A difficult debate

Over the next few months there will be plenty of stories in the media, and much debate among congregations, about the Church of England’s decision to ordain women bishops. Some of what is reported will be sensationalised; some will be simply inaccurate; but overall, unless there is much prayer and repentance, the message will be that here is an institution at war with itself, where many people are hurt and pained by what is going on. I for one long for the day when as much time and energy is spent on proclaiming the gospel and leading people to faith in Jesus Christ. But it seems these debates need to be had, so here is a brief attempt to explain what is at stake, and to put forward my own point of view. I would be really grateful to hear your own point of view, and if this short(ish) post can help create a healthy discussion within the church, then so much the better.

However, before moving on the actual debate, and clarifying what exactly we are being asked to discuss, I think it’s important to realise why this whole subject produces such strong emotions. I believe the answer lies in the fact that the debate has forced us to look at difficult questions such as how we use Scripture, the weight we should give to tradition or experience or reason in forming decisions, and what is our own particular vision of the church. At a very deep level therefore, these discussions have challenged our own understanding of the Christian faith, and asked us how we maintain unity with those with whom we fundamentally disagree.

The debate has also been extremely complex. Someone might advocate the consecration of a female bishop as an issue of Biblical justice, for example, another out of a radical conviction for equality and as the next step to accepting practising homosexuals in the leadership of our church. Equally someone might oppose female consecration on the grounds that apostolic succession would be broken, another that an important Scriptural principle has been denied. It’s very important that we listen carefully to all points of view, rather simply caricature the position “on the other side”.

But we need to be clear – we are not being asked at this point to discuss whether women should be consecrated as bishops. That decision has already been made. We are being asked what provision should be made for those who cannot accept this decision – whether there should be a code of practice or legal provision to provide alternative oversight. This is the question which is about to be discussed at deanery synod, then in October at diocesan synod, and then eventually at general synod. I’m not going to explain the process further here – but I can recommend the material on the diocesan website

What  is my own personal response to all this? First of all, I believe that fundamentally we are having the wrong debate. There is very little, if any, mention in Scripture of bishops, because we are dealing with an unbiblical and unhelpful model of church government. We know almost nothing about church leadership in the New Testament except for one fact – leadership was always plural. The idea of a bishop being a “Father in God” was anathema. If all the current debate achieves is the creation of women fulfilling the same function, then I am extremely uneasy. Yet at the same time I realise that reform of the episcopate is not on the table, which is a pity. If there was genuine plurality of leadership in each diocese, then churches would not be faced with a situation where there was a man or a woman over them, and different positions could be more easily accommodated.

Secondly, I think it’s important to look at what’s happening in the Anglican church worldwide. In effect the Anglican church has already split in two, between those who hold to the authority of Scripture and those who are seeking to revise the teachings of the church. The former make up at least 80% of Anglicans globally, and their influence is growing, especially with the rise of the GAFCON movement. I make no apology for the fact that when the Church of England falls apart, I want to be firmly in this camp.

This of course doesn’t impinge directly on the current debate, except for one thing, that judging by the evidence it is the more liberal parts of the Anglican communion that have embraced the consecration of women as bishops. I’m immediately treading on dangerous ground here, because I recognise that not all proponents are liberal in their outlook. But it seems to me that once a church decides to overturn a practice that has been established for many, many centuries, then it feels more able to revise other and more fundamental aspects of the church’s teaching. Unfortunately we are not at a point when we can look at this particular issue in isolation from the other currents and tensions that are straining the fabric of the Anglican church, and indeed in places like North America have led to a complete tearing apart.

So what about the current debate? The question is whether we have a code of practice or formal legislation. The problem with codes is that they are voluntary and on such a complex, difficult and highly political subject I believe that codes are not enough. If we really want to be a denomination that genuinely welcomes a breadth of opinion, then full provision needs to be made for both sides of the argument. If we cannot have a plurality of oversight, then we should at least make the most generous provision possible for those who cannot in good conscience accept the oversight of a female bishop, or even folk like myself who simply worry where this step might lead.

And finally I would argue that we need to make this decision quickly. Because it’s all very well having a protracted discussion on how to arrange the deckchairs on the Titanic, and who gets to sit in them. But if the ship is sinking, and more and more people are looking to get on board the lifeboats, then the decision becomes less and less relevant to the ultimate need – to keep the ship afloat and rescue those who are dying without a knowledge of Jesus as Lord and Saviour.

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