Archives for posts with tag: Women bishops

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, 21st July 2013
Genesis 41:1-16, 25-37; 1 Corinthians 4:8-13

In this ‘Ordinary Time’ in the church’s year, when we’re not remembering anything particular in Jesus’ life, like Christmas or Easter, what is on the Christian agenda for us here in Stoke D’Abernon?

The big news specifically affecting St Mary’s in the last week has been the grant of planning permission for the projected new hall. It will be a great place to have a Sunday School; a great place to welcome people to have a cup of coffee – not necessarily just after services, but perhaps in the mornings during the week as well, when the mums are dropping their children off at Parkside: a great place to hold public meetings, so that the church can be involved in the life of village society around it.

A great place, to put it simply, for the church’s mission. We know that there are a lot of people who are very happy to see St Mary’s as part of the local landscape – a beautiful part of the landscape – but it never occurs to them to come inside, or to come to any of the services.

If we are to share the good news of Christ, we have to do something to bring people in, to get them really to consider the message of Christianity, and not just to dismiss it out of hand as being old-fashioned or irrelevant in today’s world.

That step – the step, from seeing the church as a pretty building, to actually coming in and starting to become part of the people of Christ – is a big step. At St Andrew’s PCC meeting earlier this week, I was very interested to read, in a report on the children’s and young people’s activities, this:

‘… being part of the local community, then encouraging families to be part of the church
community as well, has great potential. Many comments from parents and carers at Messy Church and Baby Talk suggest that that they are unaware of what is going on [in the church] and that they thought Church was a bit dated/ old fashioned! Making church relevant and enjoyable in today’s hectic and time-demanding life styles is a key focus …’

When you are a Christian, there’s nothing more important than your faith, your church, in your life. It comes into everything you do. God at the ground of your being, or God as the ground of your being, to use Paul Tillich’s expression as quoted in Bishop John Robinson’s famous book ‘Honest to God’. [Robinson, J. 1963, Honest to God, London, SCM Press: chapter 3] Once you properly understand the position, it’s no longer possible to say that you can take it or leave it when it comes to church. But first you have to come in, and hear the message.

You can see how belief in Jesus radically affects people, and has affected people from the earliest days, when you look, for example, at what St Paul says in the passage from his first letter to the Corinthians, which was our second lesson this evening. He describes the Corinthians as being like kings, whereas he and the original apostles were nothing like that, being very humble and very weak when compared with the new princes of the church in Corinth.

When Pope Francis came in, he didn’t use his limo; he just got on the bus – and indeed on his visit to Rio de Janeiro this week, he won’t use the armoured Popemobile. ‘So the last shall be first, and the first last’, (Matt. 20:16) just as Jesus said.

So anyone who wants to be a prince in the church has to think very carefully what that really means. ‘We are fools for the sake of Christ, but you are wise in Christ’, is what St Paul says to the Corinthians, rather mysteriously. Does it mean that what Christians say doesn’t make sense?

Is what the church says ‘foolish’? That’s what some people say about the Church of England’s position on women bishops. That was another thing that happened in the church locally in this last week. There was a big meeting in Holy Trinity, Guildford, at which there was a report back from the lay representatives on the General Synod about what had happened since the proposed legislation, to allow the consecration of women as bishops, was defeated by a margin of six votes – three of whom had come from the Guildford Diocese – in November last.

The problem is supposed to be about making provision for people in the Church of England who are said to have ‘theological objections’ to women as bishops. They are sometimes referred to as ‘traditionalists’. You might have a nagging worry about this. What if this is one of those situations where on the one hand you have trendy morality without any real principles behind it, and on the other, Christians standing up for the traditional views which they believe the church is teaching them, dictated by the Word of God? What are these ‘traditional’ views?

The ‘conservative evangelicals’ believe that the Bible is literally the word of God – that in effect God dictated it to the various human authors, such as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and St Paul – and according to these conservative evangelicals, as there are references in the Bible, for example in St Paul’s first letter to Timothy, which say that women are subordinate to men and ‘not allowed to teach’ (1 Timothy 2:12), that means that women cannot ever be suitable for ministry – let alone for consecration as bishops.

