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Extending the ministry, not changing it

18 January 2013

It is the right time for this development, says Stephen Cottrell


Another country: the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, at a eucharist in Southwark Cathedral in June 2010

Another country: the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the United States, Dr Katharine Jefferts Schori, at a eucharist in Southwark Cathed...

I think I have always believed that women and men should serve equally as bishops, priests, and deacons in God's Church. Nevertheless, as someone nurtured in the Catholic tradition of the Church of England, I questioned at one time whether the Church of England had the authority to make such a decision on its own. I therefore sat on the fence for a while.

For me, the turning-point was the vote in 1992 to admit women to the priesthood. I felt simply that I had to go one way or the other: either to leave the Church of England because, even though I agreed with what it was doing, it did not have the authority to do it; or, as it were, to join the Church of England - accepting this development as another example of its prophetic vocation to be one step ahead of the whole Church in these matters. (Married priests would be another example.)

I chose the latter course. This was hard. Most of my closest friends were in the other camp. Many left and became Roman Catholics. Many stayed on, and faced the same choices as me. Conscience has led people down different paths.

Together, but with impaired communion, we have lived out the strangely cohesive, although theologically wobbly, two integrities that have made up the Church of England's life for the past 20 years. But all this means that I write as someone who believes, and knows from first-hand experience, that people's objections to this development should be taken seriously, and that when we have women bishops, there should be provision for those who disagree.

So what are these objections, and how might they be answered? Traditional Anglo-Catholics believe that holy order is something we have received from the universal Church, and is therefore not ours to change unilaterally. They also believe that the representative nature of priesthood, and therefore the episcopate (the two cannot really be separated) requires the priest to be male. They believe that this is of the essence of priesthood, and therefore vital for sacramental assurance (see panel, left).

Conservative Evangelicals argue that biblical teaching on headship prohibits women from having particular sorts of teaching and leadership ministry in church, if it means that women have oversight of men.

These are serious matters. Ordaining women is not about human rights or natural justice. We must demonstrate that what is proposed is consistent with scripture, and with a catholic understanding of ordained ministry.

My starting-point is threefold: Jesus's own affirmation and recognition of women; the evidence in scripture of women in leadership positions - think of the house-church leader Chloë (1 Corinthians 1. 11), or the teacher Priscilla (see Acts 18.26), or the many women Paul greets in Romans 16; and particularly those climactic verses in Paul's letter to the Galatians, where he says that "there is no longer Jew or Greek . . . slave or free . . . male and female; for all of you are one in Jesus Christ" (Galatians 3.27-28).

It is taking the Church a while to understand this text. The debates about whether Gentiles needed circumcision before baptism can be found in the Bible itself. The answer may seem obvious now, but it did not then. The Early Church was establishing what it meant to belong to Christ. It reached the hugely important conclusion that Christ was for everyone, and that all could be part of the new covenant established in his blood (Ephesians 2.11-17).

"Neither slave nor free" took another 1800 years to work out. And it is in our day that we are considering the full implication of what it means to say that there is no male or female. This text helps us to interpret everything else.

YET it is not just about baptism, as some argue. The insights of Vatican II, and more recent ecumenical agreements, speak of the centrality of baptism for the whole of our life in Christ, and say that ministry flows from baptism. This is also crucial for a Catholic understanding of priesthood and the episcopate.

All priesthood has its origin in the priestly work of Jesus - that there is only one priest, Christ, and we derive our priesthood from him. Therefore, to declare that women cannot be priests or bishops requires two assumptions that are incompatible with scripture and tradition: that the ordained priest's relation to the priesthood of Christ is different in kind from that of any other baptised person; and that a baptised woman's relation to Christ's priesthood is different from a baptised man's.

The Early Church taught that the "unassumed is unhealed", and that Christ, therefore, assumed representative humanity, not just maleness. Therefore, just as baptism belongs to men and women, so must priesthood.

