Women as Bishops: Reflections

The meeting Women as Bishops which I advertised in my last post here was very interesting. We were pleased to have about 60 people present for the discussion led by the Bishop of Lewes, Wallace Benn, and Rev Lis Goddard of AWESOME. At the request of several people on this blog and elsewhere, the meeting was recorded. The recording, over two hours long, and Lis Goddard’s PowerPoint presentation will soon be available on my church’s website, for convenience as our building was the venue. As soon as I can give you a URL I will post it here.

What follows is not intended as a summary of the meeting (I’m afraid you will have to wait then listen to the recording for that), but as my personal reflections following it.

Lis Goddard is known as a proponent of the ordination of women, although AWESOME of which she is the Chair is not a campaigning organisation and has no official position on the issue. Indeed the ordained evangelical women it supports include “permanent deacons” who have chosen not to be ordained as priests. She made clear that some of what she said was her personal position.

By contrast, Bishop Benn is a council member of Reform which takes a clear stand against women in church leadership. At the meeting he outlined briefly why he believes this: he holds a complementarian position on the role of women, as equal but different.

But the point of yesterday’s meeting was not to debate the main issue of whether women should be made bishops. It was to explore how evangelicals in the Church of England can remain united in a situation where their Church is clearly moving towards having women as bishops. On this there was a surprising and welcome unity of opinion between these people who disagree fundamentally on the underlying issue.

Benn and Goddard agreed that definite special arrangements should be made for those in the Church who cannot fully accept women as bishops – against the radical egalitarians who would make no concessions and might privately welcome the defection of conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. They also agreed in rejecting arrangements like a separate diocese for traditionalists, which would tend to divide the Church into separate camps, and would have some serious practical and financial consequences.

Their preferred solutions were almost the same. Goddard preferred a statutory code of practice whereby women bishops would be obliged to delegate their authority to male colleagues under certain circumstances. Benn’s preference was for Transferred Episcopal Arrangements (TEA) whereby this delegation would be more formalised, but would also accept a statutory code of practice.

The decision on what arrangements will be made is likely to be taken at the General Synod in July this year. It seems likely that some kind of statutory code of practice will be proposed by the committee working on this, but this solution will meet opposition from those who reject any formal concessions. So, to avoid massive divisions in the Church of England and especially in the evangelical part of it, we should hope and pray that something like a statutory code of practice will be accepted. I say this although I object to the “statutory” aspect of this, as I explained in this post.

I think it was Wallace Benn who suggested that a wrong decision on this matter might lead to the Church of England losing both its evangelical and Anglo-Catholic wings. I couldn’t help thinking of the Church as an airliner in the air – a slight change from last week’s image of flying like wild ducks. The airliner has lost power, perhaps from flying through an ash cloud, and is gradually losing height. If it wants to continue to fly it needs to restart its engines – and it can do that only by turning to God. But the worst decision it could make is to cut off both its wings. Without them it cannot even glide to a relatively soft crash landing; its only hope is to plunge straight to disaster. So please, Church, let’s avoid that, stop bickering about side issues, and look to God to regain the power to fly.

Positive discussions among evangelicals about women leaders

In recent weeks on this blog, and elsewhere, for example at the Ugley Vicar, the picture may have been given that evangelicals, and others, in the Church of England are at all-out war with one another over the prospect of women being accepted as bishops. It is of course regrettable when Christians fight among themselves in public – although for some of us the continuing marginalisation of women in the church is an even greater scandal.

So I was pleased this morning to find a report of some positive discussions on this issue (PDF) (also available here, as HTML). The meeting described here, held in January, was one of a series between representatives of Reform (including Carrie Sandom who I mentioned here before) and of AWESOME (Anglican Women Evangelicals: Supporting our Ordained Ministry), a network of ordained Anglican women. At the meeting there were also some high-powered theological advisers.

The report states:

Our focus was mainly but not exclusively on issues of biblical theology, exegesis and hermeneutics rather than current political issues relating to women bishops.

Nevertheless it is an important contribution towards the current debate as it seeks to ensure that this issue does not drive a wedge into evangelical unity within the C of E:

We believe it is important that evangelicals in the Church of England with different understandings of Scripture’s teaching and divergent views on women presbyters and bishops should treat each other as evangelicals and Anglicans. The experience of AWESOME and other bodies within evangelicalism shows that differences here need not prevent us working together in the cause of the gospel as brothers and sisters in Christ who are committed evangelicals and Anglicans.

