Margaret Laird does not welcome women bishops

The assumption that the consecration of women bishops will be inevitable appears to be based, not only on the fact that this has already happened in the Anglican Communion, but also on the belief that equality and justice must be promoted in the Church, in exactly the way that they are upheld in secular institutions.

The fact that the Jewish and Christian faiths are revealed in biblical history and imagery as patriarchal religions does not seem to be considered relevant to the current discussions about women bishops. That God committed the religious leadership of his chosen people, both Jewish and Christian, to men rather than to women in the past cannot be ignored but that this not only was but still may be his intention would seem to many, both clergy and laity, to be incredible, incomprehensible, and extremely unjust.

Equality and justice

Yet in Holy Scripture, ‘equality’ is scarcely mentioned and what is meant by ‘divine justice’ is puzzling indeed, for it does not always relate to worldly standards and is therefore often beyond human understanding. The Jews found this a serious problem. ‘The way of the Lord is not just’, they complained, but the prophet Ezekiel commented, ‘It is their own way which is unjust’ (Ezekiel 33.17).

So what guidance can we find in the Scriptures about ‘equality’ and ‘justice’, themes which will frequently occur in our debates about women in the episcopate? When in the early days of the Church the Christians ‘had all things in common’, it was the principle of need rather than of equality which was applied to the distribution of their possessions (Acts 2.45, 4.35). Furthermore, the two gospel versions of the Parable of the Talents (Matthew 25.14–30, Luke 19.11–17) indicate that Our Lord did not rate equality highly in the life of the kingdom.

Similarly, ‘election theology’ and the belief that God works through whomsoever he chooses, a principle common to both Judaism and Christianity, never seems particularly ‘just’ when set against human standards. For example, St Paul points out in Romans 9.12 that God chose to work through Jacob the deceiver, rather than through Esau. This appears unfair but, as St Paul firmly stated, ‘God has mercy upon whom he will.’

The Book of Job also demonstrates that what seems unjust by human reckoning is not necessarily evil, but could be part of God’s plan. Job himself eventually accepts that ‘God is God and I am man.’ In Christ’s own teaching there are similar indications of this, especially in the Parables of the Labourers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20.1–16) and of the Unjust Steward (Luke 16.1–9). The difficulties which we as human beings face in these passages arise from the fact that God is both just and merciful, and this makes it impossible for us to equate divine with our human understanding of justice.

Maintaining unity

If then justice and equality, as we understand them, are not necessarily the most essential principles to be upheld within the Church, how does that affect the deliberations about the consecration of women bishops? In St John’s Gospel, there is no doubt about what Christ himself believed to be of the utmost importance in the future life of the Church. In John 17.20–23, he prays not only for his disciples but also ‘for those who believe in me through their word; that they may all be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee … that they may be made perfect in one.’

That ‘unity, peace and concord’ should be maintained in all the churches is also a recurrent theme in St Paul’s epistles. ‘May the God of steadfastness grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ’, he writes in Romans 15.5. He also urges the Christian community ‘never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother’ (Romans 14.13) but to ‘pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding’.

The importance of maintaining unity within the religious community was yet another theological principle which the Church inherited from Judaism. Jesus himself, like his contemporaries, had the greatest respect for the Temple and for the altar as the unifying symbol of the Jewish faith and the place of reconciliation. ‘Be ye reconciled with your brother before you leave your gift before the altar’, he warns his disciples. Jesus was doubtless familiar with an ancient and what seems to us an obscure law in the Book of the Covenant, the principle of which has surprising relevance to the ongoing debate on women in Holy Orders. This law in Exodus 20.25 states ‘If you build an altar of stone, you shall not build it with hewn stone.’

Unhewn stone

So anxious were the Jews to uphold the principle that the altar should be the place of unity and reconciliation that it was forbidden to build an altar with any stones which had been cut with a sharp tool, for that was a symbol of strife. Already as a result of the ordination of women, many of our altars in the Church of England have become the focus of conflict rather than of unity and reconciliation.

The episcopate remains as the only other unifying factor, for even with the appointment of the Provincial Episcopal Visitors to whom many members of the Church of England now look for their sacramental and pastoral care, the diocesan is still legally the bishop. If, however, a woman were to be consecrated as a bishop she would inevitably become both a figure and focus of conflict and symbol of disunity.

Our Anglican forefathers, who compiled the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (which still contains the official formularies of the Church of England, although many choose to forget this fact) were constantly aware of the importance of unity within the Church. The compilers stated clearly in the Preface that they were anxious ‘to do that which to our best understanding, we conceived might most tend to the preservation of Peace and Unity in the Church.’ For that reason, they commented on the fact that ‘common experience sheweth that where a change hath been made of things advisedly established (no evident necessity so requiring) sundry inconveniences have thereupon ensued; and those, many times more and greater than the evils that were intended to be remedied by such a change.’

Furthermore, in order to promote the unity they desired, the compilers rejected all changes ‘such as were either of dangerous consequence (as secretly striking at some established doctrine or laudable practice of the Church of England or indeed of the whole Catholic Church of Christ) or else of no consequence at all but utterly frivolous or in vain’. Would that the General Synod had been and that the members of the Rochester Commission would be guided by that principle!

Margaret Laird was former Third Estates Commissioner.