I believe that the case for
women and men to work alongside each other in the episcopate is an
issue of justice and equality which is found firmly in the biblical
narrative. My primary case for women bishops would be what I
understand to be the overall story of gender found in the Bible,
from which we understand something of the very nature of God.
As in all good stories, we
must start at the very beginning. Our case begins in Genesis 1.26,
where we first find Humankind (traditionally rendered "Man" - the
capital "M" denoting the inclusive representation of men and women
within a "type"). This type of Humankind is then differentiated,
male and female, and both are said to be made in the image of
In Genesis 2, we find that
this interplay becomes further explored as the first human (Hebrew
"adam" or "Dustling") is made from the ground (Hebrew
"adamah" or "Dust"). We then learn that "it is not good
for adam to be alone," and so the adam is made to
sleep, and from the adam two different beings
emerge, the man (Hebrew "iysh") and the woman
It is clear from the
narrative that the adam who fell asleep is not quite the
same as the iysh who wakes up. In other words, there was
no man without woman, and no woman without man. We define each
other. In one fell swoop, a number of arguments suggesting a
divinely established hierarchy between the man and the woman are
demolished. Adam was not "made first"; Eve was not made from an
So MAN and woman are
uniquely and equally made in the image of God. So far, so good; but
then it all goes wrong. In Genesis 3, the relationships
disintegrate - not just between God and humankind, but between
humankind and the Creation, and between the two humans.
Man and woman find
themselves in an unequal relationship of domination and oppression.
This is a direct result of the brokenness that they find themselves
in, because they choose to step out of the patterns of relationship
that would cause them to flourish - the story traditionally called
The inequality found in the
relationship between men and women is as a result of sin rather
than divine order. The man and the woman find themselves in
patterns of relationship which are destructive.
From here, and very quickly,
we move from the happy equal partnership of male and female found
in Genesis 1 and 2 to a situation where women are interchangeable
when it comes to sex, marriage, and motherhood. In a few short
years, we find Solomon not with one wife, but with 700, not to
mention the concubines - and all this is a far cry from the initial
The biblical narrative,
however, does not leave us without clues about what God's intention
is regarding this situation. As with all things broken, by
intention or failure, God's desire is for redemption and
restoration. We find many stories throughout the Hebrew scriptures
and the New Testament which indicate that God is working to restore
the relationship between men and women to the equality of shared
humanity found in Genesis 1 and 2.
The first obvious example is
Abram and Sarai. Abram does not understand that Sarai is as much a
part of the promise of blessing given in Genesis 12; he has
absorbed the mind-set that she is simply an interchangeable object.
What is more, she is not going to be very useful for his job of
"being the father of many nations", because she is "barren".
So, when he goes to Egypt,
he sells her to Pharaoh to save his skin and get rid of his barren
wife. But this is not the way that God sees it. Sarai is to be the
mother of many nations: the promise is for her, too, directly and
equally alongside Abram, in the story of God. God thus rescues
Sarai from Egypt.
There are many other stories
throughout scripture which indicate God's desire for full inclusion
and equality between men and women. From the Old Testament, there
are Deborah, Ruth, and Esther; from the New Testament, Mary,
Phoebe, Priscilla, and Lydia, who were all shown to have specific
qualities of leadership - whether as the archetype of a disciple,
as in the case of Mary, or those in church leadership, as with
Phoebe and Priscilla, or business, as with Lydia.
My favourite women from the
New Testament, however, are those who remain unnamed in the text:
the woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, and the woman
who poured oil on Jesus's feet. These women represent the
restoration of women to their full humanity by God. Jesus takes
their shame, whatever it is deemed to be, and restores them and
returns them to their community.
Their namelessness indicates
the relative invisibility of women in scripture, and thus the place
of women at that time, and yet their stories are ones that Jesus
makes sure are heard. He does this by subverting the assumptions
not only of the time, but our assumptions, too.
It is, of course, not enough
to say that all scripture unequivocally affirms women in church
leadership. We all know that there are tricky texts, such as 1
Timothy 2 and 1 Corinthians 14. The text in 1 Corinthians 14.34,
which states that women are not permitted to speak in church, is
clear to those who endorse a "plain-meaning" approach to scripture,
because it simply "says what it says". How can women lead in
churches when these words exist in scripture?
Even within the same letter
of Paul (1 Corinthians 11.5), however, it seems clear that women
do, in fact, speak in church - to pray and prophesy. If we take the
1 Corinthians 14 verse at "plain meaning", then we do so in
contradiction to the whole narrative of scripture, and even to the
rest of Paul's teaching within the same letter.
We will do well to remember
that we are listening to one half of a conversation when we read
the letters in scripture: sometimes we do not have the knowledge to
understand exactly what the other half of the conversation was. To
interpret this one verse in such a way that it seems to undermine
the story of God's restoration of the relationship between male and
female does violence to God's written word. We need to take
seriously the scholarship that honours the text, and yet finds this
particular verse untenable, if we are to take the whole Bible
Similar considerations apply
to the contentious 1 Timothy 2.12, one of the most difficult verses
to interpret in scripture, and one that, the Rt Revd Professor N.
T. Wright suggests, should be interpreted in the opposite way from
that in which it has traditionally been understood. Rather than
saying that women should not teach, Professor Wright says, Paul is
writing to endorse women teaching. Verse 12, rather than saying
that women should not have authority over a man, is saying: "I
don't mean to imply that I'm now setting up women as the new
authority over men, in the same way as previously men held
authority over women" (Paul for Everyone: Pastoral Letters: 1
and 2 Timothy and Titus, SPCK, 2003).
As Professor Wright goes on
to say, the signs are there that Ephesus, the context into which
Paul is writing to Timothy, is rife with the cult of Artemis and
the worship of the goddess Diana. In this situation, Paul is keen
to say that women are not now "in charge", in the way that men had
been assumed to be before Christ's reversal of that assumed order.
Nevertheless, the dynamite in 1 Timothy is that Paul is saying that
women must be allowed to be educated - learners and teachers under
submission to God - just as men have been and should continue to
I delight in the God who
comes to dwell with humanity and who has worked with humanity in
the particularity of its historical context. But this means that it
is not neat and tidy. The "right" options are not always open to
When I read the book of
Joshua, for example, I find myself confused and disturbed by the
divinely ordered genocide I find there. I would argue that that is
exactly the right way to read it. It is confusing and
deeply disturbing. I do not think it sanctions those actions;
instead, I choose to understand it within the context of God's
working within humanity as it is.
Sometimes, this means that
there are practices that were culturally appropriate at a
particular point in human history which are simply not appropriate,
or even morally right, at this point in human history. We
would not advocate the Joshua approach to geographical relocation
now, and we rightly question whether it was the right thing then.
We do not consider women as chattels to be bought and sold; we
happily take out mortgages, wear hats and polyester/cotton-mix
clothes, and live in a world where slavery is understood to be a
All of these biblical
practices we have understood within their particular cultural and
historical context, and we have reversed the practice seen in the
pages of scripture. When we read scripture, we must read it with
those lenses, rejoicing that God enters human history, and that
that includes whatever mess is there. But we must also open our
eyes to scan the whole story: a story that affirms the place of
women and men together, equally, for the glory of God.
As Christmas and Epiphany
fade from our memories, and our world is busy with day-to-day life
again, we can forget the radical nature of our faith. The nature of
the world was changed by the ordinary event of birth. We are now in
the pregnant pause before women bishops are given life. When they
appear, it will be world-changing, but will also seem a very
ordinary radical event.
The Revd Jody Stowell is
Assistant Curate of All Saints', Harrow Weald.