I wonder if these people believe, for instance, that Methuselah (Genesis 5:21) was, really, over 900 years old. That’s what their stance implies, among other things. I certainly believe that the Bible can reflect the word of God, but that it was written in the context of a particular time and place: it reflected the customs and beliefs of its time. The Jewish society of first and second-century Palestine was male-dominated. Sexist references in the Bible reflect this, rather than any ‘word of God’, surely.

According to the other group of antis, the ‘conservative Anglo-Catholics’, the problem is one of ‘sacramental assurance’. If (perhaps for the reasons advanced by the conservative evangelicals), there is any doubt about whether a woman can be validly ordained, then if she administers the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, they will not be ‘valid’ – or indeed, if these catholics believe, as Roman Catholics do, that the bread and wine in Holy Communion somehow actually become the body and blood of Christ, then any doubt about the priest being properly ordained will interfere with this ‘transubstantiation’.

Article 26 of the 39 Articles of Religion, which you can find at p. 622 of your little Prayer Books, is titled ‘Of the Unworthiness of the Ministers, which hinders not the effect of the Sacrament’. It explicitly states that it doesn’t matter if the priest is a bad man, a sinner, when he gives Holy Communion – it is still Holy Communion. I would infer that, even if women are supposed to be lacking in some way, it must be far less objectionable than if they were bad, or sinners. So one can infer from Article 26 that even in the sixteenth century Archbishop Cranmer, the great theologian who wrote most of the Book of Common Prayer, would not have had much time for the objection based on ‘sacramental assurance’ – that women can’t administer valid sacraments. Even if the priest is bad, the sacrament is good. All priests in the C of E affirm that they subscribe to the 39 Articles, even today.

These anti-women schools of thought are subscribed to by a tiny minority in the Church of England. The ‘antis’ actually oppose women as priests as much as they oppose women as bishops – and they insist that their reasons are just those abstruse theological points about the literal meaning of the Bible or ‘sacramental assurance’ – rather than what it looks like, which is simple misogyny.

The difficulty for the General Synod, the governing body of the Church of England, is that if it makes a formal provision for these objectors, so that they can remain in the C of E but do not have to accept the authority of a woman bishop, this would mean that there would in effect be two sorts of bishop, one, male bishops, whose authority would be acknowledged by everyone, and the other, female bishops, whose authority would be acknowledged by most but not all their flock. In other words, female bishops would be inferior to male ones.

Clearly most members in the C of E at large would not want this. Most of us want there to be women bishops on the same terms as male ones. But because a two-thirds majority is required in the General Synod – which was achieved in the houses of bishops and of clergy, whereas in the house of laity, the vote was six short, and absent a new election to the Synod, the measure might fail again. The objectors say they only voted against because they didn’t think there was sufficient protection for the anti-women people – which conveniently doesn’t mention that, almost as a matter of logic, there could never be any formal ‘protection’ which didn’t diminish the authority of women as bishops, so in effect they were sticking out for something which could never happen.

Which brings me back to the question of the church’s mission. I think that most normal, ordinary people will not understand these so-called theological objections to women bishops, and may well think that what it really boils down to is that the C of E is still back in the Dark Ages, and that we are just misogynists.

Remember what our children’s worker at St Andrew’s wrote in her report:

‘Many comments from parents and carers at Messy Church and Baby Talk suggest that that they are unaware of what is going on [in the church] and that they thought Church was a bit dated/ old fashioned!’

What would Jesus have thought? All that stuff about ‘sacramental assurance’ certainly has a ring of the Pharisaical about it – and we know what he thought about that. ‘Whited sepulchres’, he called those Pharisees (Matt. 23:27). Frankly, until we stop the nonsense about women bishops, we have little chance of making people today see how Christianity could change their lives. If you care about it, write to our General Synod representatives. I can tell you who they are. [See ]

Perhaps in closing I could mention another, more positive, thing which the church locally has been involved in recently, which I hope you will hear much more about soon. This is the Food Bank which Churches Together in Cobham, Oxshott and Stoke D’Abernon is setting up. Financial help has already been promised from a variety of sources – including the PCC here at St Mary’s – and the next appeal will be for people to come forward and help in person with the collection and distribution of food to needy people. We will need at least six people each week to staff the distribution centre, which will be open at the Methodist chapel, behind the library, once a week for a couple of hours.

