50 shades of purple – should women be bishops?

Sometime conflict is essential. Sometimes it is even healthy. It can lead to better solutions, and in the debate and discussion it can occasionally bring people together. I blogged last week about the conflict in Gaza, as well as the way it was reflected on twitter. Hot on the heels of this conflagration comes another, this time a little closer to home and thankfully without violence.

Tomorrow the Church of England General Synod decides whether women can become bishops. I wasn’t going to get drawn into the conversation, I didn’t want to be just another voice either calling for one thing or another, or join the chorus of drowned out pleas for peace and good will.

I’ve been a part of churches where women are encouraged to be full part of every area of ministry. And I’ve been in others where certain roles are considered to be the preserve of men alone. I’ve also been in churches which said one thing in theory and the practice looked very different. And to top all that one of the most revolutionary moments in the life of the church I grew up in as a child was the decision that women didn’t have to cover their heads in meetings. That was over twenty years ago.

I’m also not a part of the Church of England, for just under a year I was part of a Church of England church, but I never settled and the bits I liked least about it were the few times it adhered to it’s more Anglican aspects.

The combination of this background, an aversion to arguments, and the fact I work for an organisation that represents churches on both sides of the debate helped me keep my thoughts to myself.

This isn’t really about the question of whether women should become bishops, and the debate tomorrow isn’t either – although if you chose to tune in you will certainly here their proponents vocally making the case. There is a strong majority within the Church of England backing the move so the question at the heart of the measure to be decided is how to allow women to the episcopate while ensuring that those who have theological objections to women holding positions of church authority are able to continue with good conscience in the church.

The problem is both groups think they are right.

And that’s where arguments and discussion, and the most delicate of negotiations fall down. Because those who want women to be bishops see this as an issue of justice, of fairness, of faithfulness to scripture, and those who don’t cite the biblical arguments with equal abandon. It does little for the way the world looks at the church, and more importantly, little for the words we say for the authority, clarity and perspicuity of scripture.

There are two arguments put forward, one for equality and one for difference between the genders. Those two don’t have to contradict, in fact I would fully subscribe to both. They are therefore canards in this debate. Both claim that they are right, and moreover that they have divine backing for their views. This is a route that gets dangerous pretty quickly.

The challenge facing the Church of England is whether they are prepared to work to sustain a broad church with bishops, clergy and congregations who hold significantly different understandings not only of the role of women but their understanding of scripture. Because while this is the presenting issue it is not the only division within the church. Nor is it that those opposing the change are the only ones that take scripture seriously, many backers of women bishops would argue that it is their opponents who misuse the texts they quote to support their backing of the status quo.

If the unity of the Church of England is vital then it is important for all those who disagree to give ground and accept that for a solution to be found that succeeds in maintaining unity no one is going to get everything they want. But that’s life. It really is. If you bring any group of people together to work at a common cause there is a need for compromise and negotiation. The difficulty in the church is that for so long it has been a recluse of unity from a world of divergence. It has clustered closer and closer around what it agrees on and lost sight of the many differences that are conveniently ignored.

I pray that the church would be as one. And be as one so that world would believe. I pray that the Church of England, and the wider church, will make it through their deliberations and the fallout, however it may fall, with a commitment to work together for the sake of the gospel. And to be honest, you could have skipped the rest of this post because that is all that really matters.

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2 thoughts on “50 shades of purple – should women be bishops?

  1. Thanks. I blogged on this yesterday, when I too couldn’t stay silent anymore. It’s tricky, because today’s vote is a ratification to the previous proposals, but it needs more votes to pass it than before. So either it goes through as is (with minimal provision for Anglo-Catholics and Cons Evos) or it gets thrown out altogether and they are unable to discuss it for another five years. Either of those outcomes will be painful for the church…

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