This week (in case you missed it) the Church of England announced its first ever female bishop: Libby Lane, to serve as the (suffragan) Bishop of Stockport, in my own diocese, the Diocese of Chester.
How are we to respond to this?
On a personal level, we should certainly pray for Libby Lane, that her ministry as Bishop of Stockport will be fruitful, and that God will use her to build up his church.
But we have to face the question of whether it is right for the Church of England to have women bishops at all.
I’m not sure that it is. And by ‘not sure’, I mean precisely that: not sure! On the one hand, there do seem to be significant differences between men and women, and those differences do seem to be reflected in how God’s people have been governed, for example, with male priests in the Old Testament, with the twelve apostles all being men, and with (it seems) male elders being appointed and given a specific teaching ministry in the New Testament church. (Can all this be explained purely in terms of the cultural context?) But, on the other hand, women do seem to be given a much more prominent role in the New Testament church, and there are hints of women being among the apostles, serving as deacons, and being recognized as elders (or eldresses, at least).
For what it’s worth, some articles I am pondering at the moment are:
- Douglas Moo on 1 Timothy 2
- Alastair Roberts on a masculine priesthood and on gender essentialism
- William G Witt on 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Timothy 2 as part of a series on women’s ordination
- Kenneth Bailey on women in the New Testament
However, despite my uncertainty on the issue, there is one thing I am convinced about: that that Church of England ought to be broad enough to embrace that huge constituency of the worldwide church that believes either that women cannot or should not be ordained as presbyters or consecrated as bishops.
First, there are those who believe that women cannot be ordained. Can they remain in the Church of England?
Forward in Faith, as part of a commentary on the Church of England’s five guiding principles on the issue of women bishops, make an interesting distinction between the office of bishop and the order of bishop:
If the Rector of Barchester is a woman, we don’t say that the office of rector is vacant. She is the true and lawful holder of that office. She is the rector, but we cannot say that she is a priest. There is in in fact much precedent for church offices that were originally held by clergy being held by people who are not priests: there have been lay rectors — and, in cathedrals, lay canons and lay vicars.
Similarly, if the Bishop of Barchester is female, she will be the true and lawful holder of the office of diocesan bishop. We cannot say that she is a bishop in the sacramental sense (order), but as ‘holder of the office of diocesan bishop’ she will be a bishop in the other sense (office).
Second, there are those who believe that women should not be ordained. Can they remain in the Church of England?
In this case, it ought to be possible to say that, even though a certain woman is your bishop, she shouldn’t be your bishop. This is not dissimilar to having a male heretic as your bishop: he is your bishop, but he shouldn’t be. And churches have muddled through in those cases where they have found themselves with a bishop who shouldn’t be a bishop on the grounds of his theology or teaching. Shouldn’t it be similarly possible to muddle through if you believe your bishop shouldn’t be a bishop on the grounds of her being a woman?
The fourth of the five guiding principles mentioned above reads as follows:
Since those within the Church of England who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests continue to be within the spectrum of teaching and tradition of the Anglican Communion, the Church of England remains committed to enabling them to flourish within its life and structures.
I sincerely hope that this will prove to be the case. I would love to see the Church of England being a church in which all who sincerely love the Lord Jesus can continue to find a home.