The Anglican Church, and more specifically the Church of England, has rejected the ordination of women as bishops.
As a non-Anglican I’ve watched with interest both the process and the reactions to the outcome. If you looked at this whole situation and knew nothing of the views and arguments involved you would still be able to clearly see that this issue has caused deep pain in the Church of England. And that’s not good for anyone. Not good for women, not good for men, not good for the Church of England and not good for Jesus who is the Church’s head.
Whatever people think or feel there are no winners in this. That is, there are no winners unless this leads into a way of grace and a deeper union with Jesus through the pain and struggle that Anglicans are feeling right now. One of the first things to go when we experience pain – especially if we feel it has been inflicted on us – is grace. Wounds can blind us to the path into healing, which is through grace offered and received.
But this reflection isn’t primarily about that. It’s really a way of getting my thoughts down on this issue because sitting on the fence on this issue doesn’t address it, and ignores the reality that it means a lot to a lot of people, on any and all sides of the discussion.
It seems that there are two overarching themes which hold within them a number of points of issue.
One is the matter of equality.
One is the matter of Biblical interpretation.
In listening to some of the pithy ‘sound bites’ which were used by several people in several TV interviews, each ‘side’ has tried to encapsulate their bias as to which of these themes matters most by including a nod to the other one. In other words, “It is all about my preferred theme, but I accept that your theme does have a place, albeit a small and insignificant one.” This may seem a bit too general, and even a harsh assessment, but it’s not intended to be. It’s what I’ve distilled from hearing repetitious, well-rehearsed arguments prepared as a sound bite.
The interesting question I’ve been asking is, “what would Jesus make of this?” After all it’s His Church, and He is the head of it whether we like it or not. No synod gets to decide that! No. Jesus has invited us into Himself, to become a part of His body. He hasn’t invited us into a system or organisation that would lead to division and pain.
If my premise is true then we should ask ourselves whether the divisions and pain are a product of man’s approach to Church or Jesus’ approach?
I don’t think Jesus has (or will) take a ‘side’ on this. If, like the Pharisees and Scribes, we pressed Jesus for a direct answer to a direct question I think we’d either get an unexpected answer or an unexpected question in return.
If there’s anything we can lean on with any degree of certainty in reading the scriptures it’s that Jesus won’t play our games and will more than likely surprise us with His response. If he constantly and continually did so with His closest disciples then we should expect that He will do so with us.
And if you’re unsure as to whether Jesus’ preferred mode of teaching is ‘the unexpected’ then consider all the post-resurrection eyewitness accounts and ask yourself whether what they were expecting is what they actually experienced.
But just because Jesus may not take a side doesn’t mean He doesn’t have a view. But we should tread carefully before taking what we perceive to be Jesus’ view and turning it into a cosh with which we can hit someone over the head if they hold a different view.
Jesus was very clear: “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” John 3:17 (ESV)
What follows in John’s gospel are a series of encounters and exchanges which clearly demonstrate this truth. Jesus shows us that He’s not in the condemnation business but in the salvation and redemption business. And His business is our business so we should avoid condemnation and look instead to how Jesus will bring salvation and redemption to His Church as He brings it to the whole world.
What is fascinating to 1st Century observers/readers, and should be to us in the 21st Century is just how much women feature in Jesus’ life and ministry, and the uniquely special role they play in a world dominated by men.
It seems to me that Jesus had more time for women than most men do, and that includes Christian men. It’s clear that Jesus’ own disciples were surprised, and at times shocked by the way Jesus related to women and the unnerving way He would go out of His way to meet them that He might bless them and release them into ministry.
Jesus created an evangelist – a public preacher – out of a sinful, adulterous woman whom He met at a well:
“28 So the woman left her water jar and went away into town and said to the people, 29 “Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did. Can this be the Christ?” 30 They went out of the town and were coming to him.” John 4:28-30
What is most shocking about this? That she was sinful? That she was adulterous? That she was a woman preaching?