Using Newman's framework for understanding the legitimate development of doctrine, we can conclude that the ordination of women is a revealing within our own culture of something that has always been present within the tradition.

Although all the clues are there in scripture, in the very different and inevitably male-dominated culture that prevailed in biblical times, such a complete revelation was not possible.

Nor has it been for much of the past 2000 years, although more women have had leadership positions than people sometimes think. We can point to abbesses such as Hilda of Whitby or Hildegard of Bingen, or the religious women in Essen and Quedlinburg who ruled their territories and answered only to the Pope.

Finally, on male headship: Paul says: "I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11.3). Should we understand the Greek word "kephale" ("head") as meaning "hierarchical authority", or does it rather mean "source and origin"?

If it means "ruler", then this passage distorts our understanding of the Trinity, as well as of gender relationships. It makes Christ subordinate to God. But we know from elsewhere in scripture, and in the tradition, that the relationship between the Father and the Son is equality, partnership, and reciprocity; not hierarchy. Christ chooses to empty himself, but remains equal with God (Philippians 2.6,7).

Equality is also God's intention for men and women. It can be seen in the creation ordinance of Adam and Eve in Genesis. God blesses and commissions them, and gives them both dominion over every living creature (Genesis 1.28). It is only the Fall that damages this egalitarian relationship. But it is gloriously restored in Christ.

There have been cultural reasons why this liberating truth about gender relationships has not been fully recognised before, but there are also cultural reasons why, in our day, we can see clearly what the central narrative of the Bible has always been saying: that in Christ there is no longer male and female - not in baptism, and not in ministry.

As with the question of Gentile converts in the past, so with women's ordination today: doctrine does not develop in a vacuum. It is forged in the refining fire of the questions that different cultures pose. This is why it is a missiological as well as a theological question.

Our world looks on in disbelief that we could discriminate against women in this way. But the ordination of women is right not because the world says so, but because we are recognising and disclosing something that has always been there.

Therefore (and this is the part of the argument that it took me longest to come round to), the Church of England does have the authority to make this decision. We have received holy order from the wider, undivided Church, but we are not changing it. A gender-inclusive priesthood is a development of doctrine, not a change to the nature of priesthood itself.

It is right to have women priests. Therefore, it is illogical and theologically inconsistent not to have women bishops as well.

I long for these insights to be shared by the whole Church, as we grow towards greater visible unity. But we already have women bishops in the Anglican Communion. It has not stopped our ecumenical discussion or partnerships - neither will women bishops in the Church of England. Indeed, they will contribute to a wider discernment of God's will for his Church in these matters.

YET I believe that these decisions have to be received by the Church. In my own ministry, I have seen this happen in many situations. I have instituted women incumbents to numerous parishes, knowing that when they celebrate the eucharist, they will be the first women ever to do so in that church.

I have also done this knowing that, although the parish had not passed any resolutions, there were a good number of people in the congregation who were unhappy with what was happening. And yet, time after time, they are won round. They are won round by the calibre, godliness, and humility of the women themselves, but also because, in these matters, we must always let Gamaliel have the last word: if this development is of God, then it cannot be stopped. Not only will it flourish, but in trying to stop it, you run the risk of opposing God himself.

I am slightly embarrassed to admit my own misgivings about the ordination of women, or at least the Church of England's authority to do it. Yes, I did wrestle with the theology, as I continue to do. But, in the end, as well as by the force of the theology, I have been won round by the sheer fruitfulness of women's ministry; of seeing how God is at work in and through their leadership and ministry; and of how this development, at this stage in our history, enables us to speak more coherently and compellingly to the culture that we are called to serve.

It is this culture that poses the question; so the revealing of this truth - that episcopacy belongs to men and women - will enhance the mission of the Church in our day. Male and female bishops working together will reflect God's intention of equality, and beautifully express the new humanity that Christ has given us.

The Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell is the Bishop of Chelmsford.


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