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Dissecting the arguments about women bishops

Bishop ChessRegular Network Norwich columnist James Knight presents his analysis on the reasons why some within the Church of England are for and some against women becoming bishops, before offering his own conclusions.

As we’ve seen, the General Synod of the Church of England has voted against the appointment of women as bishops. From BBC News:

“The measure was passed by the synod's houses of bishops and clergy but was rejected by the House of Laity... The measure needed two-thirds majorities in each of the synod's three houses. The votes were 44 for and three against with two abstentions in the House of Bishops, 148 for and 45 against in the House of Clergy, and 132 for and 74 against in the House of Laity.”

While the Bishops and Clergy obtained enough votes to see the church appoint women bishops, the vote in the House of Laity, at 64%, was just short of the required majority.  Two things are evident; firstly, it won’t be too much longer before the balance is tipped; and secondly this vote doesn’t reflect the views of the majority of Christians in the UK.  So this vote does seem to be largely the case of holding back the inevitable – one that most church members would actually favour.  It’s worth noting too that newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby favors women bishops (as did his predecessor), so this isn’t the ideal bedding in situation for him either.

Now what makes the issue knottier (unlike say the homosexuality debate, where most people aren't homophobes) is that there are quite a few women in the CofE who do not want to be led or ordained by women, so those who defend women's rights to be bishops often find they bother women as well as men.  So although the percentage of people that want to see women bishops is greater than the percentage that do not, I think it is important that those who do not are not kept silent just because they are in the minority. 

I personally do favour women bishops – but I will try to offer a balanced analysis by presenting what I think are the best arguments for each side, and then I’ll end with a conclusion.

For women bishops
Let me say why I do favour women bishops – I have two reasons; one is to do with a well-known principle in moral philosophy, and the other is to do a well-known principle in economics. The moral philosophy principle is this; I strongly support women’s rights to be ordained in ministry and leadership – be they vicars, chaplains, or bishops, or any other position, based primarily on a fixed view I have about humans not discriminating against other humans based on race, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or any other congenital component of being human. 

The economic principle is to do with utilisation of skills, and this is an area that both the feminists and the patriarchs have got entirely wrong.  This is not an immutable rule, but for maximum efficiency you are best to optimise the specialised skills people bring to the table.  In a partnership, if two people have similar skills there is less to be gained from sharing them – all you’re doing is reassigning jobs from one equally suitable person to another.  For maximum efficiency, if two people have similar skills concerning task A, then you’re best to separate roles, where one does task A and the other does task B.  But if two partners have very different skills it is best to share both task A and task B because both sets of specialist skills can be brought into both tasks. 

Suppose we have a town planning project, I don’t think there are many people who would deny that an economist and a building surveyor partnership would be a more efficient partnership than two economists or two building surveyors.  Suppose we have a committee assigned to draw up a document that maximises good parenting; I don’t think there are many people who would deny that a group of five men and five women would be more efficient than a group of ten women or ten men. 

And I cannot imagine there are many people who would deny that a partnership consisting of a livestock specialist and an agronomy specialist would make a better farming partnership than two livestock specialists or two agronomy specialists.

This is where the feminists and the patriarchs do not understand maximum efficiency.  Feminists, in trying to make women and men as similar as possible, say that task A should be shared equally.  That’s wrong – if they are similar they would achieve maximum efficiency by specialising.  Patriarchs, in trying to make men and women as different as possible, say that women should specialise in task A and men in task B.  That’s also wrong – if they are different they would achieve maximum efficiency by sharing and bringing to bear both sets of specialties and talents.

Now let me make one thing quite clear; there are situations in which this sort of logic would not be maximally beneficial.  For example, in a marriage, there are all sorts of good reasons why housework, driving, entertaining, gardening, etc are better shared (respect, closeness, togetherness, kindness, consideration, relationship equality to name but five) – but this issue is about women bishops, and hence on grounds of moral philosophy and economic principles the church is making a mistake.  In both cases, appointing women bishops is the right thing to do.  Given that women are equal in every sense of rights and respect, both women and men should be allowed to be bishops on grounds that gender discrimination is ugly.  And conversely, given that women have very different skills to men (as well as many similar skills), both women and men should be allowed to be bishops on grounds that church leadership (be they vicars, chaplains, or bishops) will benefit from both sets of specialised skills being brought to bear.  Whichever way you cut the cloth, the church is throwing away one of its golden pearls by failing to maximise the talents of both men and women. 

That’s one side of the argument, but there is another side. While it is somewhat ironic that women laity voted to stay under the authority of the very same male bishops who themselves voted 44 for and 3 against women bishops, I also said that those that do not favour women bishops need to be heard too (particularly women).  If it was simply the case that only men were against the appointment of women bishops, we could look to address the issue of the possibility of out of date patriarchal views. But it isn’t that way at all. 