The actual food to be collected will be mainly non-perishables – we hope people will take advantage of ‘buy one, get one free’ offers in the supermarket as well as simply buying a bit more than they personally need – so it will be rather like Harvest Festival, but every week. If anyone would like to know more about the Food Bank, please talk to me.

When you read some of St Paul’s letters, just like the passage which was our lesson tonight, you get a feeling that the early churches were in need of careful leadership and direction. They got things wrong. St Paul tried to put them back on the right track. The right track – but how can we find it? Not by discriminating against half the human race, for sure. The Good Samaritan would surely have driven his Range Rover – his superior camel – off to Waitrose (after he’d dropped off the poor chap who’d been mugged, at Woodlands Park), and laid in some BOGOF offers for the Food Bank. I hope we all will.

Sermon for Mattins at St Mary’s on the Third Sunday after Easter, 21st April 2013
Acts 9:36-43 – Tabitha

If you had asked me who Tabitha was, when I was little, I think I might have told you about Tabitha Twitchit, the cat in Beatrix Potter who was the mother of Tom Kitten and his sisters Mittens and Moppet, and who made clothes for the kittens.

Now in the lesson just now we heard about Tabitha in the Bible, whose name meant Dorcas, or ‘gazelle’, a woman ‘full of good works and almsdeeds which she did’. She had died: and the widows who were in attendance, weeping, showed the apostle Peter ‘the coats and garments which Dorcas made, while she was with them.’ Like Tabitha Twitchit, Tabitha Dorcas was good at sewing.

But Dorcas was altogether more important than that. She is one of the few people in the Bible – or anywhere – to have been raised from the dead. The widow of Nain’s son; Lazarus, Jesus himself of course – and Jairus’ daughter. What Jesus said to Jairus’ daughter, whose name we are not told, was ‘talitha cumi’, ‘which is, being interpreted, Damsel, …. , arise.’

Damsel, arise. Talitha cumi. Dorcas, get up. Ταβιθα, αναστηθι, in Greek. There does seem to be some similarity between the two stories. Does it mean they are only stories?
St Paul said, if there were no resurrection, then our Christianity is pointless (1 Cor. 15:14).

But that’s not what I want to concentrate on this morning. We believe in God: we believe that Jesus was God in human form, the Son of God. Why would there be any limit to what God could do?

No, what I want to focus on is Tabitha, Dorcas. The Acts of the Apostles describes her as a ‘disciple’ – μαθήτρια, which means a learned woman, or a female student. It is the feminine version of the word used for the Twelve, the disciples. Their two key names are ‘disciple’ – a student – and ‘apostle’ – someone sent out, an ambassador. Today is celebrated in many churches as Vocation Sunday – and I want to look at this one person, Dorcas’, calling.

You will recall how important it was for St Paul to be accepted as a an apostle. He became the apostle to the Gentiles, to the non-Jews. Now here we have Dorcas, described as a ‘disciple’. This marks her out as very important among the early Christians. Before the Twelve became apostles, before Jesus sent them out to preach the gospel, they were disciples, students, of Jesus, the Teacher, the Rabbi.

When Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Jesus at the tomb, she called Jesus ‘Rabboni’, the most respectful word for a rabbi, a teacher, when she realised that she had mistaken him for the gardener. She too was a disciple, μαθήτρια.

So just as St Paul mentions, for example at the beginning of some of his letters, that he is ‘called to be an apostle’, Dorcas is described, before anything is said about her good works, as ‘a disciple’. She has one of the key qualifications for being one of the early leaders of the church; she is a disciple.

When I was reading about Dorcas, it reminded me about the continuing wrangle in our church about women bishops. True enough, the Bible doesn’t say that Dorcas was a bishop, an επίσκοπος, an overseer. But is does say that she was a disciple. I feel that being a disciple then was probably even more exalted than being a bishop – and Dorcas was especially exalted, she was uniquely ‘exalted’, in that she was raised from the dead!

But my train of thought wasn’t about whether there is Biblical authority for there being women bishops – although I do think that Dorcas shows that there is – but rather I thought again about the fact that there is still a deadlock about it today.

