FSG: Faith, Sexuality and Gender

On the margins of orthodoxy

The consecration of female bishops is a greater source of disunity than that of gay bishops 8 July 2008

Some of my readers might be shocked to read such a statement from me. In which case, let me explain.

The Church of England yesterday voted to ordain women to the episcopate. The arguments against this decision were the classic Catholic ones: that there is no precedent or authority for the move, either in Scripture, Tradition, or in the Anglican Communion itself acting in isolation from other churches that see their authority and the truth of their sacraments as based in the apostolic succession. The victorious women, on the other hand, or at least some of them, claimed that the vote in their favour constituted an end to the discrimination that had been practised against them. This sort of language is totally inappropriate, inaccurate and misplaced. It’s nothing to do with discrimination. Who do the women think were discriminating against them, and for what reason? It’s supposed to be about discerning the will of God, not untapping previously denied job opportunities. This sort of response shows a complete lack of concern for Church unity; and, in that, it seems to me to betray an absence of the Holy Spirit.

And the point is, this decision does introduce profound disunity into the Church. There are many bishops, priests and laypersons who just won’t be able to accept it, on theological grounds not those of discrimination. Many of these will end up leaving the Church. Many who stay will be faced by terrible dilemmas about who they can worship and serve under and with. It’s not just a case of some male priests being unable to accept the authority of a female bishop; but also, they and many laypersons won’t accept the authenticity of the priesthood of those ordained by a female bishop. Over time, this could spread enormous confusion and fragmentation into the day-to-day life of the Church; or else, the thing will just prove unworkable, and the men and women concerned will either just leave or split off to form their own continuing and – in their eyes – authentically apostolic church.

Now, I am sympathetic to the Catholic position and the people – women as well as men – who just can’t accept the validity of a female episcopate. I’m a Roman Catholic myself; and while I advocate a loving, compassionate and non-judgemental attitude towards those who have difficulty adhering to the Catholic Church’s moral teaching in all areas of sexual life (and that includes myself – a bisexual and transgender man), I do try, however imperfectly, to live out a life of faithful obedience. I feel I need to reiterate this to combat a reaction to my stance against women bishops that might make out I was being self-serving and hypocritical: being a gay (actually, bisexual) man, thinking it was absolutely fine for gay male bishops to be sexually active; while being misogynistically opposed to women bishops. This is completely not the case: I don’t think it’s just fine for a gay bishop to be sexually active; and I’m not opposed to women bishops out of aversion towards women – I don’t have an aversion towards women; I love and desire them, as it happens, and enjoy friendship and fellowship with them.

The thing is, the question of women bishops is a more fundamental issue of doctrine than that of gay bishops; and it introduces more disunity into the Church, in ways I’ve attempted to outline above. The teachings about the Church itself, and the apostolic foundation of its authority and sacraments, are absolutely integral parts of Catholic dogma. If you start introducing bishops who, by virtue of that teaching, cannot be regarded as authentic, then the whole edifice is literally subverted from within. A male bishop whose morality is questionable, and certainly would be regarded as sinful from the standpoint of traditional Catholic moral teaching, is nonetheless still an authentic bishop if he has been chosen by his peers and consecrated in accordance with tradition. (This is leaving aside, for a moment, the question of the Catholic Church’s denial of the belief that the Anglican Communion actually does have the apostolic succession!) So his morality is more a matter of discipline and moral example than fundamental dogma.

The fact that the issue of female bishops introduces more division into the church than sexually active gay clergy is illustrated, for me, by the fact that the breakaway conservative evangelical movement, GAFCON (discussed in my previous post), is potentially going to end up being just as divided over this as over the anti-gay-clergy sentiment that unites it. So far, GAFCON has glossed over this issue so as to prevent a united front. But there are undoubtedly going to be African dioceses and conservative evangelicals that will be unable to accept the authority of women bishops; and so you’ll end up with at best a two-track break-away GAFCON Church, with parts of it happy to accept women bishops and others who elect to come under the authority of male bishops only. The geographically dislocated character of the GAFCON movement – with some Western dioceses or individual churches choosing to come under the authority of bishops from other continents – could be the thing that facilitates this dual approach. However, it will break up the traditional association between a bishop and the geographical territory over which his pastoral mission extends.

This lack of engagement with the profound issues raised by women bishops is, for me, demonstrated by the one part of the GAFCON website where they engage with the question of female ordination. This is an interview with a Ugandan bishop, where – in answer to the question, “What is the Church of Uganda’s position on the ordination of women?” – the following answer is offered:

“The Bible is very clear that homosexual practice is sin. But, nowhere in the Bible is being a woman described as a sin. The ordination of women and the ordination of practicing homosexuals cannot be compared. They are not the same issue. People of equally strong evangelical conviction come to different conclusions about the ordination of women, but we in Uganda have understood the Bible to teach that God created men and women in His image and both can be ordained to serve God in His Church.”

Well yes, if this is the quality and consistency of theological understanding that is being applied to these issues, GAFCON is going to have problems! So women can become bishops because it’s not a sin to be a woman! Well, thanks a lot for the enlightenment! And gay men can’t be bishops because being a practising homosexual is a sin – well, a) that’s not very pastorally sensitive to the gay members of your congregation, and b) what about ‘out’ but non-practising homosexuals – is it a sin to be gay, and even if it is a sin (which the Catholic Church doesn’t teach), does that mean gay men can’t be bishops? We’re all sinners, after all.

And yes, people of strong evangelical convictions will come to different conclusions about the ordination of women – particularly, their ordination as bishops. And one wonders how united the GAFCON break-away Church will be able to remain as more Western, liberal dioceses introduce women bishops, while traditionalist evangelical and African dioceses won’t accept the authority of women.

You certainly can and should compare gay and women bishops: they’re both a product of the liberal West. But women bishops are a more fundamental threat to the Anglican Communion as a Church in the Catholic tradition. Admittedly, to evangelicals such as the Bishop of Uganda, this may not be such a problem. But then, GAFCON doesn’t seem to be too bothered about fostering the unity of the Anglican Communion, either.

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3 Responses to “The consecration of female bishops is a greater source of disunity than that of gay bishops”

  1. Steve Says:

    You seem to have hit several nails on the head.

    I think that’s pretty similar to the Orthodox point of view.

  2. […] (Roman Catholic) blogger has summed up the issues clearly and concisely, and I don’t think the Orthodox approach would differ very much: The Church of England […]

  3. austinterrys Says:

    Absolutely correct – homosexuality may be declared as a propensity, but is manifested behaviorally. Gender is an inescapable phenotypic expression of the individual’s genetic makeup. The former can be overlooked by the church as sinful behavior, and after all we all fall short of the glory of God’s perfect standards. The latter is a threat to the view of many clergy to the perceived right of men to be leaders. In the case of the former, there is at least some legitimate discussion on propriety of conferring a leadership role on someone whose behavior is censured – but there seems to be no genuine curiosity-driven questioning on either side of the debate over allowing women to lead. Those on each side simply line up arguments to support their a priori positions, and ignore the arguments of the other side.


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