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Headship: how do we see it today?

11 July 2014

MEMBERS of the General Synod, who meet today in York will have received a special note from the Archbishops about women bishops. It mentions the assurances given to Evangelical opponents that "at least one bishop" will be appointed to the college of bishops "who takes a conservative Evangelical view of headship". The note appears to be an apology that this aspiration has not yet been met. It warns that it may be difficult to meet it "within a reasonable timescale".

This is all very revealing. Perhaps dioceses are not too happy about having a "headship" bishop. Or perhaps there are no plausible candidates who hold precisely the right views on headship. Identifying what those views are is not as straightforward as it might seem, because ideas about headship have evolved.

It is, of course, true that a doctrine of male headship can be drawn from Paul's teaching that Christ is the head of the man, and the husband is the head of his wife. But behind this is the Genesis anthropology of women as secondary beings, a bit less in God's image than males.

On top of that is the moral guilt that Eve incurred by listening to the voice of the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Adam's (lesser) sin was to listen to the "weaker vessel" instead of exercising his (superior) reason. Women are inferior not only physically, but morally and spiritually. Like other traditional faiths, Christianity, for most of its history, has endorsed a view of the superiority of men which has justified women's subordination.

Most conservative Evangelicals no longer buy into this, and currently propose a more moderate interpretation of headship. They scrap the general scriptural anthropology of female inferiority, insisting that scripture teaches that there are only two contexts in which male headship actually applies: the family, and the Church. Women are not inferior, but different.

This is a strange position to end up in. It may be a logical deduction from scripture to believe in male headship, but it surely makes sense only if it is total; a creation ordinance, tragically demonstrated by the Fall. To limit women's subordination to the part they play in church and family must be dubious on scriptural grounds.

If I accept male headship, I should be slightly worried about women in any kind of leadership position. I should regard it as "unnatural", as our forefathers (and mothers) did; otherwise, God's law is rendered arbitrary and irrational. Perhaps that is why the Archbishop's aspiration to appoint a "headship' bishop is proving trickier than expected.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.


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