As you will remember, at the last General Synod of the church in November last, the motion to allow the church to ordain women as bishops was very narrowly defeated, by four votes in the house of laity. Three of the four representatives in that house from our, Guildford, diocese, voted against, and so did two of our clergy representatives, (one of them being our Archdeacon, who is now going to be Bishop of Blackburn).

There was a lot of upset, sadness and anger as a result within the church – but outside, the most common reaction was that the Church of England had showed itself to be completely out of touch. It was not our best day.

But when the various post-mortems started, those who voted against were saying not that they opposed women becoming bishops, but that they did not feel there was ‘proper provision’ for people who did not accept that there should be women bishops.

As you will remember, when women were first ordained as priests, the church adopted a system of ‘flying bishops’ to give spiritual oversight to parishes which passed a resolution that they would not accept women as priests. There are three or four parishes out of the 160 in our diocese which fall into this category, and there is a flying bishop appointed – the technical term is that he is their ‘Provisional Episcopal Visitor’.

There have been various proposals about how to look after parishes that will not accept women bishops. First there was a suggested ‘Measure’, with a capital ‘M’, which would be part of Canon – church – Law. Then this was replaced by a suggested Code of Practice, which would be more like the Highway Code: not law in itself, but the idea is that if one follows it, it will avoid breaking the law.

The problem is, that there doesn’t seem to be any likelihood that the various groups who are opposed to women bishops will agree that any one system would give them the protection they are looking for.

The other problem, which is related to this, is that if you go too far in making provision for people who, for whatever reason, refuse to acknowledge the authority of a woman bishop, you will to some extent make that woman bishop less than, or certainly not equal to, a male bishop. Not surprisingly, that’s not acceptable either.

Our bishop, Bishop Christopher, has been taking part in various meetings of bishops aimed at trying to come up with proposals to put to the next meeting of General Synod in July, so that the impasse can be removed.

He has said that the bishops have decided not just simply to put the same proposals, which were rejected in November, to the vote again. It is thought that they would not get through – and there might even be more votes against than last time.

However, there is a silence about what proposals they are going to put forward. No one seems to be minded to compromise, and indeed some groups appear to have hardened their position.

There is apparently a school of thought, following the Bishop of Gloucester, that there is so little chance of agreement, given the current membership of the Synod, that the only thing to do is to wait until new Synod elections have taken place in three years’ time, and new people will be there to consider the whole thing afresh.

I think, from what I have read, that this wait-for-three years idea is really based on the assumption that the majority in the church, who support women bishops, will get themselves elected in bigger numbers, so that the opponents will be overwhelmingly defeated, and there will be no need to have any provisions for dissenters – you will either have to accept women bishops or, ultimately, leave the church. But then again, the antis might organise their supporters too, and come back in greater force.

I have recently discussed all this with a leading Forward in Faith minister (FiF are against women even as priests, let alone bishops) and with various people, lay and ordained, who can’t see why we shouldn’t have women bishops – and who think that the church is losing out, for as long as it doesn’t happen.

My own perspective is that the Church of England is a ‘broad church’ with a fine tradition of accommodating a wide variety of views on all sorts of important things. We range from High Churchmen, who are practically indistinguishable from Roman Catholics, who sometimes use Roman Catholic service books and pray for the Pope as Vicar of Christ on earth; we range from them to Low Churchmen, who don’t wear any vestments, who may not use the prescribed forms of services either, but incline to Pentecostal worship, speaking in tongues and so on: and we include all shades in between.

We accept that all these varieties are Anglicans. We turn a blind eye to the fact that Canon Law actually lays down the services to be used, the vestments to be worn, and the doctrine which is supposed to be authoritative – you can find it in the 39 Articles in your Prayer Books, beginning at page 611. There are an awful lot of churches that don’t go along with these requirements – and no-one tries to kick them out as a result.

It has given me the idea, (which you might think is an odd one coming from a lawyer), that perhaps it is not a good idea to try to draw up legalistic solutions to the women bishops question. Codes of practice, Measures in Canon Law and so on, will never command unanimity. But should that stop the whole process?

