On women bishops

I hesitate to write this, and I told myself that I would not step into this debate on this particular platform. I know that I am at risk of alienating dear friends as I write this, and that the stakes are high on both sides. I would very, very much appreciate it if you would extend grace to me, and be gentle with me in comments.


I went on my Twitter feed this morning, and within five minutes I was so sickened by the nature of the tweets on women bishops that I had to tear myself away.


I am an egalitarian because when I look at the varied and complex passages on women in ministry in the Bible, I am persuaded that the Bible says that it is good for women to teach the Bible and lead churches. But the particular passages are confusing and seemingly contradictory – sometimes women are involved in leadership (for example Priscilla, Junia, Euodia and Syntiche, Phoebe), and sometimes they are told not to teach (in 2 Timothy). It is the job of the Bible student to work out which is the rule, and which is the exception. Though I disagree with those who are complementarian, I can see why they reached their position and I respect them for their desire to be submissive to God’s word.


I ache for the women who have been sidelined for so long, who have been treated as inferior, who have felt like they have had to fight for their place and been excluded and treated with a lack of respect. I know this deeply and personally, and in my ministry there are many times when I felt the crushing wounds from people who said that I was sinful for wanting to teach the Bible. I am glad to be part of the Church of England where women are able to serve alongside men, and I think that it is a good thing that there will be women bishops.


But I do not wish to demonise those who, in good conscience, have looked at the same complex Bible passages as me and come to a different conclusion. It is simply not true to say that complementarian is the same as misogynist. Most complementarians do not view women as inferior, whatever the letter in today’s Independent may claim.


You can feel sexism, you can smell it as soon as it occurs, and it is not necessarily anything to do with theology (although that can come into play). It is the dismissive looking past you, the patronising smile, the thinly disguised surprise that you are here at all, shocked at your audacity to play with the Big Boys. It is horrible, and I have encountered it from both egalitarians and complementarians. Equally, I have had people on both sides of the debate who have affirmed me and my ministry and leadership, and I feel a special gratitude to those who have done so even while disagreeing with me theologically.


I would like there to be women bishops. But as it stands, this measure would effectively force out those who cannot accept it for themselves. (I know that those on the pro-side would say there are more than enough concessions, but the fact remains that the conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics are genuinely unsure of whether they have a place in the church, and they feel that they are being forced out.) I was really hoping that there might have been a solution that could provide adequate provision for my Anglo-Catholic and Conservative Evangelical brothers. I want women bishops, but not in this way, a way that pushes out and excludes, and sidelines. I know how that feels, how it has felt.


I know that there are those who are crying out for justice. I know that sexism in the Church of England and other churches is rife, and needs to be dealt with and ended, that it can feel all too often like a Big Boys club, and that this is so important for women in ministry to feel validated, honoured, valued as equals. I know that the establishment of women bishops will not end sexism in the Church of England, but that it will go some way to healing the hurts, and would be an important symbolic step.


But to take this step in a way that pushes out conservative evangelical and Anglo-catholic brothers? I do not want that.


I have no conclusions, no answers or strategies. I do not know which way the vote will go, and I anticipate heartache for the Church whatever the outcome. I am praying, and I hope for an outcome that brings God glory and helps his kingdom. I am praying for God’s word to be upheld and honoured, and not dismissed as peripheral. I am praying for peace, somehow.


This feels intensely personal to me. I have a dear, dear friend who is helping to lead the campaign for women bishops, and another dear, dear friend who is leading the campaign against. I feel the pain and hurt on both sides.


I feel like a child whose parents are divorcing, and all I can do is weep.

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84 Responses to On women bishops

  1. Jo Inglis (@Piano_Jo) 19th November, 2012 at 1:45 pm #

    In the words of Elliott & ET ‘ouch’

    • Jo Inglis (@Piano_Jo) 19th November, 2012 at 4:28 pm #

      In saying ouch earlier, I mean that I feel your pain through your beautiful words – sorry should have made that clearer originally.
      Jo x

      • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

        Hey there – I thought that was what you meant, but it was good to have it clarified! Ouch indeed – that is it, exactly. Much appreciated xx

  2. Tim Carlisle 19th November, 2012 at 1:43 pm #

    I was scared to read this, I’ve read too many blogs, articles and so on telling me that my interpretation of the Bible is at best based on not having actually studied the Bible and at worst it makes a sexist woman hater who wants nothing more than to oppress women. I was worried that I’d find a rant against men, against conservative evangelicals and against me.
    I’m sorry I doubted you fairness, holiness and wisdom.

    No easy way forward, but far too many prominent people on both sides are doing themselves, the church and the Gospel dis-service in their words and actions.

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 5:11 pm #

      Lovely Tim!
      Thanks for your honesty! I think this comment expresses the growing feeling amongst conservative evangelicals that they are no longer welcome to sit at the table and eat with other evangelicals – and this makes me very sad indeed.

  3. Charlie 19th November, 2012 at 1:16 pm #

    Thanks for this article, Tanya.
    You’re very real about the issue and have genuinely heard the concerns of those on both sides.
    My biggest concern is that the proposed measure will exclude so many passionate, gifted, faithful people from ministry in the future on the basis of their understanding of the Bible on a few difficult texts.

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 5:09 pm #

      Thank you so much for echoing my concerns, and for taking the time to comment.

  4. Anita @ Dreaming Beneath the Spires 19th November, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    A measured, wise post such as I’ve come to expect from you. Though I don’t agree.