In order to accomplish this we believe more sustained discussions must continue between evangelicals, especially on the practical and pastoral implications of our differences in the life of both the local and the national church. We need to be clearer as to the patterns of evangelical love towards those with whom we disagree and how our views can be held while recognising others as evangelicals seeking faithfully to obey Scripture.

Indeed. But this whole process is threatened by inflammatory actions and blog posts from Reform members – and perhaps by inflammatory reactions like mine from those on the other side!

I found the report through the website of the Church of England Evangelical Council. I see that they are holding elections for their council members, and that nominations close this week. I understand that at least one of the candidates seeking re-election is a prominent and somewhat strident opponent of women leadership in the church. This may be a chance to nominate candidates who take a more conciliatory line. As a member of the Chelmsford Diocesan Evangelical Association I am eligible to nominate or second a candidate – but I will not accept nomination myself.

More on Reform: will they consecrate their own bishops?

Rachel has some interesting things to say about the Reform position on women bishops, including the text of a letter in the Church of England Newspaper (available online only to subscribers). See also John Richardson’s comment and Rachel’s reply.

Rachel also links to a post on the same subject by Peter Carrell, who offers a New Zealand perspective on the discussions.

And then Peter Carrell links back to England, and Cranmer’s Curate who has a post revealing that

Plans involving ‘senior figures’ are now underway to consecrate a group of Conservative Evangelical bishops for the UK.

The Curate (who is actually not a curate but an incumbent, a vicar) implies that this is something to do with the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, and Reform is not mentioned. But then if these new bishops are indeed to be “Conservative Evangelical” I can hardly believe that this is not something to do with Reform. Cranmer’s Curate is a member of this conservative evangelical group, and a signatory of their letter to the General Synod. I suppose he has been consulted in advance about their plans – and has broken ranks by revealing them. John Richardson the Ugley Vicar (who is not a vicar but a non-stipendiary curate), another member, has made proposals to Reform along these lines. So maybe the balance of views in Reform is shifting away from the strategy outlined in their letter to the General Synod and towards John’s proposals.

A question for Reform: what is “teaching”?

My post Reform are hypocrites over women teaching has attracted quite a lot of readers (145 directly so far, plus those reading from the main page and from RSS etc feeds) but surprisingly little response. Indeed the only actual comments on the post, apart from my own, are three thoughtful comments from TC Keene, who defends Reform on the charge of hypocrisy without actually agreeing with their position.

Perhaps TC has hit the nail on the head in his latest comment, in which he (in another comment he states that he is male) writes (in part):

Reform supporters will be bemused but possibly contemptuous of the remarks concerning Carrie’s leaflet … For some reason that is opaque to me and is clearly equally opaque to others but seems completely natural to Reform supporters that they never question it, written teaching does not fall under the ban on women teaching men. It has never done and it probably has never occurred to most of them that it should.

I replied (again in part):

if Reform really does teach that “written teaching does not fall under the ban on women teaching men”, then why haven’t they included this point in any of their written teaching? Or perhaps they have – in that case, where is that written teaching? Even if this “seems completely natural to Reform supporters”, they know by now that it doesn’t to others. So where are the Reform people coming out and saying this?

So if it is Reform’s position that only oral teaching is true teaching, where does this idea come from? TC suggests that it has roots in pagan Greek philosophy. Maybe. But I was surprised to find that in the New Testament the words didasko “teach”, didaskalos “teacher”, didache and didaskalia “teaching” etc are almost entirely restricted in their application to spoken teaching. I could find only one place in which any of these words are used of the written teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures, in Romans 15:4, and none where they referred to any other written material. Thus for example in 2 Peter 3 the author avoids these words when talking about both his own previous letter (v.1) and the letters of Paul (vv.15-16).

So perhaps Carrie Sandom could have made an exegetical case that the prohibition on a woman teaching (didasko) in 1 Timothy 2:12 applies only to oral teaching and not to distributing written teaching material. However, in her leaflet The role of women in the local church she makes absolutely no attempt to do so. As a result she leaves herself open to the interpretation I have made of her words, according to the regular English meaning of “teach” which includes written as well as oral teaching. If this is not what she meant, she should have said so. And if she, or someone else from Reform, would now like to clarify to me that this was indeed her meaning, I will withdraw my charge of hypocrisy.

