Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Women Bishops: Can the Church Yet Find Her Voice?

I have found myself a bit unsettled in the aftermath of the Church of England's General Synod vote on women bishops. In case you don't follow Anglican news as closely as some, let me bring you up to speed. If you already have followed this debate, you can ignore the next three paragraphs...

The Church of England has ordained women as priests since 1994 (having approved their ordination in 1992). In contrast, the Episcopal Church first ordained women as priests "irregularly" in 1974, regularizing them in 1976. Our first female bishop, the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, was ordained in 1989. Since the ordination of women as priests in the Church of England, there have naturally been calls for them to be ordained as bishops as well. In 2005, 2006, and 2007, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to remove legal obstacles to the ordination of women as bishops. Since then, the work has been to find a way to move forward with their ordination while still providing some sort of pastoral response to clergy and laity who don't approve of the ordination of women as bishops. Several proposals have been attempted, but there has yet to be a successful vote enacting one.

The most recent draft measure has been approved by 42 out of 44 diocese in the Church of England. It has the clear support of a majority of the members of the church. However, in the midst of the process, the House of Bishops introduced an amendment that offered some further concessions to conservatives in the church. Due to worries that this amendment would hurt its ability to pass, the General Synod in York postponed decision to a later Synod. That Synod, which met earlier this month, voted the measure down. It passed with an over two-thirds majority in the Houses of Bishops and Clergy, but it failed the required two-thirds majority by six votes in the House of Laity.

The failure of the measure has produced a mammoth of opinion articles and essays. Some have suggested that Parliament should step into this established church with its own solution to the problem. Others are hoping that another way can be found forward for this to be considered soon, rather than having to wait until 2015 to consider the question again. And, of course, there have been a myriad of voices decrying this failure of movement as symptomatic of the larger failures of the Church of England.

Alright, now that we're all on the same page, let me share why I am a bit unsettled. Many of the opinions expressed in the aftermath of the vote have declared that the Church of England needs to "get with the times." They've insisted that society has moved on with gender equality and so the church must as well, so that it is reflective of society. They've suggested that the Church of England is hopeless backward, lost in the dark ages, and that the movement to the ordination of women as bishops is a part of its need to modernize.

And I find all of that tremendously disappointing. I find it disappointing because it is yet another example of Anglican Christianity being handed and opportunity to speak deep and profound theological truth and instead choosing to use the language and ideals of our broader society.

Let me be frank. Women should be ordained as bishops. Absolutely and positively this should happen. However, it should not happen because the church needs to "modernize" or "get with the times" or move on with the rest of society. None of these are sufficient reasons to change such a core question of theology and ecclesiology and the fact that this is all most people seem to muster when arguing for the ordination of women to the episcopate is a tragedy.

Rather, women should be ordained bishops for solid theological reasons. All humans are created in the image of God, gender complementarity is a dead-end that is only ever read into Scripture. Sections of the Bible that talk about a woman and man becoming one flesh are beautiful images of the coming together of two human beings. However, the gender complementarity some see in those texts also assumed, in ancient times, that women were of lesser value than men. To be blunt, women were "receptacles" into which the man would put the whole of human life, which was contained in his seed.

We don't buy any of that as being true. We have indeed moved on from such ancient perspectives upon which was built generations of misogyny and even violence against women.

However, the call to ordain women as bishops involves more than recognizing our modern understandings of biology and psychology. The call to ordain women as bishops comes from the theological ideals that have followed the development of our psychological and biological understanding.

Women should be ordained as bishops because they are every much in the image of God as men are. Women should be ordained as bishops because it is abundantly clear that they have clear charisms to this ministry, clear gifts of the Holy Spirit present in their lives and ministry, gifts that are particularly suited for episcopal ministry. Women should be ordained as bishops because they can serve as an image of the priestly Christ just as much as a man can—indeed, they can sometimes even provide that image more faithfully than men.

It is my deep and profound wish that more people would follow the leads of such leading theologians as Sarah Coakley who has done what every other church leader should be doing—providing cogent and compelling theological reasons for the ordination of women to the episcopate. The sociological reasons, the political reasons, even the social justice reasons all may be important, but on their own they are insufficient.

There are important and profound theological reasons for affirming our sisters in Christ and their calling by God to episcopal ministry. If the Church of England, if Anglicanism as a whole, truly wants to reclaim its voice in the world, it cannot do that by simply mimicking the arguments of the world. Instead, we must declare the bold theological truth that all people are created in the image of God and called by God to ministry. We must declare with conviction, based upon careful study of our Holy Scriptures and well-thought out theology, the call of the Gospel in our modern world.

We must, once again, find our voice.