What do they believe? The Rt Revd David Walker, Bishop of Dudley, has kindly agreed to outline his own convictions as one in favour of women bishops fully aware that most readers will not share them
This article is personal. It represents how I, as a bishop who supports the consecration of women to the episcopate, think my way through the issues. The topics covered are the ones that matter most to me. It does not attempt comprehensively to cover all the major arguments. It is not written to change anybody’s view. But I offer it as a contribution towards mutual understanding.
Who can decide?
In Anglican ecclesiology churches both can and do err, including (explicitly) the Church of Rome (Article XIX), and ‘in matters of faith’ not just ceremonies. Even General Councils (Article XXI) have been in error. I believe that the universal church is eschatologically indefectible – it will complete the task God has set for it – but that no temporal manifestation of it can claim to be the full, perfect church, nor can any pronouncement carry an assurance of infallibility. This is a distinctly more provisional attitude than that of Rome towards the particular visible church at any moment in time. Specifically it recognizes that we can accept developments, believing them to be right and proper, at a lower level of certainty or unanimity than would be required by those who believe that the church is in principle inerrant.
As Anglicans we believe ourselves to be part of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. That assertion requires us to take seriously the wisdom of other parts of the same universal church. Some of the Reformation Churches have recovered the personal episcopate (whether with tactile succession or not) whilst others clearly exercise episcope but with differences in the balance between the individual, collegial and conciliar dimensions.
Free church witness
For me, these are equally part of the Church of God, along with Rome, the Eastern Churches and the witness of previous centuries. I must give due weight to what they can teach us about episcopal oversight. And in so doing recognize that there is no universal or near-universal church mind on the present subject.
Windsor has made us all more aware of the importance of consulting with our own Communion. In this case the Lambeth Conference has resolved, and the Anglican Communion has received, that it is a matter falling within the competency of provinces to determine. And, as constitutional changes in Nigeria make clear, in a post-colonial world the Church of England has no special status that might require it to hold back longer than others.
For these reasons I do believe that the Church of England has authority in this matter.
Is it scriptural?
The only explicit scriptural argument I find, for or against women bishops, is that of headship. Others are essentially arguments from silence (e.g. that Jesus could have chosen women but did not), or they require contentious interpretations (we cannot really justify women bishops on the basis of one possible feminine name ending). And for me, to accept the headship argument would mean either applying it to every walk of life or importing a sacred/secular dualism into the Bible.
The lack of any precise scriptural pronouncement either way forces me back to the overarching themes of the New Testament. St Paul sees clearly that the subordinations of earthly living (slavery, race and gender) in his society have no place in the resurrection life. The anticipated eschatology (most explicit in John’s writings) and the in-breaking Kingdom of the other gospels imply that, especially in the church, we should seek to live on earth a life as close as possible to that of heaven.
The role of the bishop as the focus for unity in the church is made much of in current debates. Too often this emphasizes the individual dimension of episcope to the neglect of the collegial and conciliar. Our unity in the church is in our bishops, not in our bishop. And, as Windsor clarifies, it lies partly in instruments which include both priests and laity.
I need to believe that the sacraments of which I am both a minister and a recipient come with a full assurance that God acts effectively through them. In line with my belief that churches can and do err, and my reading of Article XXVI (as much more than simply a statement about immoral clergy), is my faith that God makes up what is deficient in us. He will grant that orders conferred and elements consecrated are truly what the church is intending them to be, even if we have misunderstood his will as to who should be the minister of them.
Where do we go from here?
Whilst all are required (under Canon A4 and probably by Article XXXVI) to recognize the orders of every person lawfully ordained, the church has a duty to care for each of its members. I can quite see that for some faithful Anglicans to be ordained by a woman bishop or required to receive Holy Communion from a woman priest sets up a conflict of conscience.
In consequence I would not wish to see the rescinding of Resolutions A & B (which apply to bishops as much as to priests) nor any change to the present pattern whereby some ordinations are carried out by another bishop at the invitation of the diocesan. I see it as a matter for each diocesan bishop to ensure that good pastoral provision is made, and that detailed requirements to that effect should be enshrined in formal secondary legislation.
The ordination of women to the priesthood has already given women authority deriving from that office. A woman incumbent may be patron of a neighbouring living. Women archdeacons induct priests into their benefices. Women are elected to positions reserved for priests on Synod.
I believe that what has proved acceptable here is an appropriate pastoral distinction between sacramental ministry and wider issues of jurisdiction, which could be developed to include women bishops; though I recognize that this hangs on my understanding that oaths are made (or could be amended to clarify that they are made) to the office not the office-holder.
There is a lot of hard work ahead. It is important for me that we get it right, producing something that is theologically coherent and underpinned by large majorities, than that we get it quick. I will not, in Synod, vote in favour of a Measure I am unhappy with, simply to achieve the outcome of women bishops sooner.