I was surprised how emotional I was when I heard the news this week that the General Synod had voted down the legislation that would have led to the introduction of female bishops. The thought of another decade of ongoing debate, a sense that this is the most balanced legislation we are likely to get, and a solidarity with the amazing women I know exercising ordained ministry in the church who once again feel undervalued, all boiled over in that moment as I hurled my iPhone onto the sofa as I read the headline.
In the days since I have thought a lot about the decision. I am one of those who wants the Church of England to remain a broad and inclusive church; one that is able to disagree well. So for me, it is important that those of a minority view do feel that they have a place in the church as it moves forward. Having said that, trying to understand why those who disagree with me on this issue do so, is not easy.
Though I don’t fully understand their position, I can appreciate that episcopacy is of real significance to conservative catholics. Consecration effects ordination, which in turn, has a profound effect on Eucharistic ministry. I worry though that this leaves my catholic brothers open to the charge of Donatism when most of them are really good Augustinians. I can appreciate too the significance of the historic episcopacy and its links to Rome which means conservative catholics deny the Church of England has the authority to make such changes. Again though, I wonder how their conscience allows them to remain in what is really a Reformed church. We have been doing things that Rome refuses to recognize since the Reformation. Why is this different? Perhaps it is because this is the first time we are tinkering with the essence of the church. But I wonder whether the introduction of a third province will have much the same effect. It certainly seems to alter the role of the bishop and their relationship to one another and the wider church. I can appreciate too that for conservative catholics the priest represents Christ at the altar in a different way to the evangelical minister at the table. But if it is true that ‘what is not assumed is not healed’ as Gregory of Nazianzus argued, then surely one must believe Jesus became a human being rather than a man, and so can be represented by a woman at the altar. Otherwise, what are we saying about women and their salvation. I plead ignorance of these things so if someone would like to help me understand them better, please do.
But to be honest, it’s the conservative evangelicals I find harder to understand. I have much more in common with them. I read most of the same books. I like many of the same theologians. I even recognize that complementarians can marshal a coherent and compelling case from the Scriptures. But in this debate we are not talking about complementarianism, we’re talking about episcopacy. Let me explain what I mean.
Conservative evangelicals have always prioritized the local church. It is the local church that is the base ecclesial unit not the diocese gathered together around the bishop. This, in practice, has led to Conservative Evangelicals getting on with Gospel ministry on the ground and leaving the more bureaucratic diocesan jobs to the other traditions. John Stott had to make an impassioned plea for evangelicals to get involved in the structures of the church at the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress and conservative evangelicals have been disagreeing with him ever since. This leads people I know well to say things like ‘the diocese is a para-church organisation’ and ‘if there was a Presbyterian church in the UK, there wouldn’t be any conservative evangelical Anglicans’. These are not young naïve presbyters but leaders in large churches and theological colleges saying these things.
So what has changed? It seems to me that complementarianism is much more constitutive of conservative evangelical identity than it used to be. It has become a boundary marker that indicates you take the bible seriously enough to be identified as a conservative evangelical. I also suspect the experience of conservative parishes and dioceses in The Episcopal Church in the US has left many conservative evangelicals in the UK wary of those who say the Code of Practice will be enough. These wider concerns though leave conservative evangelicals with an inconsistent and incoherent ecclesiology. If the diocese and its bishops really matter so little (and the church planting strategies of many conservative evangelical churches suggest this is so) then how can they justify such opposition to female bishops?
Instead of mustering such fierce opposition to female bishops, I wonder whether conservative evangelicals might actually be in a unique place to suggest a solution. The bible clearly speaks of multiple presbyters leading churches. So in the same way that conservative evangelicals have always prioritized the local church, they have also emphasized the plurality of church leadership (one of the reasons why Presbyterianism remains so attractive to them). I realize that the evangelical sub-culture tends to create celebrity pastors and preachers, but I think the theological point remains true. There is a built in antipathy to monarchical leadership in the church whether that is in the parish or in the diocese.
Whilst a single bishop has to represent their entire diocese it is difficult to see a way past the current impasse. Those of us who support the introduction of female bishops are probably tempted simply to wait until the next time, confident in our belief in the inevitability of change, but I suspect the next time the legislation won’t be so inclusive and that will be a shame. But could conservative evangelicals be more pro-active than that and suggest an alternative? A third province is not an evangelical answer, but plural diocesan leadership might be. It seems to me to be a relatively small change to give Area Bishops the same title as the Diocesan Bishop and in doing so create a Diocesan college of Bishops with a rotating chair that acts as the focus of unity collectively. Obviously, all of these bishops would have to recognize the validity of each other’s ministry, but in this way, much like multi-member constituencies in a Single Transferable Vote electoral system, everyone would feel like there is someone to represent them.
Despite the emotions and disappointment of this week, it remains my firm belief that there is a way forward that can gain the support of each house, allowing us to move forward as a church and consecrate female bishops. That, at least, is my prayer.