93 Further reflections on women bishops

The decisive vote on women bishops in the Church of England has thrown up some interesting comments from the rest of the Anglican Church. I am not going to comment on these in detail but we should note that the woman bishops decision has been welcomed by the Anglican church in Uganda. The Archbishop of Uganda, who has welcomed the vote, leads a church that is part of the GAFCON group. As we noted on this blog large parts of the GAFCON grouping are virulently against the idea of women becoming priests, let alone bishops. These churches, particularly the Diocese of Sydney in Australia, would claim that their position is made inevitable by the passages from St Paul which speak of men being in a position of headship over women. Their position is well summed up on the REFORM website by their leader Rod Thomas. To be fair to members of GAFCON, they did admit at their conference in Nairobi last October that their members differed on certain issues, including their position on women. But one still wants to ask: ‘If you can differ about this very serious issue in the life of the Church, one that has caused grief and pain for large numbers of your members, then should you not come together and learn how to read the bible together? It is after all the same bible that you are reading.’

Coming at this issue from a quite different perspective, one would suggest that the reason Sydney, Uganda and members of REFORM disagree about the ordination of women has nothing whatever to do with biblical interpretation but everything to with history and sociology. I do not have all the facts to prove this point but if we were to look at the church history of Uganda and Sydney respectively, I would expect to find particular personalities and local traditions that caused the bible to be read in these different ways. To suggest that the leaders of the Australian diocese of Sydney read the bible in any other way than strict Protestant scholarship allows them to, would of course be thought by them to be insulting. But it would seem obvious that local factors, many of them not theological, can be found to account for the way this particular tradition in Australia grew up. One idea I have seen floated is that the paucity of women in the convict period of Australia meant that men were disempowered by the ability of women being able to extremely choosy as to whom they took for husbands. Whatever the reasons, the Sydney position is one that diverges not only from mainline Anglicanism but also from fellow conservatives in Africa.

Some might wonder why I have continued this discussion about women bishops. The answer is simple. Those who claim to follow the bible as being the inerrant word of God seldom agree as to what it actually says. Even those who gather in great international assemblies such as GAFCON 2008 and 2013 for the purpose of undermining, even destroying, the Anglican Communion, cannot agree on what the bible says. One response to this failure to agree on women’s ordination might provoke a response of humility. We do not agree, therefore we will seek to discern in humility and patience what God might be saying on this and other contentious issues. There is in fact not a smidgeon of humility in either of the statements from Jerusalem 2008 or Nairobi 2013. If we were to summarise the tone of both statements, they might be held to say simply ‘We are right and anyone who does not agree with us is wrong. ‘

The number of Anglicans who read the bible in the Sydney way and believe in the notion of headship is, thankfully, tiny. But there are many who read their bibles in a way that leads to dogmatic and fiercely partisan oppressive ways. Many women and children have suffered over the centuries because the male sex has taken upon itself the right to dominate and control everyone else. It is a serious matter that the Bible is claimed to be the source of this dominance. If the bible is a cause of stumbling for many, then let us learn to read our bibles in a new way. If we cannot manage that, let us at least introduce a note of humility before we declare that we KNOW what God’s will is for our fellow human beings.

About Stephen Parsons

Stephen is a retired Anglican priest living at present in Northumberland. He has taken a special interest in the issues around health and healing in the Church but also when the Church is a place of harm and abuse. He has published books on both these issues and is at present particularly interested in understanding the psychological aspects of leadership and follower-ship in the Church. He is always interested in making contact with others who are concerned with these issues.

6 thoughts on “93 Further reflections on women bishops

  1. Hmm. As ever, it won’t be that simple I suppose. I’m wondering about a priest in the parish I used to be in who is white middle class English, and still managed to develop a theology that excluded women. I mean, he totally ignored everything that was going on around him! But ordinarily, you would expect there to be sociological factors in common. Interestingly, he had no concept of collaborative ministry either. His role was leadership. He had been ordained to lead. End of.

  2. Yes, well, indeed! I think you are right to point to the Bible as a key issue in all this. I think that where scriptures are considered so key in a religion, they will always become a significant focus of stumbling. There is something inevitable about that. But perhaps this issue has become greatly sharpened for us since the Protestant reformers claimed to base their authority so largely on an imagined plain reading of the text. Originally I understand this was a way of undercutting the authority of the papacy and clearing away practices which seemed to have strayed from the gospel. But now this issue is a major problem for us all.

    It would be so helpful if those who appeal so blithely to their reading of the Bible could understand and acknowledge some of the key insights of modern literary critical theory. Then they would realise that it is impossible for any text, sacred or otherwise, to have one unitary total “meaning” that excludes all others. There are always as many interpretations as there are readers. We can have fruitful discussions about which interpretations are richer or more faithful, and apply criteria by which to be alerted to what may be distortions. These are the discussions which can make Bible study so illuminating – the text can come alive for us in our joint wrestling with it in the power of the Spirit. But crucially, the insights of critical theory rule out the possibility of anyone ever saying they are stating the definitive eternal meaning of a text to which all must subscribe.

    Of course, one suspects that the mind-set of fundamentalism is to be closed to such threatening ideas, which can be ignored or rejected as secular. But the Bible itself contains many pointers in this direction. When the lawyer questions Jesus about eternal life (Luke 10), Jesus asks “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” The key point is what do YOU read. Jesus knows that the texts produce a multitude of understandings, and he asks the lawyer for his personal interpretation. Jesus approves the relevance of the lawyer’s chosen key text, but the lawyers wants (for reasons of personal aggrandisement) to dig deeper. Jesus then comes up with a reading (the Good Samaritan) which goes way beyond any literal plain meaning of the starting text. No-one has ever objected to his parable on those grounds!

    Jesus the living Word whom we receive through the Spirit is the key for us. We cannot unlock the written word unless our allegiance is first and foremost to him, not it. Our starting point must be Luke 24.27 on the road to Emmaus “Then beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them the things about himself in all the scriptures”. He didn’t quote texts at the disciples, he interpreted them. We can’t escape the need for interpretation, which will always be open-ended, there is never a “last” word. We will always have to do the hard work of trying to understand why someone else reads the Bible differently. But we have the promise of John 16.13, that the Spirit of Truth will guide us into all truth. We are not left floundering in some postmodern cacophany of anything goes, but will be led deeper and deeper into the real truth, if we are humble enough to know that any understanding we presently have is provisional and may need revision through the guidance of the Spirit.

    However as I think is one of the concerns of this blog, anyone whose heart is set on power rather than love will not find this acceptable, and anyone who craves cut and dried certainties to cling to will be their easy prey.

  3. Additionally I seem to have discovered that today’s militant atheists are very much mirrors of the fundamentalists in this respect. They just wield their domineering, narrowly literalist, selective and supposedly definitive readings with a hostile spin. The tragedy is that people who have been brow-beaten in the churches are very vulnerable to being brow-beaten again by the enemies of religion.

  4. Thank you haikusinenomine for your point about Jesus not quoting scripture but interpreting it. That is a very powerful observation about the way we deal with Scripture and, dare I say it, stengthens my point for the need for humility before offering dogmatic teaching based on quotes. Probably we will look in vain for this kind of humility in the churches that do the abuse thing around the world. They stand to lose too much if they suggest that there is more than one to understand a particular passage. ‘The Bible says’ is far easier to utter than to look for interpretations, as Jesus did.

  5. Thank you Stephen. May I add that I was enthralled when I discovered that the Good Samaritan story itself is an unparallelled gem of a re-writing of 2 Chronicles 28, a very important fact which is far too little known by Christians generally.

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