In the Independent in the UK 12.7.2010 reads this headline: ‘Church on brink of schism as synod votes for women bishops.’ The article explains that the C of E is on the verge of splitting over the appointment of female bishops. This past weekend, the general synod of the C of E met to discuss the issue. The church is bitterly divided with Anglo-Catholics (who like the Vatican do not approve of female Bishops), conservative and some evangelicals fighting against female bishops. On the other side are some evangelicals and liberals who hold that they can be. You can imagine the debates over the technicalities of Scripture, Paul’s teaching in 1Cor 11; 14; 1 Tim 2; Eph 5; Gal 3:28 etc. Apparently, seeking to avoid a split, the Arch Bishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams sought a middle way; namely, an amendment which through the creation of – I quote the article – ‘a proposal which would have created a special class of bishop to look after parishes which do not wish to have female bishops.’ Thus, it would be a two-tier type of system allowing the two sides to live together in ‘perfect harmony!’ (yeah right). This did not please either extremes of the debate which saw it as a compromise of their perspectives and principles. The amendment had to get through the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy, and the House of the Laity. It got through the first two, but the laity voted it down; by five votes. So, as it stands, it is looking positive for the girls, they can be Bishops (who would ever want to be one is a good question?). It is not however a done deal, with more political hurdles to get through like being sent to the Parliament and turned into British Law (no problems here I think), and then a majority of two thirds in each of the three houses (big problems?). Not to mention that the conservatives and Anglo-Catholics will do everything in their political power to slow down the process. Threats are being made, and the whole thing is messy!
This led me to write a blog commenting. Here are some thoughts.
1. What the?
My first thought is this: is this really an issue worth all this heat? In recent years there has been a lot of theological work done on the issue of gender and Scripture and in my view, a strong case (for me convincing) can be made for women in ministry at every level and that Paul’s teaching is: a) Contextual i.e. the points of prohibition may well be related to certain contexts in Ephesus and Corinth where things were messy and the girls had got themselves messed up; b) At other points there are women quite involved and Gal 3:28 seems to point toward a permissive attitude. Similarly, while Jesus chose 12 male disciples, he also only chose Jews (which does not indicate a purely Jewish leadership), he was quite permissive to women (esp. Mary, Mary in Lk 10; Jn 21). Whether or not all these arguments used are right, a good case can be made and it is a credible evangelical position to accept women in ministry. That being the case, is it worth this angst! There is a shocking theological naivety over here where the women in ministry issue is lumped together with the homosexual issue as if they are one and the same! It stuns me that this has even got traction! The two issues in the scriptures are of a different category i.e. women in ministry is a very blurry issue, whereas the Biblical condemnation of homosexuality is clear from start to finish. One can be pro-women in ministry and against homosexuals in ministry (while wanting to love them as God’s created). So, what the!?
2. The Mission is being lost in internal squabbling!
My second thought is: have we as believers really got time to be divided over such issues when we are losing the ‘battle’ for the hearts of humanity in the west at a rapid rate? The Christian faith in the west is in serious decline! It has been for the last 50 years or so. Such things like this just increase the ridicule of many people in the west. I have been reading Churchill’s book World War 2 and he makes this comment after a bit of a stoush with a fellow MP in the lead up to the war as Hitler was on the rise big time: ‘We are so few, enemies are so many, the cause so great, that we cannot afford to weaken each other in any way’ (p. 259). Sure, there is a time to sort out a doctrinal issue of importance. But this one? Is it worth alienating half the women in Great Britain, a good portion of men, and split over it? Is it worth weakening the church of God, and alienating further those outside of faith and church, any more over this? We need to pick our fights wisely! In my view, this is pathetic and an embarrassment to the name of Christ (Jn 17).
3. The Whole Thing Is a Clerical Mess!
My next impression comes from reflection on the whole church government and politics mess that this is built on. First, an individual bishop in the sense of an office with authority over other priests and churches is not found in the NT. It is a post-NT development and a construct of church. Sure, there are elders (presbyteroi), overseers (episkopoi), pastors (shepherds), and other ministries in the NT. But, they are found to be multiple in Acts, the Pastorals and in Philippians 1:1. The idea of a one-man/woman show running regions, churches, national churches, synods, international groups of churches, denominations etc is a construct. Sure, there are sound reasons to organise ourselves and where two or three are gathered is politics. However, the whole shabang is dubious in the extreme. It has become completely ritualized and institutionalized! Further, the ideas of national churches, denominations, houses of laity/bishops/clergy are similar constructs. Ordination is a construct. I can find nothing like this in the NT except the laying on of hands, and this is not systematic in terms of apostolic or priestly or bishop succession. Not to mention the idea of Parliament legislating on such things! This brings all sorts of church and state points of confusion. I don't even want to begin going there. All such ideas are all built on notions in Scripture and a need to maintain order within the faith. Yet, these things as they have developed are totally out of control and have turned into monsters. Of course, today's deconstructed versions of Church government in the west are nothing compared with the last 1700 years of such structures! At least we are not killing ourselves (I have just visited the site of the burning of Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer near where Wycliffe got the same)! But, it is still going on!
