Women bishops? As an issue, is it absolutely crucial or merely trivial? Other people’s answer to this question will have a considerable influence on how it is debated, as David Nicholl explains

It is not unusual for the orthodox to complain about how the Church of England is dealing with the arguments over women bishops. But we must also give credit where it is due. The House of Bishops has always maintained that it is a serious issue. We should not sneer too soon, for it is the orthodox side that benefits most from this approach. Let me clarify.

In the mid-Eighties, when the debate about women priests was a real one, and many people and parishes were discussing the issues with a seriousness that might now surprise us, the Archbishop of York, John Hapgood, a man of massive intellect, was musing (I cannot remember whether in print or on radio) on whether it truly was a first-order issue.

It might after all be no more significant than a quick change to the ecclesiastical canons, so that all references to men in relation to ordination be now taken to refer to both men and women – simple as that. In the end, the archbishop and the rest of the house of bishops declared unequivocally that it is of the highest importance, that it is, in their crucial phrase ‘a matter of both faith and salvation’. I can still remember the impact of this conclusion, for it was this more than anything that first persuaded me to the traditionalist side.

Rochester to the rescue

The achievement of the Rochester Report, as the Church of England’s official document laying the ground rules for the coming debate, has been to establish the seriousness of the issue, rather than to offer any solution. Most significantly, it explicitly rejects any attempt to give simple answers to a simple issue. Why it was prepared to give so much succour to the traditionalist side I do not know, but it suggests the traditionalist members of the Commission did their work well.

In chapter 3, it asks the uncomplicated question, ‘How should we approach the issue of whether women should be ordained as bishops?’ It begins by considering what it calls ‘four popular approaches’ – the argument that it is self-evident that women should be bishops, the argument from widespread support, the argument from experience (of women’s ministry), and finally the argument from justice – and concludes that none of them are ‘appropriate places from which to begin to explore the question’.

Four cast iron, knock down arguments in favour, and all four formally rejected by the CofE’s own official report. (pp.66–74, Section 3.1, read it, it is all there) This is not because they are wrong but because they are not relevant: in each case a more thorough understanding is called for. Each one presumes that the issue is essentially trivial and can therefore be resolved by a simple argument. We know that this is not the case, but the fact that the House of Bishops agree with us is a fact too often forgotten by both sides (and it has to be said by some of the bishops themselves when speaking to their own constituency).

Dangers of triviality

Most people see the issue as supremely trivial. The secular media entirely agrees, and can envisage only one possible outcome. It is only a matter of time before it happens. In other words, it is not truly a debate, but a matter of what to do with the tiny but vociferous minority of reactionary bigots. Most members of the CofE have been influenced by this attitude and are happy to share it. Of course women should be bishops; the arguments in favour are blindingly obvious; only a bunch of sad old conservatives would disagree.

If this is how we allow the discussion to be carried on (in PCCs, deanery synods, etc) we will have lost even before we begin. And will deserve to. If it is indeed a trivial issue, the answer to which is obvious, then there is no justifiable reason why we should oppose it so fiercely. If, however, the House of Bishops are right, and it is ‘a matter of both faith and salvation’, then just maybe we are not absolutely wrong. As I will explain next month.