As I seek to sum up this important debate concerning the Women Bishops Measure from a conservative evangelical perspective [at the invitation of the Archbishop of York] I wish to look in a number of different directions.
1) Looking at the revised Measure
The key issue relates to the use of the phrase “in a manner that respects.” We cannot interpret it without understanding the broader context. It is hard to hear an institution such as the Synod offer “respect” at the same time as it is preparing to renege on promises made to us 20 years ago supposedly “in perpetuity”. How can trust flourish when what you currently have is being removed and the proposal that it is to be replaced with is something much weaker? Further how do we understand the word “respect” in the context where female members of Reform are being publicly belittled and insulted in the media by people wishing to support this Measure? “Respect” is an honourable word but within a specifically legal context it is a word which is being asked to bear too great a weight. In legal documents trust is built though the use of clarity in language rather than vague imprecise generalities. “Respect” is a fine word but in this context and with this background it feels slightly hollow.
2) Looking at the future if the Measure were to be passed
There are a number of concerns if the Measure passes. We are told that our solution lies in the Code of Practice. However my previous experience in sitting on the Code of Practice drafting group is not encouraging. Unless there is to be a significant increase in representation of conservative evangelicals and traditional Catholics on the new Code of Practice group it is likely to come to conclusions very similar to the draft illustrative Code that we have already seen and which does not provide us with sufficient provision.
Further if passed we will proceed to being a church which rejoices in greater inclusivity but, the irony, there will be no inclusivity for those with our biblical and theological convictions. The Bishop of Chelmsford promises that we could look forward to the provision of conservative evangelical bishops but such promises seem hollow when there have been no such appointments over the last 15 years. During that period, despite various promises as well as the Pilling Report, there has simply been no appointment of a conservative evangelical bishop which underlines the point that there continues to be no genuine respect for our theological position. Words need to be backed up by actions but few have been evident.
Finally, as I look to the future my great concern is that if this Measure is passed we will follow the trajectory of the Episcopal Church in the USA, where over the last thirty years we have seen growing liberalism and the development of a different gospel. Many of us have received emails declaring that is would be “missional suicide” not to pass this Measure. However genuine “missional suicide” using any indication you wish to use is though embarking on the same trajectory as TEC.
3) Looking back to where we’ve come from
As we look at where we have come from we are told that all sides have compromised. However as I look at the sort of provision that was proposed in the early Gloucester or Guildford Reports and compare it to the current proposed provisions it appears that virtually everything which could have been of any assistance has been removed by a process of Synodical subtraction. Everything of any value to us has been systematically squeezed out.
Yet my concern is even greater when I look at the original Rochester Report. It carefully set out the various different views about women’s ministry and on p.179 it proposed a set of questions. However Synod has not wished to discuss the possible answers. The report has not been discussed in the Dioceses, the Revision Committee nor at any point during this or the last quinquennium. A few weeks ago the chairman of that report the Rt Rev Michael Nazir-Ali said:
“The Rochester Report" aimed, as it was asked, to prepare the Church for a theological and ecclesiological debate on the question of women in the ministry and especially in the episcopate. It attempted, therefore, to set out all the arguments about the nature of women’s ministry in the Church and to critique each one from the point of view of the others. It became clear, however, that many were not interested in such a fundamental debate but wished to initiate a process for the appointment of women bishops in the church as soon as possible. This process takes for granted secular assumptions about justice and equality rather than asking what the Bible means by such terms.”
There has not been the careful public consideration of the biblical material upon which to base our current decision.
4) Looking into the Bible
Along with other conservative evangelicals I rejoice in both male and female ministry and that is evident from the practice of my current parish where women are involved in all sorts of vital ministries. However the witness of the New Testament includes 1 Timothy 2:12 which asserts that the authoritative teaching role should be fulfilled by a man. Last year after a period of illness I was able to write a short commentary on 1 Timothy for preachers and in preparation I was able to read all sorts of different interpretations of that verse. However the question that I kept on asking was: why does Paul earth this teaching in verse 13 in creation rather than any temporary situation? It appears that this teaching is part of God’s ordering of creation.
I also hold to the teaching found in the Bible about headship. Some bishops have indicated that they wish to look at other parts of the New Testament rather than 1 Corinthians 11 where headship is mentioned. However what we need to do is hold all the different scriptures together in tension, rather than dismissing “difficult” verses, in order to discover the richness of the pattern of ministry in the New Testament. I was even more concerned to hear a Bishop boldly state at a public fringe meeting in July “I don’t believe in headship”. Yet “the head of Christ is God” indicates that headship is part of the ordering of the Godhead within the Trinity. There is both full equality between the persons of the Trinity and also difference at the same time. The Father is not the Son. The Son is not the Father. There is order within the Persons of the Trinity. They are equal and different – these qualities are not mutually exclusive. This means that headship in itself cannot be an intrinsically bad thing.
Further, since male and female are created in the image of God the Trinity it would not be surprising for headship to be evident in the relations between men and women both within the family and marriage (see Ephesians 5) and also in ministry within the church family. Full equality can exist alongside difference in roles.
Yet if we join the Bishop in saying “we don’t believe in headship” we pull an important strand out of the fabric of our theology. If we reject headship we reject being equal and different and replace it with being equal and the same. If we reject headship it will lead to the redefinition of episcopal ministry so that women can be bishops. It will also lead to the redefinition of marriage opening it up to those who are equal and the same. Ultimately it will lead to a redefinition of how we view the Godhead so that we simply see each person of the Trinity as equal and the same with no difference in roles. This is a dangerous route to travel. Things unravel when we pull out “headship” from our Bibles.
At the beginning of the Synod we heard a report from the Bishop of Harare of victory. But today whichever way the forthcoming vote goes there is no victory. Instead we face a train crash. I have sought, as invited by the Archbishop, to give my conservative evangelical perspective on the Measure. Whilst wholly supportive of women’s ministry we hold to a biblical complementarian vision out of genuine conviction and therefore in good conscience we have to vote against it.
Having said that, if the Measure is not passed I know that Reform would be prepared to respond to the invitation of the Archbishop designate and make ourselves available to meet with WATCH and any other groups which would enable us to find a better way forward that provides us with appropriate and proper provision.
The Rev Angus Macleay is vicar of St Nicholas' Church Sevenoaks and a member of General Synod for Rochester Diocese. He is also chair of the Trustees of Reform. He is married to Sue with two children, Rachel and Jamie. Before ordination he worked as a solicitor in London for a few years. Since ordination he has served a curacy in Manchester at Holy Trinity Platt before 9 years as a vicar on the outskirts of Carlisle. Currently rector of St. Nicholas, Sevenoaks and on General Synod.
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