‘My Lady Bishop’

Last week’s decision of the Church of England not to allow women bishops will have little immediate impact here in the Highlands.  We do, of course, have our own form of Anglicanism, Eaglais Easbaigeach na h-Alba, but neither the Archbishop of Canterbury nor the General Synod has any authority over Scottish Episcopalians.  They already have women priests, including the Reverend Shona Boardman in Stornoway, but no women bishops, though that is certain to change when (and it’s when, not if) the Church of England finally mitres women.

Few institutions are more amazingly complex than the Church of England, where Evangelicals, High Catholics and Unitarians always manage to create a fudge big enough to include all three of them, while at the same time producing some of the best Christian scholarship in the world.  There’s certainly nothing black-and-white about last week’s decision.  To the question, “Should there be women bishops?” I can categorically answer, “No!”, because there shouldn’t be bishops in the first place: not the modern sort, anyway.  The New Testament church never had any anyone who lorded it over other presbyters (the big English word for priests).  Instead, all priests were equal and functioned together as local church councils to look after the church.  Each priest was subject to the council, but no individual was subject to any other.  Even St. Peter was happy to call himself a “fellow elder” and, in the same breath, to warn his colleagues not to lord it over their flocks.

But then, if the Church already has women priests, why not women bishops?  The two words refer to the same office, as Anglican scholars know full well.  In this instance, however, the Church of England has decided to defy its bishops, the vast majority of whom are dead keen to admit women to their bench.  One of the oddities of the situation is that opposition to women bishops is strongest among the laity. Odder still is the number of women opposed to the measure, and oddest of all is that many of these women are high-powered professionals in their day-jobs.  In that world, they are all for equality.  But in the Church, not!  They know they’re more likely to get their own way with men than with women.

There was no one reason for the negative vote.  Some were clearly concerned that a Yes-vote would split the Church and lead to a serious secession.  Such a risk should always make Christians pause, but in the current state of the Church of England it was particularly serious.  After all, if you categorically refuse to recognise a bishop because she’s a woman, where can you go as an Anglican?  Any priest she ordains is not really a priest, any teenager she confirms is not really confirmed, and any bishop she consecrates is not really consecrated.  The strength of feeling on this runs deep: deeper, even, than the feeling on psalms-and-hymns among Scottish Presbyterians.  There can be little doubt that thousands would leave Anglicanism for Romanism because of what they see as the importance of the Apostolic succession (an unbroken chain of male hands-on-heads going back all the way to Peter and Paul).

Evangelicals have different reasons for their opposition.  For them, as Tom Wright, the former Bishop of Durham pointed out, it is a purely biblical issue.  Where does the New Testament point us?  The problem here is that Evangelicals aren’t entirely sure.  For some it is a simple matter of listening to the words of St. Paul, who categorically forbade women to exercise authority over men.  The Guardian sneeringly referred to such poor souls as ‘literalists’, even though, presumably, Guardian journalists also expect to be taken literally.  That said, it may well be that when the Apostle wrote these words he was merely trying to accommodate the culture of his own day, where any outspoken woman would be seen as a virago or worse, and any congregation which harboured her as a threat to society.

But, then, this was not the only word that Paul spoke on the place of women in the church.  He also said that gender didn’t matter and that men and women are equal spiritually.  There is neither male nor female: we are all one in Christ Jesus.  For many, including myself, this is the key text, and it explains why leading Evangelicals such as Tom Wright and Archbishop-elect, Justin Welby, wholeheartedly support the idea of women bishops.

In the very same breath, however, they dismiss the idea that the Church must fall-in behind secular views on ‘equal opportunities’.  This has greatly disappointed the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who naturally cannot understand why the Church is prepared to risk losing so many votes.  Mr. Cameron’s theological authority can safely be discounted, but on this issue, as on same-sex marriages, the Prime Minister is in tune with the public.  In fact, that’s why he’s singing the tune in the first place: leaders with a mistaken view of charisma always follow their followers.  Every hack in the country is crying out that the Church must get in line, and strident voices are even calling on Parliament to intervene.

This would certainly not be beyond its powers.  The Church of England lost her spiritual independence long since, with the result that her Supreme Governor is not the General Synod, but the Monarch.  Today, under our very limited monarchy that means Parliament; and Parliament won’t meddle, not because it may not, but because Mr. Cameron is too busy governing his own back-benchers to take on the women of the House of Laity.  His sound-bites have already exhausted his wisdom on the subject.

What will linger on, however, are the pleas for the disestablishment of the Church of England.  ‘Church and state must loosen their bonds,’ cried Matthew Parris in The Times.  This would have rejoiced the hearts of my own 17th century spiritual forebears, who went to the scaffold rather than concede Royal Supremacy over the church; and there would have been a veritable ‘ho-ro gheallaidh’ among the 18th century Dissenters who were banned from English universities because they weren’t Anglicans.

But disestablishment would put an end to more than the special position of the Queen (who would probably make the best bishop of the lot).  The privileges of Anglicanism still guarantee a place for Christianity at the centre of British national life.  Once we lose them there will be no barrier between us and a purely secular state; and then heaven help minorities.

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press, 30 November 2012