However, if the Reform position is that women are forbidden only to teach orally, then that leads to some interesting issues about where the line should be drawn across which women are not allowed to step. Carrie Sandom teaches that there is no “blanket prohibition on women speaking” in a church context. So they can speak, but not to teach, and they can teach, if they don’t speak what they teach. Does sign language for the deaf count as speaking? Is a woman allowed to be an interpreter for a male teacher? Is she allowed to read out written teaching material? What if she reads out what she has written herself? But that’s what most male preachers do!

The whole thing can easily get ridiculous. I am reminded of how in 1988 Margaret Thatcher tried to deny publicity to Irish republicans by banning broadcast of the voice of their leaders like Gerry Adams. The broadcasters promptly got round it by dubbing the voices of actors over pictures of Adams and others speaking – and the republicans ended up with more publicity rather than less.

I am also reminded of how Jesus mocked the distinctions the Pharisees made between different kinds of oaths (Matthew 5:33-37) and condemned them for straining out gnats while swallowing camels (23:23-24). I’m sure Jesus’ message to Reform would have been similar: he would condemn them for focusing on small matters like exactly what women can do while

you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness.

Matthew 23:23 (TNIV)

Reform are hypocrites over women teaching

According to a leaflet The role of women in the local church published by the Anglican conservative evangelical pressure group Reform:

It is not appropriate for a woman to teach or have authority over men (1 Tim 2:11-13) although it is entirely appropriate for a woman to teach and train other women (Titus 2:3-5).

The author of this leaflet: Carrie SandomCarrie Sandom, a member of the Reform council, who when the leaflet was written was “the ‘student’s curate’ at St Andrew’s the Great, Cambridge”, but apparently currently

works at The Bible Talks in Mayfair where she coordinates the women’s ministry. She is also an occasional lecturer at the Cornhill Training course in London.

Yes, “she”, so not a baby-faced young man with a feminine sounding name.

So what is this woman doing writing teaching materials like this leaflet which are distributed to men as well as to women? Do the publishers, Reform, agree with what Carrie wrote, that women should not teach men? If so, why are they allowing Carrie to teach men? That looks very like hypocrisy.

I suppose they could argue that this leaflet was intended only for women to study. But there is nothing in it to indicate that. And this is apparently the leaflet which was reportedly “issued to parishoners”, presumably men as well as women, at the Reform church St Nicholas, Sevenoaks, as I mentioned in a previous post. But see also this comment which clarifies some matters in response to Peter Ould’s post on the same subject – I note that the words “issued to parishoners” (sic) were in the version of the Daily Mail article quoted by Peter Ould but are not in the quite considerably updated version now at the Mail website.

Reform leaders, you need to get your house in order by making sure that, unless it is explicitly addressed only to women, the teaching material you publish is written by men. Or else you need to change your position to the truly biblical one which Peter Ould outlines, and recognise that

There is … neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28 (TNIV)

Another reason for Reform churches to withhold money from the C of E

… as threatened in Reform’s letter to the General Synod, could be that they won’t have the money to pass on to their dioceses. Why not? Because possibly more than half of their congregation members will stop their regular giving – if the situation in this report becomes typical. The report is from the Daily Mail, so it does need taking with a pinch of salt – but this could well be a worrying departure for conservative churches.

To summarise, Rev Angus MacLeay, the incumbent of St Nicholas, Sevenoaks, who is a leading member of Reform and one of the signatories of the threatening letter, had outraged his female parishioners by issuing

a leaflet to his congregation saying that women should ‘not speak’ if questions could be answered by their husbands.

The Mail claims that the leaflet has been published on Reform’s website, but I can’t find it there. MacLeay’s curate also preached a sermon along these lines, which is apparently on the church’s website (but I haven’t listened to it). As a result, according to the Mail,

Dozens of offended female parishioners have this week cancelled their direct debit subscriptions to the church in protest at the pair’s remarks.

I don’t know quite how big the Sevenoaks congregation is. It is clearly not a small one – they have five Sunday services and are planning a sixth. But there are few Anglican churches which can afford to lose dozens of direct debits, especially in the current financial climate and with rapidly increasing demands from dioceses. And this ball could keep rolling, as more and more women stop their giving, and probably also leave the church.

Of course I wouldn’t want to suggest that they compromise their beliefs for the sake of money. I suppose they could have found a less provocative way of putting it. However, it must be hitting home to leaders like MacLeay quite how offensive to most people today, even evangelical Christians as I presume the women involved are, is the concept of the submission of women.

