An issue of unity

by
18 January 2013

THE failure of the draft women-bishops Measure last November was met by an understandable reluctance to debate the matter further. As the weeks have passed, however, this inclination to treat the issue as merely a political puzzle - where the only object is to secure the required number of votes - has looked increasingly shameful. After all, one reason given for the Synod's inability to find a successful compromise was the fundamental lack of contact between the two sides. Despite professions to the contrary, we have not noted any greater enthusiasm for engagement since the debate. This is partly weariness at the prospect of going over the same old ground, but there is also evidence that old prejudices remain at work. More than one speaker in the November debate remarked that everything that could have been said on the subject of women in the priesthood and the episcopate had been said. But not everything has been heard. This is why, in the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, we have devoted eight pages in the middle of this paper to an examination of some of the theological differences about this matter.

A false dichotomy is made between politics and theology. The Bishop of Chelmsford in his article acknowledges the effect on his theology of his encounters with women's ministry. Other contributors are not so candid, but theological viewpoints generally find favour when they match personal experience. This is a legitimate means of making theological choices, as long as the potential dangers of this approach are guarded against. A theological viewpoint can be changed on occasions after an intellectual examination of its merits; more often than not, however, it is the disparity between the viewpoint and an experience that prompts a re-examination. There is something honourable about sticking to one's views, despite their unpopularity with the majority, but a willingness to adapt one's view to changing circumstance is also to be respected.

These are not abstract considerations. One view expressed in our pages is that the women-bishops issue cannot be properly resolved until the whole Church has a clearer view of what a bishop is or does; what the differences are between men and women; what is the nature of authority; even what are the correct methods of making such decisions. Another view, not expressed here, but represented to us as we embarked on this exercise, is that these were merely delaying tactics. A sufficient consensus existed for the C of E to press ahead with consecrating women as bishops, and a full theological appreciation of such a move could be made only once it had been experienced. But, whether influential or redundant, the theological views expressed on these pages offer an insight into why the issue has been so contentious between people of good will. If there remains a desire to understand the arguments, here is a means to do so.

 

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