Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Women bishops - apology

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

Dear Sisters

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

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!


  1. Thank you for this post and for sharing your journey. I've shared it with a few other ordained colleagues, so they may be over to read and comment too.

  2. Found this through Facebook and am about to repost as it is so inspiring and moving. Thank you. I had the privilege of training under the brilliant scholarship of your 2 brothers...their humble and wise modelling of the character of Christ was a profound influence and inspiration. Praise God for the Wenhams!

  3. Thank you. I'm with Wendy in all that she said and will also repost today.

  4. It never fails to amaze me how the Church doesn't see many of its policies as discriminatory and exclusive (and how long it takes some members to reallize this). How can they not see the great beam in their own eye? Most of the general public, many of whom would not describe themselves as Christians, can see this. The level of hypocracy is so huge it's tragic (or hilarious, depending on how you look at it).

    1. I tend to agree. That IS the way it seems to the public - and in my view it is tragic and undermines the Church's message of liberation.

  5. Bless you, and thank you for your openness & honesty. This blog has brought tears to my eyes and comforted my heart today.

  6. Michael Can you help me ?
    I notice that, in the social context of ''the radical way that Jesus interacted with women'', he selected for himself 12 disciples. This was done in the context of many other religions at that time having priestesses.
    Does your apology therefore include an apology that Jesus exercised such discrimination in his choice of disciples. I fear that today's women of the church you are apologising to are actually upset/angry/frustrated at the example Jesus set. If Jesus announced today his choice of Disciples would he not be greeted with today's sentiment we witness post vote?
    I can see God has always been choosing and involving women in his work, Heidi Baker is a current shining example and the late Mother Basilea Schlink of the Evangelical Sisterhood of Darmstadt,Germany, along with many of the Sisters and maybe they could be likened to the women you mention in your Apology.
    Jesus selected from his circle of dear men and women whom to be his Disciples and then selected Peter to represent himself as the Head of the church, his Bride. Should we hold these choices with appropriate regard or engage in an Eveian line of discussion, a line that surely confounded Adam !!

    1. That's a pretty slim example to hold up against the wealth of evidence in the Gospels held in Jesus' interactions with women. Jesus didn't pick any Gentiles in his 12 either but that equally doesn't make any statement about that group. Jesus met a society where it was at and challenged it as far as IT could handle. The only statement I think the choice of the 12 makes is that there were no "leaders" of the church in the group.

  7. I am not sure that the choice of 12 male disciples / apostles was as clear cut as the Gospels and Acts would like to convey. When we look at some of the almost throwaway lines in the gospels about those who followed Jesus, we find a huge mixed-bag of men and women, including the mother of James and John, who had accompanied Jesus through his ministry even to the cross. I am of the opinion that the lists of male disciples (which do not agree) in the gospels have more than a hint of early Church edirorial about them than we might otherwise admit.

    The selection of Peter as the Head of the Church is arguably more of a first Century pun than an appointment, and arguably contradicts the idea of James the brother of the Lord as being the leader of the early Church.

    I am not sure that Jesus would have chosen any men to be "bishops" in the Church as they were the ones who betrayed him and ran away. The women, on the other hand, stayed put and were faithful to the end. (just a little light hearted humour, BTW, don't take it to heart)

    1. Kevin Your last para doesn't quite follow. Jesus appointed Peter with a task and yet Peter.....

      Otherwise I enjoyed your jest !!!

  8. Dear Adam
    I doubt whether I can help you, a) because I was simply concerned to narrate my own journey, and b) because I'm not sure you want to start it.

    However, the equation of the Twelve with priestesses and with modern Bishops seems highly questionable. I don't know the answer to you hypothetical question, "If Jesus announced today...", and neither do any of us. We do know his mission statement which I quoted from Luke 4. We do know that he welcomed at least one woman as a disciple, and that a number of women were in his close circle.

    The modern examples you adduce seem to me very much to be women in leadership roles who taught/teach both men and women. What title you chose to give them is up to you, but I'd reckon they both have episcopal (lit. oversight) roles.

    I fear that the implication of what you are saying is that no women should write about matters of faith, since all the Biblical writers, as far as we know, were men. And yet Jesus entrusted the most significant good news to a woman to share. That was an astounding break with tradition, custom and culture.

    I'm not sure whether your Adam is yourself or our progenitor! If it's the latter, he should have known better having received the prohibition. Whoever, I wish you well, and shall continue to pray for the coming of his Kingdom day by day here on earth.

    1. Michael..thanks for your reply ! I am on my own journey of discovery, trying to discover God's perspective on this whole subject, which has been fueled by the vote this week. Previously I was ambivalent and I think vaguely supportive of women taking priestly roles, knowing a number of friends from St Aldates who are now ordained and being aware of others as mentioned.

    2. Bless you, Adam. I apologise for implying you weren't willing to journey. I am sorry. It Is hard, isn't it, steering one's way through all the conflicting and reasoned arguments by theologically erudite men and women - of which I'm not one, despite my pedigree! I feel God, rather than contemporary culture, has moved me to where I now stand. It's not where I'd expect to be! However I'm not claiming divine infallibility for my view. It's just where I am and where I feel at peace. May the Holy Spirit and the Bible lead us both in the truth.

  9. Adam I think Jesus' selection of purely male disciples may have been to do with wanting to select 12 disciples of a single sex rather than his belief that women should not have authority to teach. Having both male and female disciples living and working at close quarters would bring certain temptations which if succumbed to could have brought shame and scandal to the early Christian church.

