God, Jesus & Women Bishops

August 1, 2010

Luke 12.13-21

Our reading today  from the Gospel of Luke is about money. That’s not surprising. Eleven out of 39 parables in the New Testament concern money; one in every seven verses in the Gospel of Luke mentions money. One website I consulted said that Jesus spoke about money more than any other subject, except the Kingdom of Heaven!

So I should be preaching on money this morning. But I’m not going to! Instead, I’m going take my cue from the  collect and preach on something that Jesus is recorded as saying nothing about in the Gospels – the role of women in the ordained ministry.

At the beginning of this month, General Synod (the ruling body of the Church of England) voted to pass through the revision stage a Measure which would allow women to become bishops in the Church. This Measure will now be passed down to diocesan synods to debate. If 50% of the dioceses approve, the Measure will then come back to be debated again in General Synod, and if it then passes with at least a two-thirds majority in each of the three houses of Synod – bishops, clergy and laity – it will go to Parliament and become law.

Contrary to some reports in the media, there is provision in the Measure for those who cannot accept women as priests or bishops. Each diocese will have to draw up a scheme to make alternative provision for those who don’t find the ministry of their diocesan bishop acceptable (either because she is unacceptable because of her gender, or he is unacceptable because he ordains women or was ordained by a woman).

This is an issue which (if you believe the media) is going to split the Church of England. Groups in the church are threatening to leave and join other churches (notably the Roman Catholic Church), to withhold parish share from the dioceses, and to disobey their bishops and archbishops.

The group of people who will have the final say on this are our representatives on General Synod – and we will be re-electing those in September, through our Deanery Synod representatives. Our Diocesan Synod members will also have to vote on it before it goes back to General Synod, and there may be discussions in Deanery Synods and PCC’s – so it is important that all of us know what the arguments are, for and against, when the time comes for us to give guidance to those representatives on how we would like them to vote on our behalf.

We should actually know the arguments very well, since the Church of England has been publishing reports on women’s ministry since 1917 – nearly a century! The order of deaconesses was reintroduced into the Church in 1861 and a report in 1920  said this order was the only order for women with biblical approval. Reports in 1935 and 1966 debated whether deaconesses were in Holy Orders or not – some said they were, some not.  In 1975 General Synod voted “that there were no fundamental objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood” but failed to take the next step of asking for the barriers to their ordination to be removed. A measure to do this in 1978 was passed by the Houses of Bishops and Laity – but failed in the House of Clergy.  Finally in 1984 there was a positive vote in all three houses for women to be allowed to become priests. However it took until November 1992 for the legislation to be passed. In the meantime, in 1986, women were allowed to become deacons – that is to be clergy, wear ‘dog collars’ and be called “the Reverend”. This was less contentious than admission to the priesthood, since deacons cannot preside at communion – one of the points of opposition.

Before the first women were priested, an Act of Synod was passed in 1993, which allowed those parishes which were opposed to opt out of having women priests presiding, or as incumbents in their parishes (Resolutions A & B) , and to ask for ‘Alternative Episcopal Oversight’ (Resolution C) from a bishop who opposed women priests – and three ‘Episcopal Visitors’ or ‘Flying Bishops’ were created to cater for them. There was also provision for financial compensation for those who felt they had to leave the ministry of the C of E over the issue. (This cost £27.5 million between 1994 & 2004)

The opponents of women’s ordination fall into two main groups. One group opposes because of what they believe about the nature of priesthood. These tend to come from the ‘Catholic’ end of the spectrum. These see the priest as an ‘icon’ of Christ and God when they stand at the altar and consecrate the bread and wine. An icon is more than an image or a symbol, and becomes in some way the presence of what they represent.  To quote “The priest presides at the altar and says what Christ said, does what Christ did; there is a very profound sense in which, at that moment and in that ministry, he is Christ.”

This group argues that maleness is an essential part of being an ‘icon’ of Christ because Jesus was male, and had to be male in order to represent God. Not because God is male, (that is a heretical statement)  but because the essential character of God  as creative and initiative are characteristics of the human male, who takes the initiative in creation in the world. If you argue that Jesus was also a first century Jew and we don’t insist that only first century Jewish males can be priests, this group says that being Jewish, and born in the first century were ‘accidents’ of Christ’s humanity, whereas maleness is of the substance and therefore essential.

This fact is reinforced, they argue, by the fact that Jesus chose only males as his disciples, and that they chose only males as their successors down through the centuries.