Given that I’m not a woman, given that scripture is too low-resolution to provide us with an answer on this issue, and given that feelings and emotions and sentiment are largely the driving forces behind either view, I guess I’ll have to take a stab at thinking of a reason that gives understanding to those who are against women bishops, but also one that keeps me true to my convictions in support of women bishops.  I suppose that is the very definition of having a balanced view – at least by way of rational argument.

Against women bishops
From either side of the debate, if we can remain excepted from inarticulate distaste, accusations of prejudice begotten by tradition, a sense of patriarchal discomfort, or (worse) misogyny, then the question of what may reasonably preclude the church from putting women on the same pastoral footing as men must be something a whole lot deeper than the kind of gender issues upon which men and womanly usually disagree.  Quite clearly, in terms of skills, women are just as capable as men regarding the tasks and duties of leadership, as well as exhibiting the same qualitative levels of personality and character qualities, leadership, intelligence, sermon writing, mentoring, inspiration, kindness, care, and all the other things that make good leaders. 

I don’t think the women who are against women bishops (or women in leadership) would say that women lack these fundamental abilities (unless they had been coerced by male-dominated church people), so there must be a deeper and more fundamentally ingrained reason why they are against women bishops.  I think I know what it might be – it might be down to recognition that gender has a deep significance in life as well as in Christianity.  Going back to the economic model, if we talk about specialised skills of either gender being brought to bear, then we might be doing both males and females a disservice if we try to make them too much alike.  We may end up being chameleons that simply fade our colours into a culture that we sense as being anti-discriminatory, but is at the same time being too hasty in making women and men alike.

For example, let’s take the family as a good example; is anyone really going to tell us that in the family home gender is irrelevant, and that men and women don’t play vital roles in the family that would be less suited to those of the other gender?  I don’t think so.  All this talk of men being ‘head of the household’ is certainly outdated in most senses that make it a paternally dominating ethos.  But there must be said to be situations in which men have a ‘headship’ role to play that women do not. 

Suppose the family home is in dispute with the neighbours over an issue of the aggression of a neighbouring dad towards their young son, I don’t think many people would think well of the husband if he encouraged his wife to go round and sort out the issue.  Or if, while the family is sleeping, an intruder was heard to be roaming around downstairs, what man could fail to think he had not fulfilled his role as ‘head of the house’ if he hid upstairs and left his wife to go down and look?  I think this is the image we have when we talk of the importance of men and women as being distinct, not to deny any kind of gender equality, but to suggest that there is something noble about a man protecting his family and standing up for them, and there is something wonderful about the female ability to reach emotional levels that seem to elude many men.

To suggest that men and women are equally good at certain things that require distinct abilities is to say that for the purposes of those requirements gender is not important.  I don’t think many of us would claim that this is true.  So when it comes to being bishops or leaders in the church, to suggest that men and women are equally good at certain professions is to say that for the purposes of those professions gender is not important.  Now that may well be true for most professions, but I think what is being claimed by those who are against women bishops (including many women) is that when it comes to leadership in church, the difference in gender is important.  By that I take it they mean the differences are important in the same way that they are important in the family home.  You see, unlike in, say, Parliament or the medical profession, no one sensible is saying that men and women should not be MPs or doctors – the reason being is that the political and medical institutions are not set up to favour one particular gender.  In fact, quite the contrary, if you discriminate positively in favour of men or women, you do so by disadvantage of someone else.  This was not realised by the post -1997 Labour Government that tried to artificially smooth the path for more women MPs.  If you try to artificially smooth the path for one group you automatically artificially disadvantage another group while you’re doing it.

But here’s the key distinction; unlike the church, political and medical institutions are human constructs, so naturally to have any discriminatory factors involves humans discriminating at one level or another.  The church is claimed to be something over and above human construction – it is thought to be a body that represents the bride to Christ’s bridegroom.  Hence, in those terms, even at a metaphorical level, gender is important; particularly given the difficulty in conceiving a neuter singular indefinite personal pronoun that departs from the ‘He’ or ‘She’ concepts (I don’t think we would wish to refer to God as ‘it’).  If the issue about woman as leaders of churches is about leaders being primarily representatives, that represent in the way that God represents the church as a bridegroom intended to support His bride (us to God and God to us), then I think I can see why some would prefer only men in leadership.

