WOMEN BISHOPS

The Church should have the courage of its convictions, argues John Broadhurst

For the first time in my life I have found myself in a position where some supporters have joined opponents in asking ‘What on earth are you doing?’ Signing a motion to debate the consecration of female bishops can certainly lead to many misunderstandings. A traditionalist bishop told me it would make his position impossible if women were ordained to the Episcopate. I replied it would simply put him in the same position as the rest of us. A leading women priest asked 'What are your motives?', implying some Machiavellian plot. Neither seemed able to grasp a simple principle. I remain utterly opposed to women in the priesthood and episcopate, believing it to be contrary to God’s will. But I am no sexist. I fail to see how a Church which has ordained women to the priesthood can refuse them the episcopate, on any grounds other than political expediency. To admit women to the inferior half of one ministry, and then exclude them from the episcopate is patronising sexism of the worst kind. I will not vote for the motion, but I certainly could not oppose it. There is no principle on which I could do so with integrity.

When the ordination of women measure appeared before the Revision Committee it contained a clause that nothing in it would permit the ordination of women to the episcopate, a kind of catch all. I was very familiar with this clause as I had personally pushed for the inclusion of a similar clause in the Women Deacons Measure. With others I argued for the removal of this Clause from the Women Priests Measure. We lost the case, and then Brian Brindley tried to get the clause deleted on the floor of the Synod at the revision stage. He was opposed by Robert Runcie, Archbishop of Canterbury, who argued that it was inexpedient, saying “undoubtedly if you raise the height of the fence it is more likely the horse will refuse.” Naked political judgement stands exposed: the goal was to get women ordained priest, and no theological or sociological principle would be allowed to stand in the way.

Traditionalists had consistently argued that the episcopate and the priesthood were closely related, indeed they were the same ministry in two different modes and to admit women to one inevitably meant that they had to be admitted to the other. Brian Brindley lost not on an issue of principle but on a matter of political expediency. It has always been my view that the debate about women priests is actually a Christological debate, it is about the nature of Jesus Christ revealed in history, rather than a debate on the role of women in the modern world.

The marks of ministry such as priesthood, or oversight and headship, are in the first instance marks of Jesus himself and are only consequentially part of the ministry. The Christian bishop, or priest, does not have Priesthood or Oversight in his own right, rather they are derived from Christ. Both Priesthood and to a lesser degree, Oversight, are shared between the priests and bishops in the Church of England. I could illustrate this quite clearly from the membership of the Convocations. Until the ordination of Women Deacons, deacons had been excluded from the Convocations (even though in the Victorian era there had been a large number of academic deacons). The reason for this was that the deacon did not, and could not, share oversight of doctrine with Bishops and Priests. Another political expedient changed this.

The bishop and his priests have together a collegial relationship and it has always been our view that to intrude women into the priesthood breaks that relationship. It would be no more and no less broken if the Bishop happened to be a woman. The Archbishops report on Episcopal Ministry 1990 says “?Bishops and presbyters belong in the New Testament to what is fundamentally a single order of ministerial priesthood”. There is nothing that has happened since that would make me think that this statement was not correct. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the priests are associated with their bishops as “prudent co-operators of the Episcopal College......and constitute, together with their bishop, a unique sacerdotal college” (Lumen Gentium III, 28).

The House of Bishops' Report on The Ordination of Women to the Priesthood said “?It is very difficult to sustain an argument for any essential sacramental distinction between the presbyterate and the episcopate such as to put in doubt the possibility of women’s admission to the episcopate once the presbyterate has been granted”. I would argue that natural justice demands it. The Church of England has made its error, treating ministry as a personal possession, and must live with the consequences. The Bishops Report on Episcopal Ministry also looked at this issue and sought refuge and an escape in the role of the Bishop as the 'focus of unity'. This completely overlooks the fact that traditionalists have consistently stated that a Bishop who ordains women priests, or functions with them, can no longer be that focus. The Church recognised this fact in the Act of Synod. We have lived with impairment of communion within the Anglican Communion for many years. At the moment women bishops from overseas are not recognised in England nor are the male priests they ordain.

The only reputable argument against women bishops in a church which already has women priests is the argument of provisionality, the church is not sure whether women can be priests and is waiting to see if it is God’s will. I remain certain it is not God’s will, nothing in the scriptures or tradition suggests otherwise. However I believe that this has always been a dishonest argument made by those who want the opponents to die out quietly. We will not! They should follow their convictions and accept the consequences which is granting us that Alternative Episcopal Oversight or parallel jurisdiction that we have always said was a consequence of ordaining women. A church cannot live peacefully, or purposefully, when large numbers reject the ministry of many of its clergy. Is it any wonder that the number of ordinands is plummeting. The gospel will only triumph if we leave each other room enough to live. The truth will ultimately win. Clarity and charity need to co-exist to ensure the triumph of truth.

John Broadhurst is the Rector of St Michael, Wood Green in the diocese of London.

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