I suppose they would reply that we should expect to be persecuted for the gospel. But first we need to be very sure that it is biblical truth that we are being persecuted for. The following extract from the booklet looks biblical but is in fact a subtle distortion of the biblical message:

Wives are to submit to their husbands in everything in recognition of the fact that husbands are head of the family as Christ is head of the church.

This is of course based on Ephesians 5:22-23, with “in everything” imported from verse 24. But see what has been omitted. First of all, “as you do to the Lord”, which limits submission to what is godly. Then “his body, of which he is the Saviour”, which shows how Christ was one not to demand submission of others but to give himself for them. And then most importantly the context, in verse 21 and addressed to husbands as well as wives:

Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.

Ephesians 5:21 (TNIV)

Is Reform divided over women bishops?

I reported a few days ago on The Reform letter on women bishops. This has generated an interesting discussion in comments here and in private e-mail, as well as on other blogs.

Now Matt Wardman reports on something I had also noticed, and asks Why did Reform Leaders not all sign the Women Bishops letter? He names two well-known conservative evangelical Anglicans, Rev David Holloway and Rev Paul Perkin, who are incumbents of large churches and trustees and/or council members of Reform, but who are not listed as signatories of the letter. The large contributions that these churches surely make to their dioceses could have increased the sum that the signatories were threatening to withhold, 0.22% of the Church of England’s budget, to make it look a little bit less like a drop in the ocean.

Church Mouse lists several other Reform leaders who didn’t sign the letter – some of them because they are not incumbents. Julian Mann, one of the signatories who blogs as Cranmer’s Curate, also comments on the missing signatures, but not by name, and speculates on the reasons.

Of course it may simply be that Rev Rod Thomas, who wrote the letter, was unable to contact Holloway, Perkin and others in time to get their signatures. After all we can presume that they are rather busy looking after their large churches. So possibly there is no real division here.

Richard Connolly, commenting on Matt’s blog, suggests a reason for division, that the Reform leadership may not be united in its opposition to women bishops. But, as I commented in response (link to the Reform Covenant added),

If any of these Reform leaders are not actually opposed to women bishops there is some hypocrisy going on there. According to the page on Reform Trustees and Council Members, “The Council and Trustees each year sign the Reform Covenant …”, and one article of that covenant is:

The unique value of women’s ministry in the local congregation but also the divine order of male headship, which makes the headship of women as priests in charge, incumbents, dignitaries and bishops inappropriate.

But I would think it more likely that the Reform leaders are divided over what tactics to choose at this time. See for example how these tactics have been criticised by one Reform-oriented vicar.

I note that the Reform statement does not oppose women assistant clergy. Indeed, two of the Reform council members are ordained women – but neither of these are incumbents, and so they could not sign the letter.

The Reform-oriented vicar I mention is of course my old sparring partner John Richardson, the Ugley Vicar. I don’t know if he is actually a member of Reform, but this article by him and this one are on the Reform website. In his post he is openly critical of the Reform letter, not because he has any doubts in his opposition to women bishops, but because he sees the tactics in the Reform letter as counter-productive, with the threat in it likely to hurt Reform more than the Church of England.

Now I won’t presume to give Reform my advice about their tactics for reaching a goal I do not support. But John’s analysis of the letter, which is not so different from mine,  makes a lot of sense. And this suggests, and confirms Julian Mann’s suspicion, that if there really are divisions in Reform over this matter they are over tactics rather than over the principle of women bishops.

The Reform letter on women bishops: a threat of schism?

John Richardson and Dave Walker both post the full text of a letter from Reform, a conservative evangelical pressure group in the Church of England, to the General Synod of that Church which is meeting this week. The letter is signed by “50 incumbents of Church of England churches”, two of whom I know personally. I suspect John is not a signatory only because he is not technically an incumbent.

The letter is a contribution to the ongoing debate over women bishops in the Church of England. As the Bishop of Manchester reported to the General Synod yesterday (his draft text here, see also this report), the committee discussions have proved more complex and time-consuming than expected, and so the final decision has been delayed. But the outline now seems clear of the way ahead which will be put to a vote at the next meeting of the Synod, in July. As reported in The Times today,

any women consecrated bishops will be asked to “delegate” authority to another bishop, such as a suffragan, to carry out confirmations and other episcopal duties in parishes that refuse to accept her ministry. …

even where opponents opt for the ministry of the bishop delegated to look after them, there will be no alternative hierarchical structure of oversight that could make it appear as though the mother church of the Anglican Communion was being half-hearted about women bishops, or in any way doubting the integrity of their orders.