In the current debate on women bishops it seems that this last item is where she ‘crossed the line’! And yet Jesus freed her and empowered her to be just that.
There are many other examples and my own reflection of the scriptures is that God is always doing that. He’s always empowering and releasing people regardless of gender – or even trans-gender if you include eunuchs – to be His disciples AND His apostles (one who is sent with authority).
But I don’t think Jesus’ agenda here is ‘equality’. I don’t think He’s rocking the established order in order to establish a more equitable situation for women. I think He’s showing us that He has a purpose and a life for everyone and so He calls men AND women. He’s as passionate about liberating women from all forms of enslavement and subjugation as He is about liberating men of the same.
He even calls children to Him when everyone else is disregarding them. On this issue BOTH men and women in our culture bear responsibility in how we eschew children in our community of faith as ‘leaders’ and ‘signs’ to us, even though Jesus as a baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger was a “sign” to us that a great leader had arrived (Luke 2:12).
It’s in this light of ‘the God who empowers and releases men and women to minister’ that I think we should interpret scripture.
It’s clear that St. Paul expressed a clear instruction that women shouldn’t teach men and that women should be silent in church, learning with submission. Or is it clear?
If you read it as is, in English, then it’s very clear. It’s almost impossible to argue with a verse that says, “As in all the churches of the saints, the women should keep silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be in submission, as the Law also says.” (1 Cor 14:33-34 ESV)
Not being an expert in Greek I am not in a position to get into technical arguments about what words mean and how they should be translated.
What I am clear on is that scripture should be interpreted (different to ‘translated’) with context and other scriptures in mind. Otherwise we struggle to reconcile the God of the OT with the God of the NT and end up with some par-boiled nonsense which doesn’t even come close to describing YAHWEH.
We also come unstuck in all manner of ways where reality is constantly colliding with what we perceive to be the meaning of particular scriptures.
I am personally relaxed with the idea that scripture may collide with itself and reality, and the Talmud is proof that this is no stranger to the Jewish mindset of how to understand scripture. Jesus, in answering the question, “which is the greatest commandment?” elevated one scripture over another. Surely ALL God’s commandments are the greatest and ALL God’s revelation? Yet Jesus goes right ahead and elevates two of them over the rest.
We ought to be careful when we read St Paul that we don’t deify Paul as we seek to hear God through his inspired writings. We know that Paul was a mysterious character with some traits which made him somewhat abrasive and harsh. Yet we see the same Paul as being incredibly vulnerable and tender in some of his other writings. Is there a contradiction in Paul? “By no means”, as Paul himself would say. The lack of contradiction lies in the reality that Paul is a man with a complex being, just like you and me, not that he is always consistent in his attitudes or behaviours. He can insist you are kicked out of your church one year, and insist you are allowed back the next.
So when he urges Timothy to remember the authoritative teaching of his mother and grandmother (2 Tim 1:5 & 2 Tim 3:15) is he contradicting himself where he does not ‘permit’ a woman to teach a man?
Or is it ok for a woman to teach a man if she’s his mother, or grandmother, and only until a certain age (unspecified) and then it can only be men from then on?
Or what would Paul make of Jesus – God incarnate – being placed entirely under Mary’s authority (sorry Joseph, but thanks for looking after Him and teaching Him carpentry), and then placing His beloved John under her motherhood as He died on the cross? I’m glad Jesus was under Mary’s authority in the way He was as it’s the best proof that Jesus loves a party with flowing wine – and only the finest quality wine at that!
I cite these examples simply to highlight that it’s far from clear cut and only a very brave man (or woman) would stake such rock solid faith on these verses being elevated over the vast number of others which present the gospel as one which empowers and commissions women for ministry, including authority and leadership over men in some cases.
It seems that the fear of women having authority over men is rooted in Eve leading Adam astray (citing 1 Tim 2:14).
“Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor.”
But then Paul goes on to say that women “will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”
Let me see if I’ve got this straight: women shouldn’t have authority over men because Eve was deceived, but don’t worry… if she has children she’ll be saved.
