I don't know about the rights and wrongs of women bishops. But I was very sad to hear the news that the Archbishops' proposal to put legal safeguards in place to protect those who in conscience cannot accept the validity or authority of women bishops was rejected in synod by a margin of 5 among the clergy (although accepted by the majority of bishops and lay people). I don't know what the archbishops' view of women bishops is, but I don't imagine they're opposed. But here was a proposal of pastoral grace put forward by two godly and wise leaders, and it was rejected. It felt like the ancient Jewish elders saying to Samuel, the wise old prophet, 'No, but we will be like all the nations. We will have it all our own way.' It was interesting that afterwards those who defended the decision talked in terms of rights, and equality, and glass ceilings - the language so often heard in political debate.
My disquiet over the outcome of that vote, the triumph of legalism over grace, was mitigated by the commentary on the Samuel incident in our Closer to God notes, such as: 'When we put ourselves under God's sovereignty..., he will show his goodness even as a result of our worst choices' (Tuesday); 'Those that seek authority eagerly are often not the right ones to hold it' (Wednesday); 'There are times when we, too, will feel uncertain about the decisions that other Christians have made. The challenge for us, as for Samuel, will be to pray and to encourage, rather than to condemn' (Friday, Andrew Marsden).
So why did I answer, 'No,' to my Lee Abbey interrogator? As the soap cliché has it, 'Well, it's complicated'! But it's always seemed to me that the power of the Christian faith has derived from the Bible, plainly understood. Tyndale wanted to translate the Bible into English so that "If God spare my life, before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!" and was martyred for his pains. It's the plain meaning, not the abstruse meaning accessible only to those in the know, with which the Spirit convicts and converts people. It's the plain meaning which provides a reliable foundation for ethics. That's not to say an unintelligent cherry-picking of proof texts is to be our guide, but we have to beware of ignoring the Bible's unfolding teaching. It is clear to me that the Bible doesn't relegate women to a second-class status. From the beginning men and women are equally valued and both are in the image of God. Jesus includes women among his disciples and friends. Paul is clear that there are no distinctions of gender, class or race in God's kingdom.
So what's my problem? Well, it seems that there remains complementarity of roles in the Church family just as in human families. There aren't first- and second-class members of a family. There are certainly different giftings, and different roles, and different characters - but there's a normative structure. And that seems to me the source of its stability. There are different roles with differing responsibilities. Sometimes a mother may have to take over a father's responsibilities - as is beginning with Jane and me - and sometimes a father will have to take on a mother's role - as Jozanne has painfully discovered while watching Dave struggle with Nicole's pony-tails! But hard cases never make good laws. Exceptions don't turn into rules. 'Headship' is a role, not a position of superiority.
Much of our difficulty, it seems to me, comes from our feudal model of church, where bishops are Lords - as indeed they should officially be addressed ("My Lord Bishop"). It must not be so with you.... whoever wants to be great among must become a servant. That is so impossibly radical that it's hard to get our head round. But it rings true. I suspect you see more of God's kingdom in the faithfully praying 80-year old and in the clear-sighted curate than anywhere else in the church. Our problem is that we think the 'top job' is the best paid and most important. Jesus said the opposite.
I'm wondering whether the dear old C of E is a hopeless case. I don't mean individual churches; I mean the hierarchical institution. The Bishop of Oxford tells those of us who may be thinking of leaving 'not to panic'. Well, my Lord, I'm not panicing - just thinking. Just looking....