Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Belated inflammatory thoughts on women bishops

So, I'm pretty late with this, but here are a few thoughts, kicking up the barely settled dust.  Obviously, I'm looking in from the outside on this whole debate, and much like Carl Trueman would be fairly indifferent if the CofE decided "to make Justin Bieber Archbishop of Canterbury... or to bless the matrimonial union of divorced goldfish".  I wouldn't put either course of action beyond them.  Anyway, my thoughts...

1.  I don't think there ought to be any bishops, of any gender whatsoever, unless we are talking about the sort of bishops they have in the Bible, i.e. elders in a local church.  The reasons for this are manifold, and I've touched on them at many times and in various ways.  The current Anglican crisis puts me in mind of a couple of others.  One is that the episcopal tradition really demands a Pope.  It makes no sense to have an episcopate which can be held to ransom by the laity, and it makes no sense to pretend that there is some process of development in the church's doctrine unless you have a Pope, or at least an authoritative magisterium.  Get a Pope, or get rid of the bishops.  Another reason is that this crisis highlights how complicated it becomes when a congregation is subjected to the authority of someone other than Christ, over whose appointment they have no say.  It is bizarre.

2.  I don't understand how my 'egalitarian' friends arrive at their conclusions from Scripture.  (Scare quotes to highlight that, of course, the 'complementarians' think that they are also egalitarian; they just think it means something different).  It seems to me that Scripture does contain an anthropology, which we ignore at our peril since it flows from the gospel, and that anthropology does describe men and women as different, and does envisage them having different roles.  I am not keen on most stuff that comes out of the complementarian stable, because to my mind it moves much too fast from this basis to prescribing exactly what those roles ought to be in contemporary society.  I'd like a bit more reflection, and an acknowledgement that although there is continuity there is also change in the way masculinity and femininity is expressed within the Bible, as one might expect within a library of books written over thousands of years.  Nevertheless, I do think the complementarians are basically right, and I can't help feeling that the 'egalitarians' - many of whom are people I respect deeply - have got off on the wrong foot (see 3 below).

3.  I have seen a lot of argument from culture, progress, and relevance in this debate.  Even where it was not on the surface, I can't help suspecting that for a lot of egalitarians (okay, I'll drop the scare quotes now, if you insist) there is significant 'bleed through' from contemporary western culture into their biblical interpretation and theology.  Sorry to say it, folks, but that's how it seems to me.  Now, I am going to say something huge, and I want to qualify it before I say it: I know that many egalitarians are genuinely convinced that they are serving Scripture, and submitting to Christ in their interpretation.  I genuinely respect that, even if I can't see it myself.  But for those who were talking about relevance and progress (and especially a rather crass parliamentarian, who came up with the insight that "If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation") - you seriously scare me.  A church that reflects the culture - a church that must reflect national values in order to be a national church - is exactly the sort of church which caused one of my great theological heroes to have to remind a whole continent that "Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death."

4.  Conservative Evangelical Anglicans fight the oddest battles.  The fact that, from their perspective, most of the bishops are heretics doesn't seem to bother them, but they can't tolerate the thought of having women.  Similarly for the Anglo-Catholics - once you're in communion with people who have women priests, it seems to me that the game is up (from your bizarre sacramentalist point of view, anyway).  There are alternative options open to both sorts of people - Independency and Rome - which are viable and would surely be more agreeable.  It is particularly frustrating that once again Evangelical Anglicans give the world the impression that all Evos are basically anti-woman and anti-gay, because those are the only issues they seem to be prepared to fight on.

5.  It makes me sad that good, godly people love the CofE.  I've heard two main reasons for loving it expressed.  Amongst more conservative evangelicals, the main reason seems to be a highly fictionalised account of the history of the CofE, which gives the impression that it has always historically been a thoroughly evangelical institution which has just recently been hijacked by liberals and Anglo-catholics.  To this I can only say that it is, indeed, fiction.  The other reason given is the apparently great virtue in being associated with liberals and Anglo-catholics, I suppose as a model of ecumenism.  I feel that I can hear the Apostle muttering darkly about his desire for heretics to emasculate themselves, and I wonder how he would fit into this view of things.  Don't get me wrong, there is stuff to love there.  (See my last post for an example).  But honestly, most of it could be salvaged without accepting the half-reformed, never-really-evangelical, semi-biblical fudge that Anglicanism involves you in.  Come out, come out!  I trust that once disestablishment occurs, many will see no reason to compromise further, and will leave.  It is fine out here, I promise you.  You'll like it.

