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. Rob B 19th November, 2012 at 6:10 pm #

    Thanks for this Tanya – really good to hear, not least because you remind us that there are real people in this debate, not just positions of argument. I guess I’m a complementarian (after much prayer and study) but also a husband to an extraordinarily gifted wife, and father to three girls. It does sometimes cut to the quick if people see my view as chauvinist, not least because I’m then often riddled with doubt about whether that makes me a poor father and husband, although there’s plenty of room for improvement there in any case. It’s clear that much unnecessary personal angst has been felt by those in favour of women bishops as well.

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 6:24 pm #

      “there are real people in this debate” – yes, exactly. Thanks so much for this.

  2. Janice 19th November, 2012 at 5:59 pm #

    A beautiful post, Tanya. If only all of Christendom would approach these issues with as much grace and love as your post. Especially when you are someone who has been involved, even painfully involved, in the issue. It is so refreshing to hear such a gentle explanation of your point of view.

    I’m undecided about the whole issue, but I can clearly see why each side feels the way they do. Personally I’m grateful for the blog you write and am glad you do.

    I just can’t help thinking what a beautiful thing the Church across the world would be if we could just bring this tone to all of our in-house discussions. If we could start at the fruit of the spirit and work from there. But it is a hard thing.

    Beautifully written.

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 6:23 pm #

      thank you so much, as ever, for hearing my heart on this – I REALLY appreciate it.

  3. Gillan @ God and Politics in the UK 19th November, 2012 at 5:58 pm #

    It’s good to read a balanced piece on the women bishops issue from someone who is willing to consider both sides of the argument. This should be happening more!

    Sometimes the Bible is really clear on some things and sometimes as you say Tanya it appears to contradict itself (although usually when you look it more carefully there’s a good explanation that shows that it actually isn’t). When things are vague often I see people reading into the texts what they want to believe rather than weighing up the arguments. Because this is not a simple black and white situation I suspect God doesn’t mind if we have women bishops, especially as the concept of bishop is not entirely biblical anyway.

    Whilst that is my view, I am somewhat tired of the endless debate that surrounds this. Some of it is sound and some of it brings in agendas that are theologically dubious and not particularly biblical. Often this is from the pro-lobby, which annoys me as it undermines their case.

    We went through this with women priests and we managed to get through it without the Church of England falling apart. I am sure it can happen again.

    This issue isn’t going to rip the church apart, but whichever way the vote goes the ‘winners’ should make a big effort to show a lot of grace to those who didn’t get their way. If we can’t demonstrate Christ’s love to each other through this process then we have a bigger problem than whether women should be allowed to become bishops or not.

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 6:21 pm #

      Thanks so much for this comment – especially your last paragraph. You’re utterly right – it is the only way forward – this is most wise.

  4. Mark Meynell 19th November, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    Thanks for writing this Tanya – you have made some vital points that need to be heard but i fear are being drowned out.

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

      Thanks very much, Mark – that means a lot!

  5. AdrieneB 19th November, 2012 at 4:06 pm #

    Affirming women bishops doesn’t “force out” the conservatives any more than civil rights legislation forced whites out of the American South. They may be angry and leave, or they may stay and get used to it. Or stay and continue to resist.
    But conservatives arent being forced to do anything except to STOP enforcing restrictions on other people based on their gender.

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 5:18 pm #

      I understand this viewpoint.
      I think the conservatives/anglo-Catholics would argue that they would be sinning against their conscience to have a woman in authority over them, because of those passages in scripture which prohibit a woman from teaching etc. That is why, when the legislation originally came in for women priests, there were assurances that no-one would be forced to have a woman leading them. Twenty years on, those assurances have been overturned.

      This is why I would prefer a situation where there could be women bishops as well as making statutory provision for those who would want alternative oversight. That’s just my preferred outcome, but it doesn’t look like that will happen!

      Thanks very much for sharing this, in any case – I think you speak for many others.

  6. Jo Larcombe 19th November, 2012 at 3:52 pm #

    Thanks Tanya

    I enjoyed your post!

    Looking forward to meeting you next Monday…


    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 5:13 pm #

      Thanks! Me too!

  7. Chris Lord 19th November, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    Thanks for expressing well your dilemma and pain. My only (brief) advice is to relax: God’s a lot bigger than the Church…

    • Tanya 19th November, 2012 at 5:12 pm #

      Thanks! This too is true…


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