    “Misogynist” might be a strong word, but I have no time for the male pride and insecurity which finds scriptural justification for forbidding women to teach, preach and lead. Patriarchy was definitely not God’s dream for the world, in Rachel Held Evans’ phrase.

    Jimmy Carter puts it better than I could.
    “The truth is that male religious leaders have had — and still have — an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.”
    “It is simply self-defeating for any community to discriminate against half its population. We need to challenge these self-serving and out-dated attitudes and practices.
    This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries,” he said. “The male interpretations of religious texts and the way they interact with, and reinforce, traditional practices justify some of the most pervasive, persistent, flagrant and damaging examples of human rights abuses.”

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 5:08 pm #

      Thanks for taking the time to comment – I appreciate it. I had a feeling we wouldn’t agree on this! I do think that misogynist is an unfair word still- there are Christians (male and female) who I know and love that approached the scriptures honestly and came to the conclusion that men need to take the lead in serving, both in marriage and the church. While I do not agree with their reading of those complex scriptures, I think it is unfair to presume that they are inflicting that reading out of a desire to subjugate women, nor that they had that conclusion already and sought to impose it on the Bible.

      I don’t know. I’d like to believe that there is enough room for a St Aldates, a St Andrew’s and a St Ebbes in the Church of England, wouldn’t you? πŸ™‚

      • Luke 21st November, 2012 at 10:35 pm #

        Yes I agree with your reticence to apply the term mysogynist to all complementarians. I personally would have thought that the Church would be the poorer for being without the leadership of some women I know; but theologically I do still worry that there are passages that seem to say absolutely that (and there are greater minds than mine who both agree and disagree). Would I be right to disobey what I interpret to be a Biblical injunction simply because such disobedience would seem to be more advantageous to the Church in my eyes? Would someone be right to call me misogynist if instead I held to my theological interpretation, even though I might do so against my own inclination? Are there not instances (and plenty of them) in the Bible where someone has taken steps that seemed to them counter-productive simply because they understood God to have told them to do so? I would hope Anita might believe me when I say neither male pride nor insecurity have led me there.

        • Tanya 22nd November, 2012 at 10:44 am #

          Thanks, Luke, for setting out a bit of your thought process; it’s really helpful.

  5. Joy 19th November, 2012 at 12:53 pm #

    A thoughtful post written with grace and compassion. It is a debate that appears to have no straightforward or ‘please everybody’ solution. Women are beloved of the Lord and have many wonderful gifts to bring to the body of Christ. How this is expressed and worked out in practise will probably always be contentious. Thank you, Tanya, for your honest confusion about who to support and how.You are far from alone in feeling stuck on this issue.:)

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 5:03 pm #

      Thanks so much for letting me know I’m not the only one!

  6. Liz Eph 19th November, 2012 at 12:51 pm #

    I find it very moving to read this. Being housebound myself I see the world through what I read on the web and the thing that is making me miserable is the way that we as christians talk to each other. We are so patronising and pompous. We are downright rude. Yes there are some big issues but can’t we talk to each other, have open debate with respectful and loving attitudes to those who don’t think the same ? James says how can I say I love God but not love my brother ? Even sensible lovely christians lobbing attacks on each other cos of issues that may be big but are NOT key to the gospel. What would convince the world that we are truly Jesus disciples is if we could even discuss politely rather than shouting like the gutter press to each other. Thank you for putting it into words xx

    “But to take this step in a way that pushes out conservative evangelical and Anglo-catholic brothers? I do not want that.” Who is it that is using harsh talk and manipulative tactics ? I don’t want these people to be pushed out, but I don’t want to be part of giving in to bullying attitudes and sulking either. It’s all very well for so many women to be so gracious about it for so long, but these people don’t just do it to potential women bishops I’m afraid.

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 5:02 pm #

      I wonder if sometimes we have a really skewed view of the world, having it mediated as we do through Twitter! I think there are nuances and understandings that come through talking and seeing people. That’s why it’s good, I guess, that the Church of England has these synods, however unwieldy they are. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting – much appreciated.

  7. Mia 19th November, 2012 at 12:46 pm #

    Dear Tanya
    Yes, dear one, you are treading dangerous ground, but I am glad and I agree with you! The problem arises, as I see it, when we as mere humans decide for ourselves how our Pappa is going to express Himself in and through His spiritual body. Only God has that prerogative and if He decides to teach some truth through a woman, I don’t think we should withstand Him. The goal of all the expressions of any gift from our Pappa is only to bring all of His children to maturity in their faith. If we make a rule or law out of anything, we seperate ourselves from our Lord Jesus and then any teaching or leading, weather it be through a man or a woman, is only in the flesh and will have no spiritual life. I think we should read the Scripture with a lot of “zits im leben” , in other words, we should consider the culture and ways of the times in which it was written and, of course, with a lot of dependent prayer for revelation!
    Thanks, dear one, for your courage to tackle this subject. I admire you for your tenacity.
    Blessings and much love to you.

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 5:00 pm #

      Thanks so much for your affirmation, Mia – much appreciated!

  8. Cat 19th November, 2012 at 12:37 pm #

    Good post Tanya – this didnt feel like a rant at all, it felt like a plea for people to put down their swords and step back and take a breath. πŸ™‚

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 4:59 pm #

      Thanks, lady – it felt quite cathartic to write. Xx

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