6.  Yes, I know, I've been harsh.  But this is important stuff.  It affects the witness of all of us.  Why not think about it?


  1. Hey there Daniel. Ah, now I reveal the many ways in which I am very much an Anglican...

    Firstly, you need to understand that Anglicans are all, by nature, pragmatists, not Anglicans. Like Paul, we're quite happy to get people circumcised if it's expedient for the gospel, and also quite happy to kick up a big fuss about why circumcision is unnecessary. And the Anglican church is doing mission really well, and has some significant advantages over the free churches. If a free church starts to dwindle, it will die - becasue it can't afford

    1. Grrr. Can I just say how much I hate blogger? If you try and edit your comment halfway through, it all freezes and refuses to edit, and then you have to try and read some half illegible characters to prove you're not a robot. Such unreasonable demands. Wordpress doesn't insist upon any such unnecessary basis to sign before commenting..l

      Which brings me back to Anglicanism. As I was saying, if a free church gets so small/old, then it will die out, because it will reach the point when the congregation can't afford a minister. The church of England will take a small and dying church that couldn't afford a minister or a liberal church that doesn't preach the gospel and pay for a full-time minister to turn it around.

      We're pragmatists, not idealists. The reason the cons Evos are fighting this issue, is because this is the first issue that will stop them from doing gospel work. The other issues don't. Where bishops have been obstructive, cons Evos like comission have just worked around them, not kicked up a big tantrum about how we disagree with them.

      You summary of egalitarianism was very dismissive. It actually made me wonder how many of the egalitarian arguments you have actually engaged with. Though I was also very frustrated at the way that the pro-women campaign was hijacked by liberals and the language of equality and ending misogyny was the last straw which made me write. Have you read The Gender Agenda? Or heard Elaine Storkey on these things? Or even my goodly husband?

      One question for you: since the word for women is the same for wives, and the word for men is the same as husband's, how can you be sure, really sure, that the principles are there for all women and all men in general, as opposed to husbands and wives as they relate to one another in marriage? I say this as someone who is relatively unusual in that I am an egalitarian who believes in submission in marriage (though I mk you need to be super careful in applying it). This is because there is great uniformity exegetically when it comes to marriage/household codes, and great heterogeneity when it comes to women in ministry ("wives submit to husbands, husbands love your wives" is repeated in both Paul and Peter, and the same each time - though note 'love your wives, not lead your wives' - vs 'I do not permit a woman to speak - women must be silent in churches - women should prophesy - Priscilla and Aquila, Junia, Euodia, Syntiche etc etf).

      I happen to think I am governed by scripture on this one, not that I have been swayed by culture. Just as not all conservative evangelicals are misogynist sexists, not all egalitarians are unthinking liberals who are governed by the current winds of society rather than God's eternal words.

      So - why should the cons evangelicals leave? I have noticed a good many smug free church articles of late (and yours is the last in a long line, which is why i am being more abrupt) that are full of 'why on earth do you stay?' with 'ha ha! We told you so! Leave the dark side!' Cons Evos do not want to leave the Church of England. I would have thought it would be more helpful to pray and support them in their difficult position, not crow about how compromised they have become.

      This issue just happens to be the one of the day. That is why it is being debated. There may well come a time when Bible-believing Christians have to leave or are forced out of the church of england, but it will be with heavy hearts and a great sorrow, I would appreciate it if Free Church brethren would make an effort to understand this.

    2. Just noticed a mistake in first comment. Of course, I meant to say that Anglicans are pragmatists, not idealists.

    3. Hi Tanya,

      Firstly, let me apologise for Blogger. I was forced to turn on the annoying word-recognition thing due to the large number of robots leaving tedious comments.

      But to substantive matters...

      I apologise if I came across as smug. I suppose there is a little bit of that. But mainly my concern is that I think we could all do church better, and I think Anglicanism is, on the whole, obstructive of that goal. The key difference, which you pinpoint at once is that you are "pragmatists, not idealists". Now, I don't think I am an idealist, but I do think that the Scriptures mandate a particular way of organising churches. It seems to me that to be an Anglican you have to be persuaded that this is not the case. So, understand where I'm coming from: since I think the Bible lays out a plan for organising churches, and since I think Anglicanism is contrary to that plan, I can hardly be anything other than forthright in asking people to consider whether they might not be inadvertently disobeying - or at least missing the best - in the way they do church. The occasion is not, in that sense, particularly important to *me*, but it does provide an opportunity, in that some Anglicans I know are seriously considering their future in the CofE. My intention genuinely isn't to crow, but to appeal.