I wonder whether in fact a better way would not be simply to recognise that not all Anglicans agree, even on quite fundamental matters – but that we all worship the same God and proclaim the same Lord Jesus Christ. So we should simply get on with ordaining bishops. Some would be men, and some, women.

Perhaps we would have to do it on the basis that all the language we use now is really gender-neutral. Just as in a legal contract it usually says that words connoting the masculine also include the feminine, so we could either actually change the relevant words in the consecration service and in Canon Law, or adopt a definition clause similar to one in a contract.

Then what if a particular parish doesn’t accept the bishop’s authority, if that bishop happens to be female? I would suggest that a parish in that situation should do what a number of parishes already do, even in this diocese, and would just carry on regardless.

If they need a bishop, they can ask one to come and give them ‘episcopal oversight’, for example to ordain new priests. There is a good historical precedent for this in the beginnings of Methodism, when John Wesley (who with his brother Charles, remained Anglican priests until they died) found that there were many congregations in the new colonies in America who had no priest – but that the Church of England would not send bishops to ordain people.

So the Wesleys, who were not bishops, ordained ministers for these congregations. Although in the end it was a factor in such congregations becoming Methodist rather than Anglican, there was no difference – there is no difference – between Anglicans and Methodists doctrinally, and the Wesleys weren’t kicked out of the Anglican Church.

Today’s Americans have arguably done it again – they have ordained women as bishops, and indeed the ‘Presiding Bishop’, as they call it, their leading bishop, Katharine Jefferts Schori, is female. But although there have been rumblings, the Episcopal Church has not been chucked out of the Anglican Communion.

This would seem to me to be very true to the practice of the early church. First Jesus himself, and then St Paul, set up the gospel message over against the religion of the Pharisees and scribes. Jesus said, according to St Matthew, (5:17) ‘Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am come not to destroy, but to fulfil.’

But He went on to preach the Sermon on the Mount, which went far further than the old legalistic approach. A Christian goes the extra mile, turns the other cheek: that is much more important than the letter of the law. Could we not adopt a similar approach to consecrating women as bishops?

I would suggest that if we did look at it in a less legalistic way, then we should not draft precise codes of conduct or detailed provisions. We would simply acknowledge that in this area, as in others, some congregations would not entirely conform: but the hierarchy would turn a blind eye.

I hope you get the idea. Sometimes a sermon isn’t a ready-made prescription: do this and your passage to heaven is secure. Sometimes the preacher has to challenge their flock, to ask you to work out how you would put the gospel message into practice in your lives. This is one of those. Let me – let Bishop Christopher – know what you think.

Sermon for Evensong at St Mary’s on the Feast of Christ the King, 25th November 2012
Galatians 3:28 ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus’. 

Tonight I am going to break one of the rules which I set myself in my preaching, which is that I try always to say something about the lessons which are set in the lectionary for the day. Today as we heard, we had the story of Belshazzar’s Feast and the writing on the wall in Daniel, and in the NT lesson from Revelation we were reminded of the overwhelming power of God: ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega’, the beginning and the end.

But, apart from reflecting on the difference between the ‘principalities and powers’ of which Belshazzar, King of the Chaldeans, was one, and The Lord God, almighty, invisible, only wise, which will prompt us to reflect that God is far more powerful and important than the meaning of any particular way of life, I want tonight to deal with something less earth-shaking, but nevertheless important for us in the Church of England today. That is, the question of women bishops.

I am sure that we all know that on Tuesday the governing body of the church, the General Synod, the Church’s parliament, voted against the proposal to allow the ordination of women as bishops, subject to a safeguard for those parishes which did not want the oversight of a female bishop, that in the arrangements for episcopal oversight, due ‘respect’ would be paid to the reasons why those parishes felt as they did. To say that the Synod ‘voted against’ the proposal to allow women to become bishops is misleading. The Synod voted overwhelmingly in favour of it, but under the Standing Orders, the constitutional rules which the church has adopted for the Synod, the vote was six short of the majority needed under those rules for the proposal, the Measure, as it was called, to be passed.

