In just over a week’s time the parliament of the Church of England, the General Synod, will be meeting. I am sure it will receive plenty of coverage in the press and all kinds of opinions will be aired. Why all the fuss? Simply because General Synod will be debating Women in the Episcopate: Draft Code of Practice.
That might sound a fairly technical and dry piece of legislation, but it is another step towards the appointment of women bishops, and it will raise passions on all sides. But if I may be controversial for once, let me suggest that all the debate about whether we should have women as bishops or not actually obscures much bigger issues, which for me are far more crucial. If we could get these issues sorted, then I suggest the future of the Church of England would be a lot more healthy.
First of all, what is our source of authority as a church? Anglicans traditionally believe that our faith rests on a combination of reason, tradition and Scripture. How much weight we attach to each of these sources will very much influence your thinking. If your faith rests primarily on reason, then generally you will be guided by what is thought rational and reasonable at any particular stage of society. So women bishops are a no-brainer because we have to keep in step with the world that develops under God’s guidance. If your faith rests primarily on tradition, then women bishops are a no-go because historically bishops have been male. If your faith rests primarily on Scripture – which in my view is the true Anglican tradition – then we have to operate with much love and charity on the issue because the Bible actually says very little about church government. As evangelicals we may be for or against women bishops, but our arguments have to be based on analogy from other texts which address other issues.
This leads on to a second point: what is actually essential to the gospel? As far as I am concerned, the gospel reveals the good news of Jesus dying in our place for our sins as a propitiation of God’s justified wrath. To this extent there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28). This is not say that Jesus abolishes any differentiation between the sexes, but that there is one gospel for all, based on faith and trust in Him. The issue of women bishops is therefore not a gospel issue, despite the impression that some in the debate may give. If we cannot preserve kind of unity around the cross of Christ, then we are in serious danger of schism. And I believe that the Anglican church in this country is in trouble because we have lost our focus on what is really essential – Christ and Him crucified.
Thirdly, then, how do we handle disagreement? There is clear teaching in the Bible which is helpful on this subject. We do not go to courts of law before unbelievers (1 Cor 6:1-6). We do not destroy our brother or sister by our so-called spiritual knowledge (Rom 14:5-8, 1 Cor 10:31-32). Nor do we try to sweep everything under the carpet and continue with our worship without seeking reconciliation (Matt 5:23-24). We have to work together at a solution which preserves gospel unity.
At the moment the question before synod is this: should there be a voluntary code or full legal provision for those who find women bishops unacceptable? I am convinced that the latter should apply. We already have a system in place that has worked well for the past twenty years for those who could not accept the ordination of women to the priesthood. The proposed legislation on bishops would simply sweep that aside, and cause those who have difficulties with the issue simply to rely on the goodwill of others. That will be for many too painful and too exposed a situation to be in.
But whatever the outcome, please pray that the headlines will reflect a debate conducted in Christian love, and witnessing to the gospel. If it all ends in acrimony, our already battered reputation as the national church will be damaged yet further. And while we are arguing who sits on the episcopal throne, there are so many perishing without knowledge of the gospel. I sometimes think we have got our priorities so wrong.