  10. Hi Michael,

    Great article and lots to agree with, but I do disagree on some things:

    The choosing of 12 male disciples, Paul's instructions to Timothy & Titus about choosing male leaders for me are key to another truth, which compliments the fiercely loving and counter-cultural attitude towards women that Jesus and all the apostles held: that of God's calling of men to be in Spiritual authority. The bible is abundantly clear that women should lead - if you're preaching that they shouldn't you're reading the wrong book. Women should be absolutely free to preach, teach, speak in tongues, lead worship, prophecy, pastor and everything else. The question is, is there a calling of spiritual authority that God has on men only? I would answer that there is, but as with everything else in Jesus' teaching, it's a life-giving doctrine not a life-sapping one.

    It's worth noting also that this position will only be held by a few men. Perhaps 1 or 2% of the Church will hold this position. Surely that's just as 'sexist' or 'unfair' to the men who aren't allowed to hold it as to the women?

    Jesus sets the example for what these men should be like: self-sacrificial, protective over the flock, releasing others in their gifting and serving, bringing a leadership to the church as a whole. Paul says plainly that he does not allow a woman to hold spiritual authority over a man - was Paul sexist? Quite the opposite, for his time he was a raging feminist. I believe he was recognising a God-ordained system of submission.

    All of us must submit to God, and specifically as Paul teaches men to Christ, women to their husbands, children to their parents. Submission is a beautiful thing which demonstrates the submission within the trinity, and is a manifestation of the love of Christ. So to conclude, I would argue a distinction between conservatives (like yourself) needing to realise that women can and should lead, and releasing them to do just that, and putting women in places of ultimate spiritual authority, which I believe God's word teaches should be occupied by a few exceptional men.

    Adam: Some women lead very successful ministries, which is fantastic, praise God! But they themselves would still submit to their husband and pastors. Heidi Baker and Joyce Meyer are good examples of this.

    1. Very helpful clarification Christopher..thank you. My other example of a very spiritual woman, in fact a community of exceptionally spiritual women, that of Mother Basilea Schlink and the Sisterhood of Mary in Darmstadt have a resident Father as their spiritual head.

    2. Dear Christopher
      Thank you for your kind comments and thoughtful reflections. To be honest, I'm weary and so don't want to enter a prolonged debate. I do wonder where the I or 2 % figure comes from, whether you envisage a sort of ladder of submission from Christ to men to women to children, whether you think that all priests must be married men with children, and whether the injunction to "submit to one another" doesn't refer to us all, men, women and children. As I pointed out, "authentein" appears once only in the NT and its meaning is not clear. Translation is an art rather than a science! Anyway, "Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God! Amen.”

  11. On the question of Jesus choosing 12 male disciples. The category of disciple is very different to priest or priestess. The work of a priest was well understood in 1st C Judaism, and it was different to that of a disciple. To say that there were female priestesses so why not female disciples doesn't work.

    The following is rather lazy from a scholarly point of view but I'm trying to be brief. If Jesus was acting in a way that we now associate with a Rabbi selecting hisdisciples, the category of disciple was reserved for men. Jesus inovated and invited women to sit and learn from him too thus becoming disciples even if they were not named as such. As had already been pointed out the early church had female leaders - even apostles. Unfortunately the only contemporary parallel I can think of is a gigolo - so apologies.

  12. Many thanks Michael - great testimony, honestly told...and encouraging too. Can I suggest that you have a look at this blog post? It's a poem written by an able and committed young Christian woman (under a pseudonym) just before the vote, and it speaks eloquently into the issue


    1. That is beautiful. As you say, it speaks eloquently. As a former English teacher, it strikes me that poems can express truth as little else can. (Interesting by-the-way: my brother Gordon has just published a book "Psalms as Torah" where he's arguing, I think, that those poems are teaching ethical truths - which is what Feet in high heeled shoes is doing.)

  13. Thank you for your kind, thoughtful words Michael and for ending with the words of Marijke Hoek quoting Eugene Peterson! I was brought up in the Salvation Army and have never really quite understood the problem that the established / main line churches have with women in positions of authority.

  14. Thank you for this post Michael. As someone who once was a Wycliffe Ordinand, I have found your words to be a healing balm, full of wisdom and grace.

  15. I think the Twelve male disciples were selected to represent the twelve tribes, as a symbolic representation of the followers of Jesus as the New Israel; but that offers no particular guidance for the organization of the Gentile church and its overseers.

    1. Thanks, Jeremy. You're right I've no doubt.

  16. Thank you Michael for this. I have often felt that the opponents of the measure ignored the evidence of Euodia and Syntyche, in Philippi. Looking at the Greek, it seems that according to Paul, the ministries of these women were comparable to the ministries of the men, Timothy and Epaphroditus. But if you start by assuming that they were quarrelsome women, you can easily forget that they were contending for the gospel in their city

    1. Thanks, David. A point I confess I'd forgotten.

      By the way I've come across a rather good blog on the subject from Ian Paul of St John's College in Nottingham:, if anyone wants to read something by a theologian on the reasons and effects of the vote.

  17. I'm always surprised when people use the argument that, as Jesus only chose male apostles, it follows that we must do the same; considering their nomadic way of life, imagine how it would have undermined His message if they had had women with them. Our way of life today is quite different. My argument in favour of opening the episcopate is that there is no point in giving someone a ladder then telling them they cannot climb it.

  18. Thankyou Micheal

    Rev Kate Lovesey