Team Spirit?

As the Church of England moves towards the formal debate about women in the episcopate there are a number of options for the way forward. This month we examine a radical proposal: team or group episcopacy.

There are among those who have argued for the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate, some who hold that, generally speaking, women exercise authority consensually and by agreement, whereas men do so dictatorially and by dominance. They are suspicious of the traditional pattern of episcopacy (the monarchical episcopate which emerged at the beginning of the second century, and has been replicated ever since) because it is irredeemably patriarchal, and because it stifles the natural collaborative genius of womankind.

Ecumenical dialogue, furthermore, has introduced the notion that episcope (the ministry of oversight) can be exercised independently of episcopacy (the rule of bishops). The Methodist Church in England, for example, is said to possess structures of episcope (not least through its Conference) whilst having abandoned the actual office of bishop.

These two considerations have come together in an ingenious scheme to solve the problem of including opponents of women’s ordination in a church with women bishops.

It is suggested that there should, in every diocese, be a ‘team’ or collegial association of bishops (one of whom would always be male). These would minister in the diocese either as co-equals or in a grouping among which one was acknowledged as primus inter pares. Opponents of the ordination of women to the episcopate, it is thought, would be able to relate to the male or males in this team.

The principal objection to this proposal, of course, is that it abandons any pretence of the Church of England’s having continued the office of bishop ‘from the Apostles’ time’. What Hooker said of the episcopate (‘to be a bishop now is the same as it was in ancient times’) would no longer be true. A ‘team’ episcopate would arguably be as unacceptable and offensive an innovation to Catholic Anglicans as the ordination of women itself.

But there is more. In truth, ‘team episcope’ is also contrary to the aims and objectives of many of those who favour women bishops. They want to reverse, as they see it, centuries of oppression and exclusion. Many of the leading advocates have declared with startling frankness that girl-power (‘hands on the levers of power’ as one woman put it) is what women’s ordination is all about. And that is an appetite which consensual co-operation will clearly not satisfy.

It was the late Monica Furlong, long ago, who pointed out that the radicals have more in common with conservatives than with moderate revisionists

Radical proponents certainly have more in common with opponents than at first meets the eye. Both agree, for example, with Ignatius of Antioch, that the bishop is ‘a type of the Father’, and with the ordination rites of Hippolytus (c215 AD) and Thomas Aquinas that the bishop is alter Christus (another Christ). Those opposed embrace this notion, of course, for the sole reason that it is the tradition of the Church, handed down from Apostolic times. Those in favour, on the other hand, are influenced less by the givenness of revealed truth than by the usefulness of the iconic theory in advancing the sexual equality (= equivalence) which they take to be self-evident. Their aim is to mitigate (even to eliminate) the male language and imagery about God which they hold to be demeaning and offensive to women.

Bishop Paul Moore (Bishop of New York in the sixties and seventies) put the matter succinctly:

If God is male, not female, then men are intrinsically better than women. It follows then, that, until the emphasis on maleness in the image of God is redressed, the women of the world cannot be entirely liberated. For if God is thought of as simply and exclusively male, then the very cosmos seems sexist … God as Father and God as Son invoked by a male minister during worship creates in the unconscious, the intuitive, the emotive part of your belief an unmistakable male God. However, when women begin to read the Scripture, when they preside at the Eucharist, when they wear the symbolic robes of Christ, this unconscious perception will begin to be redressed and the femininity of God will begin to be felt.

So here is the paradox. Radical and church-shaking change depends upon a traditional view of the nature and status of the episcopate; for the simple reason that admission to an iconic and monarchical episcopate is the very means by which the rest of the radical agenda is to be implemented.

Both opponents and proponents, then, ought to reject this misconceived proposal. Like the suggestion that women might be ordained as suffragans but could never be preferred as diocesans, it would admit women to an episcopate which would be mutilated in the process.

Geoffrey Kirk is National Secretary of Forward in Faith.