This is good news for the supporters of women bishops, who have seen rejected by the committee various proposals for more formal alternative episcopal oversight.

But it is this situation which prompted a strong response in the letter from Reform. The letter starts with a defence of Reform’s unreformed position on women in leadership, with appeals to Scripture interpreted in a particular way – a way which, as regular readers here will know, I have good arguments for rejecting. The authors make one interesting point here:

we emphasise again that we are NOT for a moment saying women are less valuable than men, and nor does the Scripture. … For the Bible separates roles and worth: our Lord Jesus himself submitted to the Father, but is, of course, no less God than he is.

Well, yes, but Jesus submitted himself voluntarily and temporarily, and so this cannot be used as an argument to force women to accept only submissive roles against their will and permanently.

The Reform letter writers then go on to explain how they might respond if the Church of England introduces women bishops without the kinds of safeguards they are demanding:

At the moment we are encouraging young men into the ordained ministry … However, we will be unable to do this if inadequately protective legislation is passed. The issue that will then arise is how to encourage these men to develop their ministries if they cannot do so within the formal structures of the Church of England. The answer must be to encourage them to undertake training for ministries outside those formal structures, although hopefully still within an Anglican tradition. We will, of course, have to help them with the financing of their training. …

Since we cannot take an oath of canonical obedience to a female bishop, we are unlikely to be appointed to future incumbencies. We see nothing but difficulty facing us. In these circumstances we will have to discuss with our congregations how to foster and protect the ministry they wish to receive. This is likely to generate a need for the creation of new independent charitable trusts whose purpose will be to finance our future ministries, when the need arises.

In other words, if they don’t get their own way, that is, if the democratically elected Synod rejects their position with a two-thirds majority, they will set up their own parallel ministry “within an Anglican tradition” but outside the Church of England system. They continue:

These twin developments will need to be financed from current congregational giving. This will inevitably put a severe strain on our ability to continue to contribute financially to Diocesan funds. Where we are unable to contribute as before …

In other words, they will fund their new parallel ministry by not paying what they are expected to pay to their dioceses. Potentially they could withhold the £22 million they have contributed between them over the last ten years.

So this letter can easily be perceived as an attempt to pervert the democratic processes of the Church of England by making financial threats.

But how real would these threats be? The potential loss to the dioceses averages out at £44,000 per parish per year. But much of that loss could be offset by the diocese by not replacing or making redundant the incumbent and any assistants they (well, in this case “he”) might have, thereby saving their stipends; by selling or letting the clergy houses; and by cutting off any grants those parishes might benefit from. And the percentage of the total diocesan budget under threat is probably quite small – after all, those signing the letter are only 50 clergy out of 12,000.

The greater threat to the Church of England is probably from the new structures, training institutions and “independent charitable trusts”, which Reform proposes setting up. While parish infrastructure is not mentioned, in practice the Church of England can never allow an independently trained and financed group of ministers to lead congregations within its buildings. So the route which Reform is starting on can only lead to a new group of local churches, in other words, to schism. Recent developments in the USA and in Canada have shown a way in which this schism might develop.

While the Church of England could survive the loss of 50 parishes, the danger is that many more, perhaps the majority of its evangelicals, might decide that the new structures are more supportive of them than the old ones are. At a time when many Anglo-Catholics are departing, the C of E could hardly survive the loss of its entire evangelical wing.

So what is to be done? The Church could submit to these threats from Reform and turn back from allowing women bishops at all. In fact it only needs just over one third of General Synod to see that as the best course for any proposals to be defeated in July. This now seems more likely than that Synod will choose to allow women bishops with the kinds of safeguards which Reform might accept.

But a better response is no response at all. The General Synod should simply ignore these veiled threats from Reform and treat them as what they are, a rather small pressure group. And if some of them do leave, the church authorities should be very careful not to do anything which might alienate that great majority of evangelical Anglicans who, even if they are uncomfortable in various ways, don’t see women bishops as a compelling reason to leave the Church of England. In this way there is a future ahead for the Church of England in which, in retrospect, it has lost a few troublesome extremists and gained new strength and unity as well as the benefits of women as well as men in its top leadership.