There are several arguments against this reasoning. Can you argue that certain attributes of God demonstrated in the act of consecration and blessing (like initiative and creativity and giving) are ‘male’ attributes rather than being found in the whole human race? The French philosopher Voltaire commented with some irony on this assertion: “God created a man in his own image; and the man returned the compliment!” Are these so called ‘male’ attributes the ones which are being exercised in the priestly ministry?  Can you argue that being Jewish and living in the first century are ‘accidents’,  that is, not essential to God’s plan of salvation, whereas maleness was essential? Many of the New Testament writers appear to think quite the opposite, that being a descendant of Abraham and David  was very much part of the plan!

Jesus chose 12 men as his disciples or apostles (although the gospels don’t all agree on their names!). Did he choose these as as ‘priests’  – or as a symbol of a New Israel? They were sent out to preach, and heal and drive out demons, not to preside at communion! The word ‘priest’ is not used of any one individual in the New Testament except Jesus. The connection between the apostles and the orders of bishops and priests was made much later in the church’s history,  to establish the “apostolic succession” – guaranteeing the validity of the priesthood by arguing there was an unbroken sequence of men laying hands on other men right back  to the disciples. But, historically, this theory is on very shaky ground!

This group also has objections on the grounds that they cannot be sure that they receive the grace of the sacraments if the ‘priest’ is not validly ordained, and that while other churches, such as the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox do not accept the ordination of women, we cannot have this ‘sacramental assurance’. This is why they want to be able to choose bishops to minister to them who have not ordained women and have said they will never do so. But, of course, other churches with whom we are in communion and with whom we are having talks about re-union, like other Anglican provinces, and the Methodists and URC, do have women exercising priestly and episcopal roles, so we are at the moment out of step with them.

All four gospels show that Jesus taught women and instructed them to take his words to others. Acts and the Epistles show that Paul regarded many women as his “co-workers”, who led churches. Is this not apostolic ministry? When Jesus said at the Last Supper “Do this in remembrance of me” was he speaking only to the men present – or, as the church has always taught, to all believers throughout time?

The second group of opponents of women’s ordination argue on the basis that the Scriptures teach ‘male headship’. They tend to come from the Evangelical end of the spectrum. This group of opponents argue that God has decreed that human society should be ordered with men having authority  or ‘headship’ over women (just as God is the head of Jesus, and Jesus is the head of the Church). This is based on passages in the letters to the Ephesians, chapter 5 and Corinthians chapter 11.

Furthermore, they quote from two other epistles (1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 3) passages which say that women are not to speak in church or to teach men.

There are several arguments about whether these particular scriptures should be taken as definitive instructions for the ordering of church and social life for every generation, or whether they should be seen as particular solutions for particular problems which the churches were struggling with at the time.  Paul, in particular said different things about the roles women were to play in church and different times. For instance, in the same letter in which he says women are not to speak in church meetings, he gives instructions for them to cover their heads when they preach, pray or prophesy in church. Which is the definitive ruling? And in Galatians 3 he proclaims that “In Christ there is no Jew or Gentile, slave or freeman, male or female; you are all one in Christ”.

And are priesthood and episcopy about authority – or are they principally about serving others, as our readings for the Feast of St James last week suggested.

When we read contradictory statements in the Bible we all have to decide which statements are definitive for our faith, and which are not.  For me, the example of Christ is the most important piece of evidence to help us make those decisions, and whenever he was asked about women departing from their ‘traditional’ roles (as we heard two weeks ago in the story of Martha and Mary) he tended to reply “Leave them alone -they are doing nothing wrong”. Alongside this we also need to consider the evolving and constantly changing tradition of the church, and to use our own reason and conscience.

The fact that the Church of England has allowed women to preach as deaconesses since 1935 and Readers since 1968 shows that it long ago decided that the prohibition on women teaching and preaching is not a command from God that is valid for all time. Neither does it now support an ordering of society in which men always have authority over women – the modern marriage service now sees family life as a mutual partnership.

The ordination of women as priests, and the moves over the last few years to allow them also to be ordained as bishops  can also be seen as part of the development of tradition to meet the needs of a new age. The majority of the Church of England has decided that this is in accordance with Scripture and under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Some still disagree, and provision is being made for them, as it was for those opposed to having women in the priesthood, under the process of ‘reception’ by which the unity of the church is maintained and both sides in an argument are accepted as full and loyal members while a development comes to be accepted or rejected by the universal church.

This is why it is important for us all to understand the arguments on all sides and to pray for those with whom we disagree as well as for those with whom we agree, because, as Paul reminds us, “We are one in Christ”.

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