Should Women be Bishops?

The Church of England (CoE) decided on Tuesday that women should not be permitted to serve as bishops and I couldn’t be more displeased with their decision. The proposed legislation, which would have paved the way for female bishops needed to gain two-thirds majority support in each of the synod’s three houses – bishops, clergy and laity – but fell short by just six votes in the House of Laity.

When I first read an article about the vote I assumed that the I’s would have it. As a female Christian, I am eager to see the consecration of women as bishops approved. Since the line between the church and state is blurred, I am interested in the decisions that determine who holds authoritative positions within the church and you should be too.

Whether or not you’re female or a Christian, the General Synod‘s decisions are your business (in the UK) because 26 bishops are allocated seats in the country’s legislature; the House of Lords. The measures approved by the Church’s Synod are part of the law of the land and this powerful body sits on a portfolio of investments worth a staggering £8 billion. It’s a national institution whose supreme governor (ironically a woman), reigns sovereign over everyone in the country. In my opinion other churches that are not CoE and do not have political power, should have the right to decide if they want to be backwards thinking and not have female bishops. The CoE however has too much power and political privileges to be left to their own devices when they can make terrible decisions that impact the whole country.

It’s no surprise that Members of Parliament and campaigners are now undermining the case for bishops to have a say in making laws. Some have even called for bishops to be thrown out of the House of Lords altogether, while others want to see the powers of the CoE reduced. Labour MP Chris Bryant, a former vicar, tweeted,

“Would be nice to see men refuse to be consecrated bishops till women included. And pm refuse to nominate. And lords refuse bishops.”

The fact is, if priests and the head of the CoE can be women, it makes no sense that bishops can’t be. It appears a huge majority of the Church’s bishops and clergy agree with me as while 324 synod members voted for women bishops, Church voting rules meant that just 122 votes against were enough to block it.

The role of women in the Church had been a thorny issue for the CoE since the Church’s inception. There are countless rational reasons to believe women should be able to be bishops and just as many sexist reasons why they shouldn’t. I can not ignore the fact that the votes reveal there is a general consensus in the CoE, which began ordaining female priests in 1994, that the role of a bishop should also be open to women. I naturally believe women should be able to hold any office in the church. This is largely due to the fact that I was baptised in a church that is lead by a woman and also because I am an undercover feminist. So I appreciate I am perhaps biased in my thinking.

Radio 4’s Today programme posed the question a few days ago: “What would Jesus do?” In other words, would Jesus support of oppose female bishops. This question is brilliant because despite our personal beliefs, it’s wrong to completely ignore the theological arguments in this debate.

So what does the bible have to say?

Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (1 Timothy 2:11-14). The apostle Paul, restricts women from serving in roles of teaching and/or having spiritual authority over men because of the way mankind was created and the way in which sin entered the world. Yet, the bible presents many women who held positions of leadership in both the Old and New Testament.

Priscilla and Phoebe in the New Testament are presented as faithful ministers for Christ. Priscilla and her husband Aquila brought Apollos into their home and they both discipled him, explaining the Word of God to him more accurately:

“And a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man, and mighty in the scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man was instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in the spirit, he spake and taught diligently the things of the Lord, knowing only the baptism of John. And he began to speak boldly in the synagogue: whom when Aquila and Priscilla had heard, they took him unto them, and expounded unto him the way of God more perfectly.” (Acts 18:24-26 KJV)

Paul himself writes that Priscilla and her husband Aquila had a church in their house. This means that contrary to his own instruction for a woman not to teach, a woman who in her church taught biblical principles to a man, “more perfectly,” was worthy of Paul’s praise. Was Paul confused on what the role of women in the church should be? Perhaps but I believe that Paul was in fact only restricting the women of Ephesus from teaching.

The book of Timothy was written by Paul to Timothy, who was the pastor of the church in Ephesus. I was taught in church that the city of Ephesus was known for its temple to Artemis, a Greek/Roman goddess. Women were the authority in the worship of Artemis so this could have triggered Paul’s conviction that women should not teach. Although Paul does not mention Artemis worship as a reason for the restrictions I believe that context should never be ignored when interpreting the bible. If context is to be ignored, then why do most Christian churches bring context into explaining why Paul said women shouldn’t braid their hair, or wear pearls or gold in the same passage? “Then in like manner also, that women adorn themselves in modest apparel, with shamefacedness and sobriety; not with broided hair, or gold, or pearls, or costly array.” (1 Timothy 2:9 KJV)

I know I’m not the only female Christian that dresses in costly array both inside and outside of church. I was taught that Paul said this because the women at Timothy’s church cared more about their appearance than the teaching from the bible. Context is key to understand biblical scripture in this day and age.

I’ve read and heard so many different views on whether a bishop should be a woman. When I read 1 Timothy 3:1-7, the description of a bishop helped me to better understand why people who apparently follow the same faith as me, believe it is wrong for a woman to be a bishop:

This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work. A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober, of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker, not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous; One that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity; (For if a man know not how to rule his own house, how shall he take care of the church of God?) Not a novice, lest being lifted up with pride he fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover he must have a good report of them which are without; lest he fall into reproach and the snare of the devil.”

Hmmm, pretty clear here that Paul either assumed only men would want to be a bishop or he believed it to be a post to only be held by men. Yet, there are many examples in the bible that Christian males and females follow irrespective of the gender the speaker is addressing:

“Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27, 28 KJV)

So I guess since I’m a woman, I’m free to lust after guys without the burden of committing sin? No? Jesus was led by the spirit of God, not by religion. He broke protocol and spoke to, touched and even dined with people He shouldn’t have; according to Jewish customs. But He did everything in love. He accepted the stones the builder rejected. I believe that if Jesus had voted on Tuesday, He would have voted in favour of female bishops.

I remain convinced that a woman should be able to be a bishop. Female priests have become indispensable, making up a third of the Church’s 11,000 clergy including in senior positions as archdeacons and deans of cathedrals. If the church wants to remain influential in the legislature, then it ought to look more like the people it’s meant to represent. We’re not just talking about religion here in this debate, we’re talking politics. The CoE isn’t a typical church so we shouldn’t be blasé about their business – it’s our business too.

On that note, I’ll end by saying that the CoE’s history in my opinion is nothing to be proud of. It’s a product of government interference, established by naughty King Henry VIII who appointed himself as head of the Church in order to divorce his wife. The CoE this week had a chance to really make history and prove that it’s legislative role is justifiable. I’m saddened to say that until the CoE decides women deserve to be bishops as much as men, I don’t think the Church deserves to have the political privileges it currently has.

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