Last night I thought it might have been a mistake to listen to the afternoon live stream of the Church of England General Synod's debate about the ordination of women bishops, since whenever I woke - which was quite often - my mind was mulling it all over. I was glad I'd listened to it, even the peculiar analogy of vegetarians (anti-women-bishops) invited/forced to eat a full turkey (pro-women-bishops) roast, because it was clear that despite the illogicalities it was still a debate about sincerely held convictions about women and authority. I found myself surprisingly upset. So I resolved to write a letter today to my women friends who are also priests and were most immediately injured by the marginal defeat, but it also extends to all who feel that they have been discriminated against by a church they love.
19 Churchward Close
21st November 2012
I am deeply and truly sorry that you were so grievously hurt yesterday.
I have to confess that not so long ago I would have been among 45 clergy voting against the women bishops' measure yesterday and I might well have used sermons to say why. About twelve years ago, when the possibility was beginning to be mooted, I remember being asked over lunch at Lee Abbey what I thought about women being bishops and answering that I was against it and wouldn't serve under one. I have repented since.
Four things convinced me that I was wrong. The first was the succession of women in training for ordination at Wycliffe Hall who came on attachment or to preach in our parish. I'm not making comparisons! We had good male ordinands, of course, but it struck me that to be a female ordinand you had to be outstanding. I can remember them all and they were all inspiring. It's not that they set out to change my mind, but merely that they themselves set me thinking and reassessing my previous view of what the Bible said.
Secondly, I had had no time for those who explained away the "plain meaning of Scripture". For me the Bible was, and remains, true and the ultimate authority. So I didn't approve of attempts to wriggle out of its difficult teachings. However I have come to see that the original context is crucial both to our understanding and the application of the Bible. (I have a feeling this is known as hermeneutics.) I didn't find any idea of gender hierarchy at creation in Genesis; it seemed to be introduced as a consequence of the fall. I found that Jesus came to reverse the effects of the Fall and bring in the Kingdom of God:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour”. This accorded with the radical way that Jesus interacted with women, overturning the oppression to which they had been subjected - so that the first response of faith to his incarnation was by a woman, the Virgin Mary, (a contrast to Zechariah the priest); the first Gentile apostle/evangelist was the Samaritan woman; he commended Mary of Bethany for sitting as a disciple at a rabbi's feet; he entrusted the good news of his resurrection to Mary Magdalene; and one could go on. He utterly reversed the accepted subordinate role of women. (See Tom Wright's article: Women Bishops: It's about the Bible, not fake ideas of progress - http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/page.cfm?ID=759.)
This seemed to me to set the context for interpreting the few difficult passages in the epistles. One had to conclude either that they were contradicting Jesus' teaching and example, or that they were addressing particular church situations - such as the morally confused Corinthians or the Ephesian church in the shadow of the great Artemis. I found that some "plain meanings" (such as authentein - have authority over) were not plain at all. I discovered that understanding the current social conditions threw quite a different light on passages I'd regarded with 20th-century eyes. I noticed examples of women in church leadership in Paul's epistles (like Romans 16), and wondered whether my astigmatism had been merely physical.
The sort of process I went through was well described in a sermon preached in the USA by a pastor named Rich Nathan in a series, "Myths that Christians believe", entitled Women can't serve as senior pastors, can they? (He's not an Anglican, but he is what we'd call an evangelical.)
Then thirdly last summer I heard two brilliant talks given by Charlotte Gambill, Senior Associate Pastor at the Life Church, Bradford, and by Danielle Strickland, a Major in the Salvation Army. And it struck me how gifted they clearly were as teachers; in fact I found them the most challenging and illuminating speakers of the week. How perverse, I thought, to deny their gifts to the whole church! It's surely not what God intended for the gifts he provides to build up his Church. These were not, of course, the first women I'd come across in the Church who clearly had gifts of teaching and leading. I've mentioned the ordinands. There was one member of our church who had clear gifts of preaching, teaching and applying the Bible. She wasn't ordained but was given authorisation by our enlightened bishop to preach. Sadly when I left the church was denied the benefit of her gifting.
I found in the summer a book by Danielle Strickland, The Liberating Truth - How Jesus empowers women - which Jane subsequently gave me for my birthday. She argues that we exploit or discriminate against women is a justice issue, and since the Church is in the business of standing for justice it should set its own house in order by following Jesus' radical approach.
Fourthly, I have often reflected on the empirical fact that the best of the five secondary headteachers under whom I taught were both women. I had no problem working for them. They exercised their authority well. I respected them - but, if I had been consistent in believing that women should not have authority over men, I shouldn't have. I would however been blind and blindly prejudiced not to acknowledge they were good leaders of men and women. They had the qualities and giftings that made them the best people for the job. That was what mattered. Why should not everyone in the Church too have their gifts and calling recognised and used irrespective of gender?
Obviously those aren't the only reasons which have led to my change of mind. There are the many friends, real and virtual, whom I've made who are clearly gifted priests, teachers and leaders of churches. There's your weariness of feeling unrecognised and undervalued, which is our collective sin against you. There is the burning conviction that a church which institutionalises discrimination has no moral ground to speak against injustice elsewhere. There is St Paul's ringing charter, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus."
I was once proud of the label "conservative evangelical" as that's what I considered myself, as my father was before me. However having heard it yesterday cheerfully used as a justification of inequality I don't want it. I still believe in the unique truth and authority of Scripture, but I don't believe yesterday's vote was faithful to the living Word to whom the written word bears witness.
One of you wrote, after the debate and vote: "I am gutted, and off to put my son to bed..... and then contemplate how I stay in a Church which feels that no amount of provision can protect people from the 'taint' that my ministry and authority means...". I want to say that most of us do not see the taint, and that we welcome your Christ-like ministry. Please enrich the church by your continued presence.
I hope, wounded though you have been, you find it in your hearts to say, "Father, forgive them...." And I, for my part, pledge myself to pray and work for the Kingdom to come for you - soon.
Your brother in Christ
PS For those Anglicans who are grieving and depressed by yesterday's vote, here's a quote from the admirable Marijke Hoek of the Evangelical Alliance: "Christian organisations are full of subtle dynamics that undermine and derogate women's development, but if you dive under the radar and follow God's stream, it circumvents the whole lot of them. Ultimately character is what honours God. 'The Way of Jesus … is a way of bringing the kingdom of Love to the reality of this present moment, through the Way we travel, through the Way we are, and through the Way we are with God'. (Peterson)". You're not the only ones!