I have seen this in my own experience in the Presbyterian Church in NZ. You get into the system as a young zealot novive. You then find yourself on one side or the other of a debate in ‘the church’ (it is really only one little segment of God’s great universal church), and before you know it you are into politics, manipulation, etc., to supposedly maintain the gospel. It feels like your church is the church and of course it is not, God's church includes all of faith across all churches - many of whom think you are mad! In fact, what you are really doing, is seeking to uphold the institution of the church. While you battle away fighting for this and that (like infant baptism, female bishops, jots and tittles), you neglect the mission, drive people from the church and alienate the unbeliever further from it. You inadvertently become corrupted in the direction of the use of coercive force and political machinations in the ‘name of Christ’ and correct doctrine. Before long you get too far in and you can no longer see yourself or issues rationally or through God’s eyes. This whole thing is an astonishing situation but the fruit of centuries of church political machinations.
4. Let It Go and Get on the with The Real Business
That all being said, my final comment is a plea to the C of E! Give it away and leave the girls be! Turn back from this debate, let it go. Isn’t it time to gather at the foot of the cross, admit that this is not one of those issues that should EVER BE ALLOWED TO DIVIDE US! It is not worth it. Something like the deity of Christ, the resurrection etc might be worth it. But not this! Leaders do not need a certain amount of testosterone, a certain type of genitalia, to be single, to wear this and that clothing, have a beard, know Latin, be a Jew or otherwise! Being a leader is based on gift, calling, orthodoxy (broadly speaking) and character, and these should be well tested in every case. The UK has some huge issues like, how to continue to renew the church for fresh generations, how to relate to post-modernism, how to relate to Islam, how to work the transformation of a declining moral nation, how to relate to Europe and more? For me this whole thing is a shambles and utterly counterproductive. My thought is ‘grow up’, and get on with what really matters. It all sounds a little like Mark 9:38-41 where John was rather worried that some bloke was driving out demons in the name of Jesus and he came to Jesus and said, 'ah, look here Jesus. There's this bloke we ran into who is daring to cast out demons in your name. Now we are the clergy. We are the bishropic. We are the ones you chose. What the heck do we do with him? Should we shut him down for daring to do this?' Jesus comes back and says something like, 'Look lads, don't get too big for yourselves. Sure, you are chosen to get things rolling in my mission to restore all of humanity to relationship with me and make right planet earth. But, don't get too charged up. I actually want all people involved. So, don't stop him, after all, he's on the same team. After all, as you have heard me say, we actually have a huge mission (the harvest is plentiful) but there are bugger all of us (the workers are few). It would be rather dumb to stop zealous guys like this who are excited by the mission. So, let him be!'
Surely, in an age when we have far too few workers, and we desperately need them, we would be keen to see anyone who has the skills involved. And we can give anyone else without the skills a good job in the mission too!
I consider myself an evangelical and I have to say that if evangelicals can’t recognize that this one is not worthy of splitting over, I am deeply disturbed.
So, to finish with a Prayer:
Heavenly Father, God of heaven and earth; Jesus, God’s Son, head of the Church; Holy Spirit, God’s very presence in and with us… Please come to the C of E and to all churches in your great world, and particularly the west. Help us grow up and see the big picture and let people do their thing for you whoever they are. Please bring your unity to the C of E, to all churches and across all churches. Please uphold your truth as we do this, but may we move in love and grace. Help us discern the things that matter differentiating them from the things that do not. Move our hearts to come to the cross and move forward together in love to see this world won to Christ. Move us to focus our attention on the mission of seeing every person hear of your love, have a genuine opportunity to be saved, and to build churches that show the world what our great God is like. Restore your bride! Save us Lord, we are in serious trouble. Raise up people of integrity, wisdom and grace to bring together this church and see people released into the fullness of their ministry in Christ. Come Holy Spirit!