The women-bishops debate says much about the nature of the Church, argues Rowan Williams
No one is likely to underrate the significance of the debate on women bishops in the General Synod next month. It will shape the character of the Church of England for generations - and I’m not talking only about the decision we shall take, but about the way in which we discuss it and deal with the outcome of it.
Those who, like me, long to see a positive vote will want this for a range of reasons, which have to do with both the essential health of the Church and its credibility in our society. They are keenly aware of living with a degree of theological inconsistency.
As Anglicans, we believe that there is one priesthood and one only in the Church, and that is the priesthood of Jesus Christ: his eternal offering of himself - crucified, risen, and ascended - to the Father to secure everlasting ‘covenanted’ peace between heaven and earth. To live as ‘very members incorporate in his Body’ on earth is to be alive with his Spirit, and so to be taken up in his action of praise and self-offering, so that we may reflect something of it in our lives and relationships.
To recall the Church to its true character in this connection, God calls individuals to gather the community, animate its worship, and preside at its sacramental acts, where we learn afresh who we are. The priestly calling of all who are in Christ is thus focused in particular lives, lived in service to the community and its well-being, integrity, and holiness. These are lives that express, in visible and symbolic terms, the calling of a ‘priestly people’.
THE commitment of most Anglicans to the ordained ministry of women rests on the conviction that what I have just summarised makes it inconsistent to exclude in principle any baptised person from the possibility of ordained ministry. And to take the further step of advocating the ordination or consecration of women as bishops is to recognise that the public role of embodying the priestly vocation of the Church cannot be subdivided into self-contained jobs, but is in some sense organically unified, in time and space. Ordained ministry is one connected reality, realised in diverse ways.
The earliest Christian generations reserved the Latin and Greek words for ‘priest’ to refer to bishops, because they saw bishops as the human source and focus for this ministry of reminding the Church about what it is. The idea that there is a class of presbyters (or indeed deacons) who cannot be bishops is an odd one in this context, and one that is hard to rationalise exclusively on biblical or patristic grounds.
If that is correct, a Church that ordains women as priests, but not as bishops, is stuck with a real anomaly, one that introduces an unclarity into what we are saying about baptism and about the absorption of the Church in the priestly self-giving of Jesus Christ.
Wanting to move beyond this anomaly is not a sign of giving in to secular egalitarianism - although we must be honest, and admit that, without secular feminism, we might never have seen the urgency of this, or the inconsistency of our previous position.
Rectifying the anomaly is, we believe, good news in a range of ways. It is good news for women, who are at last assured in more than words alone that their baptismal relationship with Jesus Christ is not different from or inferior to that of men, as regards their fitness for public ministry exercised in Christ’s name and power.
It is good news for men, who may now receive more freely the spiritual gifts God gives to women, because women are recognised among those who can, at every level, animate and inspire the Church in their presidency at worship. So it is good news for the whole Church, in the liberating of fresh gifts for all.
It is good news for the world we live in, which needs the unequivocal affirmation of a dignity given equally to all by God in creation and redemption - and can now, we hope, see more clearly that the Church is not speaking a language completely remote from its own most generous and just instincts.
But our challenge has been, and still is, to try to make it good news even for those within our fellowship who have conscientious doubts. The various attempts to find a formula to secure the conscientious position of those who are not convinced about the implications of the theology summarised earlier are not a matter of horse-trading, or doing deals. They are a search for ways of expressing that mutual patience and gratitude that are just as much a part of life in the Body of Christ, according to St Paul - trying to do the right thing for the Body, even if this leaves loose ends.
In this context, it is important to be clear about what the wording of the legislation does and does not say. In a culture of instant comment, it is all too easy for a version of what is being said to dominate the discussion, even when it doesn’t represent what is actually there. We saw this in the widespread but mistaken assumption that the amendment proposed by the Bishops in May gave parishes the right to choose their own bishop. We are seeing it now in the equally mistaken assumption that the word ‘respect’ in the new amendment is little more than window-dressing.
The truth is that the word does have legal content. If you are required to show ‘respect’, you need to be able to demonstrate that what you do takes account in practice of someone’s conviction. You will need to show that it has made a difference to how you act; it doesn’t just recommend an attitude or state of mind (‘with all due respect . . .’). The word leaves enough flexibility for appropriate responses to different circumstances, but it is not so general as to be toothless.
The legislation is not perfect; all legislation for complex communities embodies compromise and unfinished business. The tough question, for those who are still undecided, is whether delay would produce anything better.
For those who think the legislation has compromised too far, it may be important to note that conscientious opposition has not grown noticeably weaker; it cannot be taken for granted that any delay would guarantee a smoother passage.
And those who think that the provision for dissent is inadequate have to reckon with the extreme unlikelihood, given the way things have gone in the past few years, that any future legislation will be able to find a more acceptable framework. The chances are that there will in fact be greater pressure from some quarters for a ‘single-clause’ Measure.
In other words, voting against the legislation risks committing us to a period of continued and perhaps intensified internal conflict, with no clearly guaranteed outcome. Of course, those who believe that the episcopal ministry of women is simply contrary to God’s will for the Church of England will vote against, and there should be no unfair pressure on clear consciences. They are voting for what they truly believe is God’s purpose for his Church.
But, for those who find it not quite good enough, or not quite simple enough, the question must be: ‘What are you voting for, if you vote against this Measure?’ And what if you decide that the answer is, uncomfortably, a period of publicly embarrassing and internally draining indecision?
My hope for the debate next month is that it will tackle what is really before us, not what it is assumed or even suspected to mean. I hope that it will give us grounds for trusting one another more rather than less; that it will be rooted in a serious theological engagement with what makes for the good of the Church and its mission - a serious attempt to be obedient to God’s leading; and, perhaps most soberingly, that it will not ignore the sense of urgency about resolving this, which is felt inside and outside the Church, often with pain and bewilderment.
As a Synod, we are asked to act not only as a legislature, but as a body that serves the Kingdom of God, and takes a spiritual and pastoral responsibility for its actions. I know that Synod members, myself among them, will be praying hard about what this entails.