If you've been keeping up with the news recently, you won't have missed the fact that the Church of England's governing body (General Synod) had an emotionally charged vote on the issue of Women Bishops at the beginning of the week.
It's certainly an interesting and complicated issue. Personally, I am saddened by the fact that the main picture painted of the church in recent weeks has been one of division and apparently irrelevant bickering, whilst the good news of the Christian message has been left unproclaimed. I would. however, like to offer one or two thoughts on the matter.
Firstly, a comment was made in a news report I saw that "both sides were taking their arguments from the Bible". There is a popular, if ignorant argument which claims that the Bible is full of contradictions (and therefore unreliable and irrelevant). Unfortunately, I suspect that such comments have only served to reinforce such a notion, whilst my perception of the news report is that both sides have just been very selective in using the Bible to back up their own arguments. The Bible is a big book (or, rather, collection of books) and if you start quoting passages in isolation you will - as with anything else - find apparent contradictions.
In this case, the Anglican Church was not around in Biblical times, which makes finding anything in the Bible specifically relevant to the gender of its bishops somewhat tricky. The so called 'traditionalists' who are against women bishops have been citing the passage from Matthew's Gospel, in which Jesus chooses his 12 disciples, and noting that they were all male. The difficulty I have with this is that there is nothing in this particular episode which gives a reason for this; if my historical understanding is correct, it was a very male dominated society and so it could just as easily be a product of the culture of the day rather than a specific precedent set by God. Now I do believe that God formed us as men and women with different roles to play (more on that in a minute), but I think that it's dangerous to look at this one passage in isolation. For example, the sub-department I belong to at work is entirely male, but not many people would condone using this fact as a sole reason for not employing a woman in years to come.
I'm also less than enamoured with the 'Biblical argument' put across by those in favour of women bishops. They were quoted as citing the passage from Paul's letter to the Galatians, in which he writes that "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus". At the time this was written, there were those who believed, for example, that the Jewish converts to the Christian faith were superior in some way. Paul is challenging this view and saying that as far as God is concerned we are all equal. But (and you knew this was coming) I think we need to be careful here. We are not all clones, and we each have different gifts and different roles to play. So, despite the assertion that "there is neither slave nor free" Paul also says in his writings that "slaves should be obedient to their masters". Equally, when it comes to the relationship between men and women, Paul treats them differently; see Ephesians 5:22-30 for example. This passage has caused controversy because of the concept of male 'headship'. But you might want to pause and think what it means to be "as Christ is the head of the church". Christ did not succumb to the devil's temptations to play a power game; rather he humbly submitted himself to a death on a cross for those whom he loves.
If you go right back to the creation in Genesis, the Bible is quite clear. "Male and female he created them". I don't for one moment believe that men are superior to women (or vice versa) but crucially, I don't think that God intended us to be the same. I've just finished reading an excellent book by John Eldridge called 'Wild at Heart' which considers this issue, and I'd thoroughly recommend it.
Of course, the fact that men and women are not the same should not by default mean that women cannot be bishops. But it is certainly a good reminder that God has called us to play different roles, and to prayerfully consider how that might work out in practice. I was less than impressed by the person who praised the outcome of the debate by saying that "the church has now come in to line with society". This is not automatically A Good Thing, and it wouldn't take much time leafing through Biblical history to realise that it was often when the people sided with society that they ignored God and went somewhat astray.
I'm going to duck out here, and say that I don't honestly know where I stand on the issue at the moment. If I fall off the fence one way or the other, I'll let you know. I do know, however, that I am concerned about some of the motives for the debate. Anyone considering being a church leader would do well to read Paul's advice to Timothy, and I would not condone anyone becoming a leader on the grounds of personal ambition. "It's not fair that he's a bishop and I'm not" doesn't strike me as a great example of humility. I also think that the Anglican Church needs to review its entire leadership structure. One of the good reasons for having women priests (and bishops) is that you can, in theory, meet with someone of the same sex for the spiritual support a church leader can provide. Of course, this goes out of the window when you have one female vicar covering five village churches and no male clergy in the vicinity (or vice versa). My experience is also that sometimes the church hierarchy can be too pedantic on what jobs must be done by someone who is ordained. This often leaves perfectly talented laity unable to use their gifts to their full potential, whilst vicars are quite often left without enough hours in the day to do everything which is expected of them. I was struck recently by the fact that the Anglican Church in Paphos, Cyprus apparently has several weddings a day during the summer season. I don't know anything about the minister there, but can't help wondering if spending the whole time doing weddings is a good use of the theological training they will have received. Furthermore, when are they going to have the time to really reach the community with the good news of the Christian faith? Back in this country, what about those with responsibility for five village churches? After all the running around from church to church and endless church council meetings, how are they going to be able to pastor the communities effectively?
I'm in danger of getting on my high-horse, going off topic and ranting for a while, so I shall leave it there. As ever, it is The Metro which has provided me with words of wisdom, and I end by quoting a letter published today:
"I'm appalled at the amount of attention paid to the issue of women bishops. Surely the main concern for every priest, whether they be male or female, Church of England or Roman Catholic, should be his or her parish. The quicker the church gets back to its basic duty of inviting people to have a relationship with God, the better."