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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Women Bishops: let's do it!

I used to be on the Church of England's General Synod.  So I sat through long debates about whether women should be ordained as bishops.  I was never called to speak (I had a speech ready that I had worked hard on, but so did everyone else). I stood down at the last election, having served my time.  I'm sorry I never had the chance to go public on this subject.  So here is what I might have said.

An image in the ground

In the floor at the west end of Durham Cathedral just in front of the font there is a line of black Frosterly marble running right across the nave.  This was the line that women were not permitted to cross in the middle ages.  They were confined to the west of it. 

This line inevitably attracted its own mythology.  It was popularly assumed that it was due to St Cuthbert’s dislike of women, and that the misogynist saint did not want women anywhere near his shrine behind the high altar.  This is nonsense, as anyone who has read Bede’s lives of Cuthbert knows. The fact of the matter is quite straightforward.  In a male Benedictine monastery, which Durham was, women were forbidden to worship in the principal spaces of the monastic church which was the preserve of the monks.  Instead, women could worship in the Galilee Chapel at the west end, the Lady Chapel.

When I lead pilgrimages in the cathedral, I often stop at the line and invite people to think about the walls of partition that still exist in our world: divisions due to religious difference, ethnicity, privilege, gender, sexual orientation.  And I invite them to think too about the differences that still exist in our church.

Recently, a woman priest was in a group.  She straddled the line with both feet and said: ‘this is where we are as Church of England in relation to women in the priesthood.  We are only part way across.  We still have one foot on each side.  We are nowhere near the end of this journey.’  I couldn’t argue with her. It was a powerful moment.

A New Testament precedent

An analogy often quoted is Paul’s discussion in 1 Corinthians about meat offered to idols.  (I have to say that I am cautious about suggesting that meat of any kind is an analogy about women, let alone the unflattering image of meat offered to idols.)  Paul’s argument is that ‘the strong are right, but sometimes we must respect the consciences of the weak’.

No-one can argue with that exegesis.  But I’m not sure it’s the right analogy to begin with.  Surely there is a closer and better analogy, for there was indeed an issue like the one before us today that also divided the church from top to bottom, and that was also symbolised by the male anatomy.  This was of course the matter of whether gentiles were to be admitted to membership of the church. 

In the early church, circumcision was not a but the defining issue.  Breaking down this wall of partition was the most fundamental issue the church faced.  It posed the questions: what kind of church are we? Who is welcome here?  What kind of gospel do we proclaim? What kind of God do we worship?

For Paul, this was absolutely not a matter of conscience, not a question of whether you were strong or weak.  It was utterly basic to his gospel. He did not write qualifications or caveats into his argument at this point: there were no transferred arrangements for the Judaisers who took a different view. For Paul, what you believed about circumcision equated to what you really believed about the covenant, and what you really believed about God himself.

It was a hugely risky and courageous position for him to take.  Yet for all the passion about circumcision and the gentiles that his writings record, Paul recognised scruples when he met them.  He had Timothy circumcised out of sensitivity to the Jewish believers: not as a piece of primary legislation (it is unthinkable that Paul would compromise over this) but out of sensitivity and human compassion, and above all, to see the gospel promoted.  It was, if you like, a pastoral and generous code of practice.

The way forward for our church

What is the way forward for us in the Church of England?  I believe that we must do this not just for the sake of our mission to our society; nor just for the sake of our women priests, to whose ministry we all owe so much. We need to demonstrate to ourselves that we believe what we believe, and that our vision of the gospel is not less universal and generous than the New Testament’s, and that our theological vision and the courage of our convictions are equal to St Paul’s. 

The only way to achieve this is to go for a simple enabling measure.  Of course there needs to be a robust, generous, and enforceable code of practice: no-one is looking to un-church friends, colleagues, fellow worshippers with whom we differ on this.   But the matter is too fundamental to qualify the primary legislation with cautions and caveats, tea and sympathy.  We must avoid timidity because an anxious and frightened way of proceeding is not to act out of conviction.  We must avoid evasiveness because muddling and compromising our primary ecclesial relationships cannot be right, especially that between the diocesan bishop and the parishes.  And we must avoid being apologetic because I believe that not to take a clear, unambiguous stand for women in the episcopate is in the end unprincipled. 
So I urge that we go for a strong and simple option.  We must do it because we believe in it and because it has ecclesial and theological integrity, we must do it with real thankfulness for the ministry of women in our church already; and we must do it with joy and hope because of this new door of opportunity that God is opening for us.

One final comment.  On the night before I was ordained in 1975, my bishop said to me in our personal conversation: 'Michael, you do know, don't you, that the Synod has passed a resolution that there are no theological objections to the ordination of women.  This is the stated position of the church you are being ordained to serve publicly.  Now is the time to reconsider if you are not willing to accept that.'  I was grateful for his plain speaking.  Anyone ordained with me or after me knows that our church is committed to the journey of integrating women fully into all the orders of ministry.  No-one ordained after 1975 can say that the church has 'changed its mind'.  We are now nearing the end of the journey we began 36 years ago.  It's heartening to think that we are almost there. 


  1. I am so sorry you are no longer in General Synod: they could do with your wise counsel. But it is heartening for the rest of us to hear someone in your position speak with such 'agape' and understanding. Thank-you.

  2. Excellent summing up of the position of the vast majority of members of the Church. Keeping it simple and unequivocal is surely the best way. Any half-measure would alienate both women in ministry and those opposed to the measure.

    I'm still unclear that the Code of Practise will actually give the clarity you aspire to. From the discussions yesterday, it appears that every woman bishop would have to delegate some of her diocesan responsibilities to a male counterpart. While men won't have to.

    The valid question raised in my view was can parishes with an female unfriendly male bishop, apply to only have a female priest and oversight from a neighbouring female bishop? Because it's obvious that even in male dominated dioceses, there will be diversity. If we are to recognise the rights of parishes who don't want a female priest or bishop, than the reverse should be applied.

    Protection for principled objections should be two way.

  3. I like what your bishop said to you!
    But too often it seems that people believe that because the church accepts two integrities with regards to women as priests and bishops, it is actually in two minds about it. An Alice in Wonderland church that believes in women as priests and bishops at the same time as not believes in them.

    And many young FiF priests believe they are perfectly right in saying that the church has not yet made up its mind, that we are still in a period of reception, that it is still not even clear whether the church has the authority to make this decision.

    Would that more spoke out so clearly and set out precisely just what it is the church believes!

  4. I have posted a response to this piece here: