Supposing we reach the conclusion that women shouldn’t be ordained as priests (presbyters, elders) or bishops, then what next? Should we just muddle along and hope the church will come to her senses in due course? Or should we distance ourselves in some way? For example, should we leave a church if a women is appointed as its incumbent, or refuse to share in the Eucharist if a woman is presiding, or refuse to be ordained by a female bishop, or even refuse to recognise the ministry of those who have themselves been ordained by a woman? And if we do distance ourselves in these ways, is it because, on balance, this seems the best course of action, or is it because, before God, we feel obliged to do so?
Often in this debate the word ‘conscience’ is thrown about. This is very much the case in the 2011 publication by (evangelical think-tank) The Latimer Trust: The Church, Women Bishops and Provision (available for free in PDF).
To give some context, ‘This book was commissioned in November 2010 by a number of members of General Synod’ who ‘agree that a proper legal framework should be in place, to provide the security of an ongoing ministry in the Church of England for those who will not be able to accept the ministry of women bishops.’ It gives the impression that it was written in haste, in order to make a specific contribution to the debate within the Church of England at the time. It comes across as neither balanced not charitable in the way in the way it portrays the arguments in favour of women bishops. But there are some worthwhile parts. Chief among these is Michael Ovey’s 2003 submission to the Rochester Commission, which is included as an appendix. Ovey is Principal of Oak Hill College and is a former parliamentary draftsman, and there is clear evidence of the latter in the style of his submission. This is quite appropriate, given the context, but it does read a bit like treacle. Nonetheless, it covers the issues with great precision and with a logic that is hard to deny.
Back to the issue in hand, there are 25 relevant occurrences of ‘conscience’ language in the book, by my reckoning. Here are some examples (emphasis added):
The forcing of conscience that this will entail (22) … those who cannot in conscience accept the ordination of women priests or the consecration of women bishops (75) … those with conscientious objections to the consecrating of women as bishops (75) … dispute resolution where matters of conscience and principle are engaged (76)
Then from the appendix by Michael Ovey:
a woman bishop would necessarily be exercising the kind of jurisdiction over him that would be unacceptable for reasons of conscience (113) … The present proposal has not always been presented as a ‘Gospel issue’. If it is not, but a matter of conscience, then the appropriate analogy is Romans 14 and 15 which deals with the respect of conscience, and where unanimity of practice is not thought necessary by Paul for the unity of the church. Applied here, that suggests differential episcopal oversight to which priests could in good conscience submit (118) … as certain dioceses acquire women bishops, these will tend to become no-go areas for priests who feel in all conscience that they should not submit to female oversight (125)
This is strong language.
You ‘force’ the conscience of a Christian when you coerce them to do something which they sincerely believe would be a sin against Almighty God. So, in Acts 5, the apostles had been given strict orders by the Jewish authorities not to teach in the name of Jesus, but they carried on proclaiming Jesus, with the defence that ‘We must obey God rather than human beings!’ (v. 29, NIV).
Ovey made reference to Romans 14 and 15, which deal with the respect of conscience when people within the church have different convictions about certain (non-essential) issues. Paul himself was convinced that ‘All food is clean’ (14:20), but there were others who refused to eat meat, presumably to avoid the risk of contamination with the worship of idols. Paul was adamant that these people, whose faith was ‘weak’ (14:1-2), should not be pressurised into eating meat:
But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin (14:23, NIV).
So if, for someone, it would be a sin for them to accept the ministry of female priests or bishops, then appropriate provision should be made.
So I agree with the Church of England’s efforts to make provision for those who cannot, in good conscience, accept the episcopal ministry of women. But, for my own part, I struggle to see why it should be a matter of conscience. Would it really be sinful for me to receive priestly or episcopal ministry from a woman?
Despite all the references to ‘conscience’ in the book, no scriptural arguments are made to justify this. There is plenty about the seriousness of the matter, and a strong case is made that the church as a whole should not appoint women as bishops. But the only argument put forward that might suggest that I have a personal obligation not to consent to female episcopacy is that of Cyprian (cited by Ovey), who urged people ‘not to associate themselves with the sacrifices of a sacrilegious priest’ in order not to be ‘contaminated’ (109). I do find it surprising that this kind of argument is used, not only because evangelicals tend not to think of the Lord’s Supper as a ‘sacrifice’, but also because Article XXVI of the Church of England seems almost explicitly to deny the idea that a person might be contaminated if they receive the sacraments through ‘evil ministers’.
To sharpen the question, here are two hypothetical situations. In both cases, you and your family are young Christians, hungry to grow in your faith, living in a remote village, and you attend the only church available to you.
A new vicar is appointed, and week by week he spouts heresies, while living in gross immorality.
The new vicar is an evangelical who preaches the gospel powerfully and faithfully week by week. But she is a woman.
What do you do? Do you keep going, or do you stay at home and read the Bible together?
In the first case, I would stay at home, for reasons of conscience.
In the second case, even if I thought that a female vicar embodied in her very person the church’s disobedience to God in reversing the creation order, and even if this grieved me deeply, I still wouldn’t think that I was personally committing a sin by remaining part of that church, and I would consider that it would be far more damaging, both to me and my family, and to the church as a whole, for me to withdraw myself from the life of the church.
But if it was a question of conscience, then I would have no choice but to stay at home.
I’d love to hear what others think…