Thursday, 1 May 2008

Women bishops — but how?

Big stack of reading over the next fortnight, on women bishops, including the new report about implementation possibilities from the Bishop of Manchester’s group. I’m all ears (eyes?), and look forward to the college of bishops later this month. It was very helpful indeed to have full (anti) comment from Cardinal Kasper two years ago, albeit from his narrow denominational perspective. I will also revisit the substantial theological reaction to the Cardinal’s lecture from the Bishops of Durham and Salisbury in 2006, which set his advice in a biblical, broad ecumenical and historical context.

Before I start reading, three immediate historical thoughts come to mind, process markers rather than conclusions:
  1. In the OT God appointed an order among his people; but its expression, including its gender makeup was variable. The order of judges, with occasional female supremacy, gave way to male kings, tradition says, because the people wanted to be like the others round about them. God, in his providence, said “yes.” In the New Covenant, the Church’s highest calling is to be a delivery system for the kingdom, and, as body of Christ, what Maximus the Confessor called an “enfleshing of the incarnation.” Therefore the practical sociology of Christian ministry has always been contextual, not absolute, reflecting the reality of the social structures around it. Thus Early Church practice within which 30-40% of the leadership was female gave way to a medieval order where imperialistic institutionalism was the order of the day, and it was inconceivable that anyone but celibate males should exercise authority. All this by divine permission. Absolutising 12th century cultural assumptions, whilst cutting free from the (frankly ludicrous) anthropology of female subordination that validated them at the time, seems to me historicist weirdness, ignoring truths recovered by the sixteenth century Reformation.
  2. When we turn from fading Roman Imperialism to its British counterpart, 20th century bureaucrats, with their instinct for steering round difficulties rather than facing them, loved partition solutions. They were the centrepiece of British Imperial policy in Ireland (1922), Palestine (1948), India (1947) and Cyprus (1955). They seemed rather noble means for giving incompatible populations long term peace. However those colonial governors wore ostrich feathers for a reason. What they actually did, long term, was institutionalise schism. Their product in Ireland was almost a hundred years of violence, in Palestine sixty years of strife, in India (Kashmir and Pakistan) a war in which a million people died, in Cyprus the green line. The man at the FO could sign the problem off and bring the troops home, but, long term, I can’t think of a single partition solution that was a long term winner. We are still struggling with deadly institutionalised schism in the Middle East and India. Of course in Church everything is entirely different, but history is reality written for our learning, and I can’t get enthusiastic about elegant churchy versions of the kind of statesmanship that so delighted 20th Century Sir Humphreys. They got their knighthoods but they also got the big picture dangerously wrong.
  3. To return to Church history, formative Anglican theologians did not attempt to build the church by cobbling together some kind of synthetic panjandrum out of the most extreme positions, to keep everyone on board politically. Instead, they centred everything back on the Scriptures and the Creeds. This method worked for them, anyway. Perhaps we should try it. Too much Ecclesiastical Heath Robinson Engineering and you'll end up with a bunch of grinning politicians and no real bishops anyway, male or female.

8 comments:

Tim Mathis said...

Sometimes I think the most helpful thing would be if we Anglicans took a deep breath, stepped back from our churches for about a year or so, spent some time talking to folks in the real world, and then came with some sensible ideas on faith and polity.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

There seem to be two aspects to ministry in the C of E — on the one hand the (increasing) joy and sometimes burden of running a voluntary organisation and on the other interaction with the population and society at large. Most vicars get their primary energy from one or the other. For most of my parish ministry the vast bulk of my time has been spent with, and energy came from, people who weren't church insiders. From that perspective the in-house ideological squabbles seem a bit silly. After 29 years ministry in the C of E I can say one joy of ministering in an established church has been the facility to forget about polity / church politics (which I haven't had to think about for more than twenty minutes when I was at college) and get on with life.

I'm strongly with you, Tim. My ministry as a bishop isn't about getting people to be good denominational company women and men but facilitating us all to orientate on the real world and its needs. I'm convinced that's where Scripture and tradition indicate our priorities should lie, not church politics.

revruth said...

We ordain women because we baptise girls. End of comment.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

I’m with you, Ruth. If it's not too anoraky and it probably is) I remember arcane discussions fifteen years ago about women's ordination and the need for whoever was presiding at the Eucharist to be “in the place of Christ” and thus male. But that begged the question "just like Christ, how?" presumably not in having a beard, though I think there was some wacky sect of Christians who thought that. In being Jewish? No, says the NT. In being male? Well, if that's a necessary occupational requirement, the implication isn't not to have women priests, but to have women priests to do for the women whatever it is Christ does for the men by this weird representation. So the only possible iteration to the "icon of Christ” argument becomes “like Christ in his humanity” — a concept inherently bigger than gender.

Tim Chesterton said...

My former bishop, Victoria Matthews, never tired of pointing out that the phrase 'woman bishop' is grammatically incorrect, because 'woman' is not an adjective. After all, we don't say, 'man bishop'!

Next Sunday (May 11th) Jane Alexander will be consecrated to succeed Victoria. So far the sky doesn't sem to be falling...

Yvonne said...

Presumably a Man-Bishop would have to practice Muscular Christianity...

I was told that the reason the Orthodox Church stopped ordaining women priests (presbyterissae) was because as the iconostasis became a solid boundary rather than an arched/pierced screen, the congregation started making insinuations about what the priests might be up to behind closed doors. (Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...) You would have thought this would have led to a less opaque iconostasis rather than the abolition of women priests, but that was the weirdness of the medieval mind...

I think the conservatives in the Anglican communion are making it look silly to the wider population who don't get the theology of it all.

Yes to women bishops, say I. (Though I'm probably not entitled to a vote, being a Wiccan Unitarian...)

Fr Ivan D Aquilina said...

You will find that the new documents are not a large bulk and will take you under an hour to read - and anyway no surprises - nothing we did not hear about before.
However, with the massive prejudice that you exhibit in your piece why do you bother to read these at all?
It is clear that you already know how you are going to vote. It is people like you who make me more aware that the CofE is not the place where I can live my calling as Christian and Priest anymore. So thank you for this piece, it has proved to me how far some of our bishops are from the inheritance of Faith and how keen to hurry people like me (including my family) out of what we hoped (as was promised) would be a lifetime of service.

Bishop Alan Wilson said...

Dear Fr Ivan,

I read documents, including, for example, publications like New Directions, because I might be wrong. There is an ancient Benedictine principle that the most difficult, least voice, may be the means of God speaking to a community, and it's important to hold out the possibility of that being the case. The church has always to be open to the possibility of correction and development.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...