On a recent course with clergy of all different stripes, I got talking to a very Bible-based Evangelical priest about the recent furore over my predecessor at St Michael’s, Bishop Philip North. You have probably heard that he has turned down the nomination to become Bishop of Sheffield after pressure from campaigners in favour of the ordination of women, which Bishop North opposes as a matter of conscience.
The Evangelical priest told me that in his church, there was no problem with women being priests or deacons as such – but the church would not allow women to speak in public or to teach men. This is because they take very literally St Paul’s admonition in his first letter to the church in Corinth that women “should remain silent in churches,” and a passage in the Letter to Timothy (which may or may not have been written by St Paul) which reads “I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man.”
I must admit that although I know there are churches, even in the Church of England, which think like this, I was actually horrified to hear anyone say it out loud. There is no way I could justify reading the Bible like this myself, without attention to context, and ignoring other parts of the Bible where Paul says, for example, that women should prophecy in church only with their heads covered (implying that they can speak after all), or his insistence that there is in Christ “no man or woman.” Of course, I tried not to show my discomfort. After all, we are trying to hold together as one church a great variety of theological opinion, even when some of it appalls us.
If I am honest, I would prefer a Church of England without those sorts of Evangelicals in it. What I could do, of course, is find plenty of like-minded people and separate off into our own church, cut off from those whose theological positions I find distasteful, spending my time only in the company of people who believe exactly the same things as I do – which is all very well, until we find something else to disagree on, and that church splits again. And there, in a nutshell, you have the history of Protestant denominations.
For us in the Catholic wing of the Church, the question of women’s ordination is not primarily one of biblical authority. This is because we see a greater authority in the Church which Jesus founded and whose bishops decided on what should and should not go into the Bible in the first place – Jesus, of course, never had a “bible.” The Church came first, and the Church, through its bishops, is our authority for interpreting what the Bible means. Without that authority, we could all just read it however we like, and split off into an infinite variety of little churches each of which is absolutely convinced that everyone else is wrong.
The belief in the authority of the Church is why there is such strong feeling among Anglo-Catholics about women’s ordination. On the one hand, you could say that the Church does have the authority to interpret the Bible in a way that allows for women to be ordained. The Bishops of the English church have decided that women can be ordained, and that’s the end of it. But you could also argue that the majority of the Church as a whole – that is, not just our English corner of it, but including the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bishops – have made it very clear that women cannot be ordained, and so we have no right to go it alone against that consensus. Those who hold the latter position can say with some justification that the church has innovated and that they just want the space to maintain the older and more widespread tradition.
In our parish, opinions are mixed and we have to choose either to live together or go our separate ways. I think that those of us who affirm women’s ordination do have to accept that those who, like Bishop Philip, oppose it are in the majority, if you take the will of the wider Church as a whole and throughout history. But remembering the horror I felt at my Evangelical companion’s belief, we cannot afford to lose sight of the fact that many people, especially young ones and those outside the Church, will feel exactly the same horror about Christians who oppose women’s ordination. The whole debate meets with utter incomprehension. Though I do think we all need to try harder to understand one another’s positions, you can see why people unused to the Church’s internal theological debates have taken such offence at Bishop Philip’s position. However, it is quite something else for certain highly theologically educated clergy, who do understand the nuances, to make personal attacks and allege in the press that he is sexist or misogynistic.
I believe that our task as a church is to move away from the modern tendency, exaggerated by social media, to demonize people we do not know because of their conscientiously held opinions which we have insufficiently explored. To do otherwise, and to restrict those who hold what is after all the majority Christian position from being diocesan bishops, betrays a lack of Christian love which our critics will notice and exploit to the full. We have to learn to live with people we do not agree with or even like, and remember that all the time we spend publicly bickering over should sit at his right and left hand, Our Lord is being crucified all around us.