The General Synod has three ‘houses’, for bishops, clergy and laity respectively. They are not houses like the House of Commons or the House of Lords, separate chambers in which each group votes: it is more a question of having groups within the one Synod body, a certain maximum number of bishops and clergy, and enough lay people to reflect the Protestant character of the C of E – it was controlled not by the Pope, but originally by the King, Henry VIII, and the king’s powers have now passed to the people. There are 470 members; 47 bishops, 194 clergy and 206 lay members.

Under the Standing Orders of the General Synod, (SO 35(d)(i)(1)), a vote finally to approve a Measure which provided for permanent changes in the ordinal (the rules for ordination of clergy), requires not a simple majority, but a two-thirds majority of all three houses.

Although 42 of the 44 dioceses in the C of E, including our Diocese of Guildford, have voted in favour of women bishops, and although the requisite 2/3 majority was obtained in the houses of bishops and clergy, in the house of laity the result was 132 in favour and 74 against, six short of the majority required by Standing Orders.

We have four lay members of General Synod from Guildford Diocese. I wrote to three of them before the vote, and two replied. After the vote, as there doesn’t seem to be any published list of votes cast, I asked them to tell me how they voted. So far they have not told me how they voted; however, from the correspondence I had with them beforehand, I think that it is likely that at least those three of our representatives voted against the Measure. I think that it is somewhat odd that at least a half of the votes which doomed the Measure came from a diocese, Guildford, whose parishes solidly supported it. It is a peculiar form of democracy, which allows these so-called representatives to vote completely contrary to the overwhelming wish of their constituents. [The official voting record, issued after this sermon was preached, confirms that three lay members from Guildford voted against the Measure.]

So much for the nuts and bolts of what happened on Tuesday. What are the main schools of thought for and against women bishops?

The first minority group opposed are the so-called traditionalists, or Catholic fundamentalists. They say that, as Jesus, the head of the church, was male, his vicars, which literally means those who stand in his place, from St Peter downwards, must also be male. They also advance the view that the patriarchal society which existed at the time of Jesus is the immutable model for all human society, still valid today. So men are the leaders, the hunter-gatherers who go out to work, and women are the home-makers, whose role is to support the males, produce and rear children.

The traditionalists don’t seem to have any difficulty with the thought that the head of the Church of England is the monarch, which of course for the last sixty years has been a woman – and indeed in the reigns of Queens Elizabeth I, Mary and Victoria, there has been a substantial history of female overall leadership of the C of E.

The second dissenting group are the so-called Conservative Evangelicals, who believe that the Bible is the literal Word of God, and that because St Paul in his first letter to Timothy, 2:12, wrote, ‘I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence …’, women cannot be in leadership positions in the church – and some evangelicals also refer to a sentence in the following chapter of the same letter to Timothy, 3:1f, where for example the King James Bible translates the passage as, ‘If a man desire the office of a bishop, he desireth a good work’. ‘If a man …’ In fact this is a wrong emphasis. ‘Man’ in the King James usually just means ‘person’.

The Greek original simply says, ‘If someone aspires ..’ (ει τις … ορεγεται). There is no gender defined – although in the passage St Paul goes on to describe the qualities which a bishop needs, ‘above reproach, faithful to one wife, sober, temperate, courteous, hospitable and a good teacher’, and so on in the same vein. Clearly there, St Paul assumes that bishops will be male, although commentators have pointed out that this passage is about the moral qualities required, against a background which reflected the make-up of society 2,000 years ago. In that sense, the background assumed in these passages is descriptive, describing how things were, rather than prescriptive, saying how they ought to be.

Be that as it may, both these groups, the traditionalists and the conservative evangelicals, are implacably opposed, not just to women bishops, but also to women priests. To them it doesn’t matter that they are a tiny minority – the six people whose votes brought down the Measure amounted to 1.27% of the members of the General Synod. These opponents of women in ministry don’t care if they are a minority, don’t care if the world outside thinks that their views are outdated or inhumane. They believe that tradition, in the case of the the traditionalists, and a literal interpretation of St Paul’s teaching in one of his letters, in the case of the conservative evangelicals, are reasons which trump any more secular or even legalistic considerations, such as equal-rights legislation (although the churches currently have an exemption from complying with it).