This might sound a tough nut to crack, but if we look at an extreme hypothetical, we might see more clearly why some prefer only men in leadership.  We know that those who are against women bishops clearly do see the gender roles as being important in Christianity.  I think it would be a mistake to assume they are the only ones – for if gender was completely unimportant then there would be no reason why some of the church could not refer to God as a She.  Similarly, to say that gender has zero importance must be to admit that God could have equally well chosen the incarnation to be in the form of a woman instead of the male Jesus.  Instead of Jesus on the cross as the Son of God, imagine a women on the cross as the Daughter of God, I don’t think many Christians would think that is the same religion.  It would probably more closely resemble the worshipping of Aphrodite or Iris or Athena, which may have qualities that Christianity does not, but it wouldn’t be Christianity at all as we know it. 

I am not making any comment on whether the religions centred around goddesses or ideas centred around ‘mother’ nature are better or worse than the more patriarchal religions, but if some Christians are seeking to retain the status of God as Father, Christ as Son, and representatives in the church as males to reflect that imagery of God, then I can understand their apprehension in not wishing for Christianity to lose its essence.  Perhaps their fear is more of a humble fault – they might be fearful that if the church cedes more and more of its uniqueness and fades into the background of an increasingly liberalised, individualistic modern culture it may not have many pearls left to share.  In that sense, those like me that support women bishops can respectfully disagree, while at the same time offering sympathy to the view.

With Christ at the head of the church we are dealing with ‘male’ and ‘female’ not merely as facts of nature but as the circumscribed shadows of deeper dimensional realities utterly beyond our control and largely beyond our direct knowledge, and in the inverse, they are dealing with us.  So given the foregoing, it is not that we have chosen that men should be leaders, it is thought by some that it was chosen for us by God – and that to consider the church only as an analogue to, or as having qualitative importance with, the other socio-political institutions in the world is to diminish some of its power and gravitas.  That is perhaps why some Christians (including some women) are not comfortable with women bishops.

My conclusion
I have offered those two perspectives simply to give an opinion on why each side feels as they do – and to bring to bear the view that neither side should be silenced or not listened to with respect.  What the Church of England has done quite well up to now in recent times is maintain a decent pluralism that sees both men and women in leadership, and members able to freely decide which church services they attend.  Those that do support women in leadership have been free to attend a church that has only males in leadership if they so wish.  That, I think, is why the issue of women bishops has caused more of a problem.  I think that the failure is a lot to do with the lack of a contingency plan for when those who cannot accept the ministry of women are in a diocese headed by a woman bishop. Objectors to women church leaders are in a different position to objectors of women bishops, because the former can give them a wide berth, whereas the latter cannot do so with such ease.  In other words, if a woman is the bishop of an overall diocese then the ‘pick and choose’ option is not so readily available to those who oppose women. That is something the Church of England needs to look at, and may well be what was behind the failure of the Laity to support the majority view. 

On the scriptural arguments, well the epistles from St Paul contain universals, and also specifics related to particular cultural nuances.  The example of the instruction against women speaking in church in the letter to the Corinthians is not a universal, in my opinion, or to be taken doctrinally, but specifically as a portent against the Aphrodite cult, which was rife with prostitution, and priestesses immersed in the Christian church who were indulging in their own brand of heterodoxy and heresy.  On the issue of women in leadership, it may also be noted that when St Paul was writing his epistles, women (sadly) had very much more secondary roles in society with a much higher rate of illiteracy than men, and they were likely to be less well versed in scripture than men, so women teaching might not have been a very high priority in first century Palestine.  Thankfully, this is no longer the case, which is another reason why the legitimacy of women teaching and in leadership may not be unpalatable in the way it was in the time of St Paul’s writing.   

What St Paul seems often to be doing in his epistles is giving exhortations that match the severity of the message of grace being impeded or disfigured by cult practices.  Anything that blocks out the light of the message of salvation on the cross is seen by St Paul as a huge impediment to the development of the church, and the propagation of the message that we are saved by grace.  It ought to be noted that, even today, most of the extant religious practices that tell adherents what to wear, whether to shave, what they should and shouldn’t eat, how to style their hair, how many times to pray, which direction their prostrations should be, which extra-scriptural resources they are allowed to consult, with whom they should converse, whether they should use contraception, and the like, are either man-made by leaders to keep congregates under their thrall, or they are legacies of the Old Covenant that Jesus has nailed firmly to the cross with a love and grace that supersedes the law (see Colossians 2:14).

My own view is that in encouraging both men and women to offer their talents in leadership we maximise the gifts that both sexes have to bring to the church, and we show that we are a body that can adopt eternal truths yet invest new meaning in them by remaining relevant in a rapidly changing and much more liberal, accepting and knowledgeable modern culture.  

James Knight is a long term contributor to the Network Norwich & Norfolk website and a local government officer based in Norwich.  

The views carried here are those of the author, not of Network Norwich and Norfolk, and are intended to stimulate constructive debate between website users. 
We welcome your thoughts and comments, posted below, upon the ideas expressed here. 
You can also contact the author direct at j.knight423@btinternet.com

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