      I was dismissive of egalitarianism; it wasn't mainly a post about that. I do understand that some people, including yourself, are convinced that Scripture teaches it. I am convinced to the contrary. Your example question highlights one of the problems I have with the egalitarian approach, namely that it often seems to focus in on the NT refs to women in church (and often then seems to major on the 'it might not mean what it seems to mean' argument) without taking into account the broader anthropology that unfolds from Gen 1 onwards. Having said that, I am a strange complementarian, in that I see no reason why a woman shouldn't preach, but I wouldn't have a female presbyters (because I think the church is a family, and elders have a father-role in that family).

      I understand that people are deeply attached to the CofE. As per my point 5, it makes me sad. I mean that - it grieves me that there are people so deeply attached to it, and therefore to my mind causing themselves griefs which are not laid on them by Christ. Your post was of course much in my mind as I wrote that para, and I want to say to you that you do *not* need liberals to remind you of Jesus' humanity, or the anglo-catholics to remind you of the Jesus' infancy. You can get these things without associating yourself with anti-gospel, which is what both these movements are.

      I get that there is deep, deep feeling involved in this. Obviously, it is not so deep for me. I am a spectator, in one sense. But I am interested, not in the welfare of the CofE - it is really nothing to me - but in the welfare of real churches and real Christians caught up in that association. I do feel deeply that there is a better, because a more Biblical and therefore ultimately a more Christian, way.

  2. I am possibly going to surprise you by saying that I agree with quite a lot of it.

    1. The way episcopacy is handled in the Church of England is pretty dire. The Church of England does not, in fact, teach that bishops are substantially different from presbyters, but rather teaches that some presbyters are set apart to carry out an explicitly episcopal rôle: so deacons are made and priests (a shortened form of 'presbyters', etymologically) ordered, but bishops are consecrated. Historically, Anglicans (foremost among them Richard Hooker) have argued not that episcopacy is the 'esse' of the Church, but that it is its 'bene esse': or, to put it less charitably, this is the least worst system. Certainly individuals are easier to pin down than committees.

    2. True 'egalitarianism' (and I think I have to use the scare quotes!) is not biblical; but most evangelical Anglicans who favour the consecration of women presbyters to the episcopate hold a view which is more akin to a 'modified complementarianism'. They agree that women and men are different, and must carry out the rôles assigned to them in a way which befits their gender: the temptation for men to be weak-willed and effeminate has ever been with us, as has the temptation for women aggressively to take over completely from ineffectual men (a temptation with which I sympathise). In marriage, this rightly means that the husband takes the bullet in a way which is not to be expected of his wife. Indeed, this is the 'modified complementarian' interpretation of I Tim. ii: 'guné' here refers to 'the wife', and what is happening in Ephesus is that women are denigrating their husbands in public. The Pauline author rightly commands silence in this unfortunate situation, draws a parallel from the early chapters of Genesis (which, if the context is marriage, makes perfect sense), and reminds the wives of their own sphere of responsibility (namely, childbearing). None of this means that women cannot serve in the body of Christ, into which they are just as baptized as men, as bishops. It simply means they must do so as women.

    3. Bishop Tom Wright has made the point on the Fulcrum site that arguments about 'relevance' are not very helpful. I have not heard many evangelical Anglicans use such arguments, and when they do, they talk in terms of the Church looking silly for not enacting legislation it has already decided, on other grounds, is theologically desirable - not in terms of simply mirroring society. Some of the things which have been said in other places, not least the House of Commons, are very silly indeed. We don't have a state Church, we have an established Church.

    1. Hi Liam,

      Not much to say in reply to that, except that if that is what is going on in 1 Tim 2, the apostle could have been clearer. (Let's face it, he could have been clearer whatever it was he was saying - if it's not irreverent to say so). Personally, I think the broader sweep of biblical anthropology would indicate that - this passage put carefully on one side due to obscurity - women ought not normally to hold roles in the church family they would not hold in the natural family. Of course, when the men are Baraks, the women must be Deborahs. But that is not the norm.

      I saw Tom Wright's article, and thought it rather good.