But what about the vast majority in the C of E? Are we just wishy-washy liberals who bend to the force of public opinion rather than keeping to the true theological position? Of course you know that I certainly believe that it is right that the church has women in ministry, and that there should be women bishops. And of course you know that I am indeed a liberal in the church: but I would hope no-one would ever think of me as wishy-washy!

I believe that in fact there are excellent theological reasons for women bishops. It is not a question of being in tune with modern society. I see that Bishop Tom Wright, the evangelical theologian, has written an article this week in the Times in which he says that it would indeed be wrong just to follow the dictates of society, and he insists that there must be Biblical authority for what the church does. But he finds that, rather than the Bible ruling out the possibility of women bishops, in fact there is substantial Biblical authority for women having a perfectly good right to be bishops. (See

St Paul’s messages on bishops are not as weighted against women as the conservative evangelicals argue. The passages in his first letter to Timothy, about a woman not being fit to teach, are based on an argument that because in the Garden of Eden it was the woman who was beguiled by the serpent, and who led Adam into sin, so women can’t be trusted to teach in public. But does anyone seriously believe that the story of the Garden of Eden in Genesis is anything other than a picturesque fable?

On the other hand, in his letter to the Galatians, 3:28, comes this famous passage. ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’ There is no need to explain that! It should dispose of the whole question.

In St Paul’s greatest letter, to the Romans, at 16:7, he addresses a woman called Junia as an ‘apostle’: surely at that time that was the highest level, the highest status, in the early church. If you were an apostle, then surely you could be a bishop, like the other apostles – certainly like Peter.

In this closing chapter of his great letter to the Romans, St Paul sends greetings to a number of other women who he clearly regards as leaders in the church there, such as Phebe, whom he calls a ‘deacon’, Priscilla and Aquila, who were willing to risk their necks, literally, to save him; Mary, Tryphena and Tryphosa, Persis ‘the beloved’, who are all said to have ‘laboured in the Lord’; and he entrusts the letter to be carried to Rome, and no doubt to be read out to the Roman church, to the deacon, Phebe, who was travelling to Rome on business. In other words, St Paul trusted the safe carriage and exposition of his greatest letter to a woman. So much for women not being allowed to teach!

And of course there are other examples of leading women in the early church – for instance Lydia in Acts 16:13.

But surely what is most striking of all is that at the heart of the most important event in the whole of Christianity, Jesus’ resurrection, it was not the male disciples to whom he appeared, but ‘Mary Magdalene and the other Mary’ (Matt. 28:1, for example). These women, women, announced to the disciples the most important event in world history. If Jesus himself chose women to convey the earliest Gospel, the quintessential Good News, surely He would be happy for them to be leaders of his church.

I agree with Tom Wright that the justification for there being women bishops, for Christians, doesn’t depend on what he calls ‘Fake Ideas of Progress’, but on the Bible. I would rather say that those ideas of progress, according to which men and women are all equal in God’s sight (Heb. 4:13), are themselves in accordance with Bible precedent, rather than being somehow opposed to it.

So what is the church to do? In particular, is there anything that we in Stoke D’Abernon can do, about the perverse and unrepresentative decision of the General Synod this week?

I think that there is. The Synod has been in effect taken over by minority interests, in the way that all democratic bodies risk being infiltrated by activists. In order to become a member of General Synod, a lay person has to be first a member of a Deanery Synod, and then the Diocesan Synod. These are not seen as very exciting jobs – so the normal middle-of-the-road people don’t put themselves forward. That has to change.

It is really as a result of apathy, a sin of omission, that these people, whose views are not representative of the majority of ordinary church-goers in our diocese, have got themselves on to General Synod. I wrote to one of them, whose views were clearly against women bishops, pointing out that as one of our representatives, surely he should subordinate his personal views to the expressed view of his constituents when he voted. He replied that, if we didn’t like the way he voted, we could vote him out at the next General Synod election. I think that that is exactly how this vote was lost. People like this man, one of our, Guildford Diocese, representatives, put their own esoteric minority views ahead of the majority view, and thereby stymied it.

I do hope that we remember this: that you and I, the lay people in this Diocese, should not stand idly by. Let’s get ourselves into the Synod and make sure that nothing so undemocratic, and so unbiblical, ever happens again.

Remember, ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.’