When I started this blog, it was deliberately with the idea that I would avoid talking about what side I would take on ordinary “controversial issues” about Christian ethics etc, precisely because I think that talking about them too much takes the focus off talking and thinking about God. For that reason, I don’t want to actually discuss my own view of the women bishops vote yesterday in this post, and I doubt a reader can work it out from this post.
If you want comment on the debate itself, I’ve seen quite a few good posts on this that I recommend – in particular, I’ve been most impessed by some egalitatian women who have shown wisdom and grace in their defeat. One was by Jemima Thackray in the torygraph, asking the question “Women bishops: Did feminism undermine the campaign?” – arguing that the arguments used in favour of women bishops on this occasion were not sufficiently Christian. Another was by Tanya Marlow, “On Women Bishops”, which acknowledges the deep pain she (and other women) feel at being discriminated against, while balancing that with a real grace towards those that diagree with her. Honourable mention also goes to Krish Kandiah, an egalitarian man who gives helpful Christian thoughts about dealing with those we passionately disagree with in “Grace, Truth and Synod”.
What I do want to comment on myself, though, are the whole terms on which the debate has taken place. It’s been assumed throughout that to be a bishop is an honour – and therefore, that to deny that honour to women is to disrespect them. Women’s groups in the church have therefore been up in arms about the fact that they are being disrespected by not being made bishops. On the contrary, in any Christian debate, we ought to . So shouldn’t the men be leading the argument for women’s bishops?
Well, no, I don’t actually think this, because I don’t think we should think of being a bishop as an honour at all. A few days ago, an interviewer on the today programme expressed incredulity at a statement by a complementarian woman that Christians didn’t think of the archbishop of canterbury as more important than any other christian. On the contrary, the Bible states of the apostles (of whom bishops are supposed to be successors) as being:
For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men. We are fools for Christ’s sake, but you are wise in Christ. We are weak, but you are strong. You are held in honor, but we in disrepute. To the present hour we hunger and thirst, we are poorly dressed and buffeted and homeless, and we labor, working with our own hands. When reviled, we bless; when persecuted, we endure; when slandered, we entreat. We have become, and are still, like the scum of the world, the refuse of all things.
(1 Corinthians 4:9-13)
To be a bishop (or, indeed, any Christian leader) should not be seen as some special honour, but rather an insult which one endures for the love of God and His people. Therefore, perhaps in an ideal world perhaps it would be the women’s groups leading the charge for women’s ministry, precisely for the sake of the men who shouldn’t have to bear the burden alone.
Of course, in the church today this simply is not true – while bishops might pretend they don’t want to be appointed, we all know it’s seen as an honour to serve. We can therefore see that in today’s church, lacking equal places in leadership is a lacking of equal places of honour. But that’s a problem – it shows that we don’t understand what leadership should be like, but that itself is rooted in a bigger problem.
We don’t understand who the Christ is who the leader should be representing – a Christ:
who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
The women bishops debate will tear apart Christians in the church of England for the next few years, and there’s no way around that. However, terms and method on which the debate is conducted are a symptom of something much bigger – our wrong view of God.