Round One

A laywoman's thoughts from the gallery of Church House


On Wednesday, 16 February, General Synod spent virtually the whole day debating the Rochester Report. In the morning, in a debate chaired by Anne Williams, it was a case of taking note of the report; in the afternoon, of considering how and when the process would unfold towards women bishops in the Church of England. It marked the formal opening of the end game. Margaret Laird listened to the arguments.

Was this a quotation from a speech given at the February Session of the General Synod, during that long debate with which the Rochester Report was introduced?

Women are the only hope for the world’s salvation. The failings of the Church could be remedied by female intervention with female priests, female bishops, cardinals and even a female pope.

In fact it was not, for these words expressed the belief of a pious woman, Guglielma, whose followers, the Guglielmites, lived in Italy in the thirteenth century. They looked forward to the inauguration of an age in which the Holy Spirit would be revealed in female form, and they claimed that in order to accommodate this doctrine, the Church had to be reformed, the gospels rewritten, and prophecies reinterpreted.

Demands therefore for the introduction of inclusive language in liturgy and Scripture are no novelty. In the medieval Church, Guglielma’s ideas were declared heretical, but as the General Synod debate on women bishops clearly demonstrated, these days feminist theology cannot be dismissed so lightly.

Many of the speeches were remarkably similar to those of the earlier debates on women priests and again, it was apparent that the proponents rarely responded to the arguments of the opponents. The former relied mainly on practical points, while the latter (particularly in the scholarly contributions of the Bishop of Gibraltar and the Principal of Pusey House) concentrated on theological arguments. Both proponents and opponents substantiated their claims from holy Scripture, making difficulties for some members of the House of Laity who were uncertain about which way to vote.

Loss of credibility?

The point most frequently stressed by those in favour of women bishops was the desire to bring the Church’s ministry into the twenty-first century. Just as in other professions, they argued, women have assumed a new status and exercise identical roles to men, so should not women priests be given the same opportunity for leadership as men? If this did not happen soon, the Church would lose her credibility in the world, they warned.

Would this necessarily be the case? In a few lines from The Rock, T.S. Eliot summed up the contrasting outlooks of the Church and the world:

Why should men love the Church? Why should they love her laws?

She tells them of Life and Death,

and of all they would forget.

She is tender where they would be hard,

and hard where they would be soft.

She tells them of Evil and Sin,

and other unpleasant facts.

They constantly try to escape

from the darkness outside and within

By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good.

Why should people love the Church? The strange thing is that though they reject the Church when she is true to herself, they despise her when she tries to conform to the world. Yet the Church of England today, in some aspects of her life and in her attitude to moral issues, does give the impression that she is only too content to go along with the world in seeking ‘systems so perfect that no one needs to be good.’

Distinctive roles

The call for equality for women priests was a point frequently made in the debate. That ‘equality’ does not necessarily mean ‘identical’ seemed to be a sticking point for the proponents, yet the theologian Von Balthasar had foreseen the dangers of a society in which men and women played identical roles. He described the last century as ‘motherless and fatherless.’ ‘It is essential,’ he wrote, ‘for the Church to restore the balance by demonstrating the equal yet distinctive roles of men and women without which society suffers great insecurity.’

The politician, Frank Field MP recently made a similar point in an article in The Times. He attributed antisocial behaviour in society to the careless way in which we value the nurturing of our very young and the downgrading to the point of irrelevance of the role of full time motherhood. He quoted Eleanor Rathbone MP, who fought hard for the rights of women in the last century: ‘Motherhood,’ she said, ‘often seems a disadvantage for women only because society values it so lightly.’ She believed that if a mother’s role was valued correctly – that is, as central to women and also fundamental to deciding what kind of people we become – society would want to invest in helping them to succeed as mothers.

The feminist influence, although it has done so much to improve the status of women, has also, without doubt, given rise to serious problems in family life and in society at large. Feminist theology too, although throwing a new and helpful light on traditional attitudes to women in the Church, has, through its influence on the movement for the ordination of women, caused a deep division amongst Anglicans.

By her own example, the Church of England could help to restore the balance in society by demonstrating in her own hierarchical structures what is a generally accepted feature of the human condition, that men and women have equal but distinctive roles. This is the understanding which Christians have traditionally seen in the Genesis doctrine of creation. The recent comments of Laurence Summers, the President of Harvard University, about the innate differences between men and women have made him extremely unpopular amongst the feminists, but his words do provide some food for serious thought. In his defence, a leading article in The Daily Telegraph stated, ‘To close down the argument because it risks going against an unproved orthodoxy – that men are exactly the same as women – is nonsensical and anti-intellectual.’

God’s justice

In the ongoing controversy about women in holy orders, the sacredness of the historic ministry, appointed ‘by divine providence,’ has been somewhat undermined, and certainly the theological thinking about the nature of the episcopate (although examined in such depth in both the Rochester Report and more especially in Consecrated Women? edited by Fr Jonathan Baker) receded into the background as the February debate progressed. Yet, like the Church herself, the historic ministry is a wonderful and sacred mystery, and one of God’s greatest gifts to the Church.

Many proponents, however, argued that by modern standards of justice, the received tradition was unfair and unacceptable. The time had come for both male and female priests to be considered for the episcopate. If the Incarnation had taken place today, Jesus would have chosen both male and female Apostles, they claimed. This argument calls for a theological response. In both the Old and New Testaments, it is made clear that God in his sovereignty can act as he chooses, when he chooses and through whomsoever he chooses.

This ‘election theology’ is summarized in Romans 9–11 and leads us to the conclusion that if God chose to reveal himself through his Son (not a daughter) in the fullness of time (i.e. at a time when it may not have been acceptable to have female Apostles), it was surely an act of divine significance and not divine oversight. Similarly, if Christ has chosen throughout the history of the Church, which is his own creation, to work through male bishops, who are we to question his judgement? What seems unjust by human reckoning is not necessarily evil, but could be part of God’s plan. As the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matt 20: 1–16) illustrates, divine justice is sometimes difficult to relate to the human understanding of what is just and fair.

That all may be one

There was one brief but significant speech from a member of Synod who represented the religious communities; she pointed out that the Christian faith is not about rights but about duty and responsibility. Many of the speeches, however, tended to be rather subjective, of the form ‘My vision for the future of the Church,’ or ‘My vision for the ministry,’ when surely it is Christ’s vision for the Church his Bride, and for the ministry which serves her, which is paramount. Christ’s vision ‘that all may be one’ was often quoted by both proponents and opponents in the debate, but it was difficult to envisage how this unity could be achieved in the present circumstances, for as Archbishop Laud realized in an earlier period of conflict in the Church of England, ‘All faction is fraction too.’

When considering the prospect of change in Church matters, the rarely read Preface to the Book of Common Prayer provides sound advice.

Common experience sheweth, that where a change hath been made of things advisedly established (no evident necessity so requiring) sundry inconveniences have thereupon ensued; and those, many times more and greater than the evils that were intended to be remedied by such change.

It is unfortunate that the Church of England failed to take note of these comments before embarking on change to the historic ministry (a ministry she shared with three-quarters of the world’s Christians) and upon which, in the language of the Book of Common Prayer, God, ‘who alone workest great marvels’ pours the continual dew of his blessing.


Margaret Laird was formerly

Third Estates Commissioner

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