they’re not capable of being in charge, it pretty much has to let them be bishops. Which brings us back to the original objections to women priests. There are, basically two of them.

2. The Bible Tells Me So

Evangelical opponents to women priests see them as unbiblical, as several passages in the Bible apparently disapprove of women preaching or leading. This is not unreasonable: the majority of Christians throughout history have understood the Bible in the same way.

The problem is that to be so absolute about it you have to prefer some bits of the Bible to others. Yes, 1 Timothy says (depending on your translation) ‘I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man’. But Paul’s letters name eight women who held prominent and vocal positions in his churches including ‘apostle’ and ‘minister’, and he discusses in 1 Corinthians not whether women should preach but simply what they should wear when doing so.

The most obvious understanding of this is that the different writers of the Bible express different attitudes to women. Feminists who agree with 1 Corinthians against 1 Timothy are no more ‘unbiblical’ than the Old Testament is unbiblical because it disagrees with the New about e.g. circumcision.

3. One Billion Catholics Can’t be Wrong

Meanwhile on the Anglo-Catholic wing of the church, opponents to women priests object that their ordination puts the Church of England at odds with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches (as well as Lutherans and others), and with the church throughout the ages. It is a sin against unity and the authority of church tradition.

Again this is no mean point. But the fact is that church traditions can be wrong and oppressive and can change. The Roman Catholic church throughout most of its history accepted torture as fair play, allowed forced conversions, and practiced the burning of heretics. It long condemned the idea that the earth revolves around the sun, and that people live on the underside of the earth. It forbade Bibles and liturgy in the language of the people.

Thankfully it has moved a long way in these matters, as have other churches. Is it too fanciful to suggest that Rome’s attitude to women may change too? Unity in being right is good, but not in subjugation and repression. For the church as a whole to change, there has to be someone willing to take a lead, and there is no shame in taking that role (not to mention the fact that Methodists, Baptists, United Reformed and others, were there long ago).

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