  3. 4. Quite when 'conservative evangelicalism' was invented, I don't know. I suspect it was at some point in the 1980s, and owed something, in Anglican terms at least, to the Diocese of Sydney. For those of us who are simply evangelicals (conservative on some things, radical on others), the conservative evangelical obsession with women's ministry looks arcane, while the obsession with sexuality looks unkind. (And both obsessions look unbiblical.) As evangelicals have become more prominent in the Church of England, they have also become more intolerant of difference. They also fail to see the advances made in recent years: many more bishops are evangelical than used to be the case (I think of Donald Allister, Steven Croft, Christopher Cocksworth and Justin Welby among recent appointments, and that is just off the top of my head), and the crass liberalism of the mid-late twentieth century is almost extinct.

    5. I hear the point about evangelicals espousing a fictitious view of history. The Church of England was ever mixed. I don't, myself, think this is a problem, and some of what you view as a semi-reformation I regard as appropriate restraint. That said, Stephen Hampton's brilliant 'Anti-Arminians' demonstrates that Reformed evangelicals were much more prominent in the seventeenth century than has hitherto been thought, and writes about 'Reformed divinity, but with Restoration curlicues' (p. 23). The Thirty-Nine Articles are a model of evangelical restraint, but now is not the time to defend the Church of England. In any case, if I may naughtily misquote Spurgeon, I should rather defend a lion.

    6. Your harshness is tempered by a clear regard for the gifts the Church of England brings, and a genuine concern for evangelical Anglicans - for which, if I can say this without sounding patronising or sycophantic, I am grateful.

    1. I always appreciate a sycophantic tone. I do appreciate much of what the CofE brings, and especially much of what it has historically brought, to the broader catholic church. That doesn't affect my basic objections to it, but it does mean that I can be grateful for God's grace working in situations which I regard as rather less than ideal. (Of course, my own church - and, indeed, life - would also qualify as such a situation...)

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. On point 3 - while Tom Wright is an excellent counter-example to the point, Alan Wilson is a great example for it. He saw the issue as not a theological debate: for him there wasn't even a debate on whether there was a theological debate on the issue to be had. To think there was a theological debate was tantamount to being one of those heretical, wife-beating, bigots that don't want women to be equal (his straw man and name calling, not mine). He didn't care about alienating opponents and didn't really want to bring him onside, but rather aim to get rid of them from the church. If I was in Synod, and was able to make a speech, my speech would have been about how respect for dissenters on women bishops couldn't work with people like +Alan in the church not really wanting to even show respect to those who wanted to show respect to them (I want to be able to respect +Alan as a bishop, but how can I when I get nothing but disrespect from him? it's hard).

    Point 4 is very very true, I find the uncharitable loathing and slander of opponents, disdain for the vast majority of the church universal, etc, etc of +Alan convinced me that there are far far worse disbarring features of bishops than having ovaries. Of course, getting rid of bishops for theological reasons (rather than them breaking canon/state law) is only really possible down the North American route of parishes formally declaring their communion with their bishop impaired for which they are kicked out the church and sued for their property.

    I'm pretty sure that the Jeffrey John scandal a few years back was a lot to do with his 'cage stage' anti-evangelical and anti-catholic views on theology more than his homosexual orientation, but the only way the conservative churches in Reading could block him was to question his celibate relationship with his boyfriend.

    Most bishops, especially liberal bishops (conservative bishops tend to stand out in liberal churches), are able to act like the gaps with the church they are visiting/dealing with are a lot less than they are. Bishops typically let churches do their own things within reason, so there's not normally a mission block. Evangelical churches (especially big ones) typically brush liberal bishops under the carpet - not really dealing with them in public - and as such behave as quasi-independent ones (there might be something like New Wine/HTB's tentacles/Fulcrum/etc that they use as a more involved overarching structure). It's a live and let live situation. And yes, I know, modern Anglicans don't typically have a well worked-out ecclesiology, especially the evangelical ones.

    1. Thanks Si. Not much to say to that, except that when you're having to work around rather than through your church structures, that might be a sign that the structures are no longer serving the gospel (if they ever were), and ought to be allowed to die...

  6. Thank you. I should add that I happen to like +Alan a very great deal, and he is clear that he holds his uncompromising views because he thinks they are biblical: Bishop Alan's view that this is not a matter of theology is itself a theological position, as I suspect he would be the first to tell us!