Bish Bash Bosh

LIZZIE BENNETT argues that the contentious issue of female bishops is more complex than it may seem.

Christianity church Church of England female bishops synod women bishops


On July 9th, when many of us will find our current problems to be a vague and distant memory (I hope), this year’s York session of the General Synod will begin. Of the topics up for discussion, the issue of women bishops is a biggie. The problem lies within striking a balance between those who believe it is discriminatory not to allow women to be bishops (and illogical, since women have been being ordained as priests in England since 1994) and those for whom the idea of a female bishop goes against what the Bible teaches about the roles of men and women. Confusingly, and irritatingly, there isn’t even one central question, but several. For example: can women perform the tasks of a bishop? And crucially, would their acts as a bishop be seen as valid? 

Current beliefs in social equality state that women have every right to be bishops. If women can hold high positions in government or business, there is no reason why they should not take similar posts within the Church. Furthermore, to deny them this position is unreasonable in a theological sense: if women can be priests then there is no good reason for bishopric being denied of them, since the same principles of headship apply to the priesthood as to the episcopacy. Is it time for the abolition of the so-called ‘stained-glass ceiling’? 

However, like it or not, there are simply plenty of people in the Church today who aren’t comfortable with the idea of female priests, let alone bishops. This is not a case of misogyny, but of moral qualms about the validity of ministration from a female. The Bible contains many examples of passages which imply, or state explicitly, the inferiority of women. After all, the fall of Man is the result of Eve’s weakness, and many people see this as a clear case of sexism. Those who oppose women bishops draw attention to passages in the New Testament, which clearly indicate that women should not hold positions of authority in the Church. 

Looking to the Bible, however, is not going to answer all our questions. Just as there are passages in Paul’s letters which seemingly condemn women to servitude and inferiority for all eternity, there are other passages in which he commends women and recognises their importance in the Church in his time. The crux of the matter is that we do not know what roles women played in the early Church; scripture does not provide the answers we need. Those who oppose female bishops on the grounds that the Bible does not allow women to hold positions of authority are, therefore, finding it difficult to present a solid argument. No wonder the authorities in the Church of England are currently flummoxed. 

With these uncertainties, some vicars have threatened a return to Rome should the new legislation be pushed through. Even those who support women bishops in theory are beginning to reject the idea in favour of maintaining some semblance of unity in the Church.

The issue boils down to three main points. Firstly, are women capable of performing the role of a bishop? The answer to this must be yes, since there is no way in which women are incapable physically or intellectually of performing the tasks of a bishop. 

The second question is: do women have the right to be bishops? Well, actually, no. Men and women have the right to become head teachers, to manage businesses, to lead governments and to serve as officers in the armed forces. However, nobody – man or woman – has the ‘right’ to lead the Church. If somebody seeks office in the Church, they must do so because they feel called by God. To claim that anyone has the ‘right’ to a position in the Church is to introduce a secular argument and use it to distort the context into which it is being implanted. Bishops should believe in God unreservedly. If one really does believe in God, then they should see the position as a privilege and a calling, and not as a right. 

Finally, given the representation of women in the Bible, would people accept the ministrations of a female bishop in a theological or doctrinal sense? Here, the answer is ‘not necessarily’, and it is this that worries many. This matter desperately needs to addressed by York’s Synod.