No knock out

We must recognize the lack of symmetry in the current situation


For once it was not a sneering put-down, but a serious comment from a younger Christian, looking for something solid to hold on to. ‘I still haven’t found a single knock-down argument against women bishops.’ ‘And you never will,’ was all the reply I could make.

Lesson number one: there are no knock down arguments against women bishops. Do not look for one; do not believe in one if an ally suggests it; do not rise to the bait if an opponent taunts you to produce one. There is not a single knock down argument against.

One of the most important considerations in this debate is that we should understand not merely ‘the argument’ but also the form of the argument, for it has changed significantly since 1992. ‘Women bishops’ is not ‘women priests round two’, and dusting off old speeches and articles will not work this time. The debate cannot possibly be won, this time around, on a single arguments-for-and-against basis. There is no longer any symmetry.

Lesson number two: there are knock down arguments in favour of women bishops. They may not be correct, but they exist, they are understood and they are widely accepted. The Rochester Report discusses four of them (self-evident; widespread support; women’s experience; justice) only to dismiss them as serious foundations, in favour of a more overtly theological approach [ch.3]. Nevertheless, The Call of Women Bishops relies almost exclusively upon them, and on its own terms it has every right to do so.

Stop arguing

No such option is available on the side of the angels. In a modern world of sexual equality, of human rights, of secular democracy, there can be no simple, obvious knock down reason as to why women should not aspire to and become whatever men already are.

We can go further. Not only are there no knock down arguments against, there is, in some sense, no argument of any kind against. No argument. There is, in the words of Consecrated Women?, only the given-ness of revelation. It is the whole of what God has revealed through his Word, that makes women bishops impossible, as well as the manner in which he has revealed it.

Our natural sense of justice (note the irony!) suggests (to us) that this is unfair, that all the arguments, all the instruments of debate, are in the hands of our opponents – like a duel in which the other man takes both pistols. But we miss the point if we fall back on whingeing.

Lesson number three: there is no symmetry in this present debate. We stumble into a trap if we think so. It will be an opponent who cries, ‘Can you think of a single knock down argument against? No? Well, here is one in favour. And another. And another.’ As Isaiah [30.15] keeps reminding us, ‘In stillness and in staying quiet, there lies your strength.’

Staying quiet

What is the nature of the debate, we have to ask ourselves, if all the knock down arguments are on one side only?

Lesson four: it is not an argument. We have not been called to argue, for in the end this is not a debate. It is about the nature of the Christian faith. We are called therefore to witness to it, to state calmly (and we hope graciously) our faith as we have received it. Whether others will listen is not for us to know. We are simply martyrs, that is to say, witnesses to the Gospel.


David Nicholl is still studying ‘Consecrated Women?’


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