Forgive me for being a bit thick but that doesn’t read in a way that makes any sense to me. And it seems like really bad news for women who don’t have children!! Yet I’m totally confident that it made sense to the original hearers in their context and they would have known what to do with it.
So context matters, otherwise we’re going to have to find incredibly complex ways of explaining what Paul is technically saying and risk missing what he’s actually saying.
I have no doubt that Paul didn’t want women teaching in church and he didn’t want them chattering away whilst teaching was happening, or whilst the Holy Spirit was bringing a prophecy, just as I’m confident he didn’t want women wearing braids or jewellery, just like the shrine prostitutes next door.
I am not confident that Paul would say the same today. I don’t think Paul was pointing us to a ‘once for all’ commandment which was about the role of men and women – my experience is that sensible men and women instinctively know our limitations, strengths and weaknesses – but to an awareness and sensitivity to culture and more importantly to God.
Likewise when Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.” (Matthew 5:38-41 ESV).
Is Jesus changing a law here which was in THREE of the five books of the Law? Or is He bringing new revelation of God’s unfolding plan which at one time required an eye for an eye, but now requires non-violent confrontation and blessed peacemakers?
I recoil at the idea that ‘we have to keep pace with the times’ as a basis for interpreting or understanding God’s word.
(Great article here on this subject).
But it flies in the face of the whole of scripture, and the practise of the Church throughout the centuries to suggest that all scripture is locked down indefinitely and that it sets out immovable rules that we must abide by. That is both the reasoning and practise of the Pharisee. God is not threatened if we question Him and His word. Abraham did it and was called ‘the friend of God’!
The story of scripture reveals the God behind the words, the stories, the lives, and we discover Him at work in the most unexpected place and people, of all creeds, colours, tribes and tongues.
True, not one jot will pass away, but scripture is not God, and Jesus was the most unconventional, counter-cultural person in all of scriptures and He is alive today to keep doing what He does and being unconventional in our churches and cultures, breaking in with the Kingdom of God which doesn’t bend to our culture but transforms it as we pray and usher it in.
That would be perfectly consistent with an inerrant, unchanging body of scripture. Scripture doesn’t change because it doesn’t need to because it transcends all time and culture, but at the same time remains directly relevant to any and all times and cultures.
So as culture changes we do injury to God’s word to apply it as if we were 1st Century near-Eastern citizens of a global Roman empire, when God’s word is alive and consistent today for today’s culture as it was then, even if we acknowledge Paul’s approach then and take a different one now.
Just one final thought… the ‘qualifications’ of a bishop/overseer/episkopos which Paul gives twice in two separate letters have remarkable parallels with Proverbs 31 which is all about the leadership and wisdom of a WOMAN. Any married man who has his head screwed on knows that his wife has wisdom, leadership and grace which he doesn’t have and which he can only access through her. And of course it’s true the other way around as well.
The Church needs fathers AND mothers, just like any one of us. If that was good enough for Jesus then it’s good enough for us. It’s no good for the Church to look at the rest of society and highlight the issues that have arisen because of children being denied access to both parents in a stable marriage when within the Church we deny the leadership of spiritual fathers AND mothers. Whether we’re male or female, old or not so old, there’s always a child in us that needs nurturing through the spiritual fatherhood and motherhood of others.
So if, as a woman, you believe Jesus is calling you into ministry as a bishop then I pray for you and pray for the Church of England that they might release you as Jesus is releasing you.
But if your agenda is ‘equality’ then learn Jesus’ lesson:
“6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” Phil 2:6-11
It may be that through this path of humility that Jesus might indeed elevate you to the ‘highest place’ and confirm you as a bishop in the CofE, but it won’t be for the sake of ‘equality’.
Mary herself proclaimed in ‘The Magnificat’ that, “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52 ESV)
What I am confident of is that Jesus is less interested in doctrine that divides and more interested in you being empowered and released to proclaim the kingdom of God at whatever level God raises you to, and He is in the business of raising up those whom the world pushes down.