David Gillett, Bishop of Bolton, puts forward the arguments from Scripture for women bishops, not so much its trajectory as its theological vision

As I was a member of the House of Bishops’ Working Party and am quoted in its report about the biblical arguments in favour of the ordination of women to the episcopate, I often notice references to myself in periodicals like New Directions – yet I don’t always recognize the views being attributed to me!

Consequently I value this opportunity to explain why I believe that the episcopate should be open equally to both men and women. I am not expecting to find many readers of New Directions agreeing with what I write, though I personally have become convinced of the Tightness of the ordination of women, starting from a position when I would not have accepted that move. I once held the view the scriptural evidence is opposed to the leadership of women in the Church. I still believe that the biblical argument is fundamental but, some thirty years ago, I came to the conclusion that Scriptures challenge the Church to ordain women.

Weaker arguments

My own journey on this issue leaves me less than convinced by some of the ways of arguing for the ordination of women to the episcopate. I do not believe, for instance, that the justice argument provides a knock-down case and, although I think it relevant later in the discussion, I would not begin with it. Neither, on its own, does the biblical argument for the equality of male and female before God settle the issue. Furthermore, I reject the form of feminist argument that says that the Bible is so patriarchal that its witness must be ignored. Also, while I accept that there are examples of women holding office in the New Testament period, I am not convinced that there is as much evidence as is sometimes claimed.

The starting point for my own journey over these past three decades has been that all our history and practice, however honoured and widely practised, must come under the scrutiny of Scripture, and that the Church – semper reformanda – in each generation must submit itself afresh to God’s Word. In brief, I have come to support the ordination of women to the presbyterate and the episcopate because I find it consistent with, and, in the final analysis, demanded by the teaching of Scripture. I believe that the biblical material offers a clear basis – in creation, incarnation and eschatology – and that not to ordain women is to deny to them the ability to respond to a legitimate call from God and, to the whole Church, a significant vehicle for God’s blessings.

Created equally to lead

I begin with the understanding of men and women as created by God. The teaching of Jesus looks to the opening chapters of Genesis to provide our basic understanding of the place men and women in the order of things. The major weight is on Genesis 1.27, ‘so God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’ It is a theological statement of the equality of man and woman without parallel, and is the foundation stone on which we build a biblical view of man and woman in relationship to God and to each other.

Male and female are both equally made in the image of God – the text can only speak of equality and complementarity, not inequality and subjection. On its own, equality does not lead to the ordination of women. But the very next verse grants to man and woman in their equality and complementarity a joint ‘leadership’ role in which they represent God in his creation. Together they are to be fruitful and multiply (in which their roles will be different yet complementary) and to have dominion over everything in the earth. This granting of dominion farms equality in authority for both men and women: leadership and representing God in its fullness is both male and female. This position on the ‘equality in authority, leadership and representing God’ forms the basis of my understanding about women and men together in ordained ministry.

Genesis ch.2 goes on joyfully to celebrate this equality, diversity, complementarity and shared authority. In Adam’s search for an equal partner no other creature will suffice. Woman is the full equal with man in status and in authority – without qualification – as the outburst of joy expresses.

For this reason, most Christians find it possible to accept that women as well as men can be monarchs, presidents and prime ministers. I do not believe that Christ denied to women the possibility of leadership and representing God within the Church which, by God’s creation, has been given equally to men and women in the whole created order. Indeed, the biblical understanding of the complementarity of men and women as expressing the image of God implies that God is only fully represented by both male and female together – a compelling reason why I long to see both men and women equally together in leadership in world and Church.

Turning to Genesis ch.3, the world we all inhabit, we see the effects of sin on the male-female relationship which has often, as one consequence, seen males create patterns of domination. The rule of man over woman develops in a world vitiated by sin and alienation; it is an element of disorder that disturbs the original peace. Issues of distinction in relation to authority, leadership and acting as God’s representatives are a result of falling from God’s perfect will – to which Genesis 3 bears witness.

The theological vision

It is at this point that I was quoted in the report as referring to the ‘main trajectory of Scripture.’ I stand by that phrase but recognize that it has become a bit of an Aunt Sally to many! I prefer to speak of the theological vision inherent in Scripture. What is affirmed about the whole of humanity in creation is only approximately reflected in the experience of both the world in general and in the community of faith. There are examples in the wide sweep of the biblical story where the compromises of our fallen condition override the perfection of God’s creation. Likewise, the early Church bears witness to the vision of God’s purposes but only partially. Yet the teaching of Jesus and the New Testament as a whole make a reaffirmation of the vision of God’s creation, through incarnation, redemption and parousia – thus reaffirming the foundations that leadership and ordination are open to both men and women.

I believe that Jesus foreshadows this restoration of the wholeness of Gods creation in the way he included women in his life and ministry. The New Testament was clearly written in a first century culture, a culture in which Jesus immersed himself. Consequently (as I said in an unquoted part of my submission to the Bishops’ working party) ‘The fact that he did not choose any woman as part of the twelve is a theological statement, but not that no women could ever be allowed such a position within the kingdom of God. Rather it says that the incarnation of Gods Son was real and historical – he became fully part of the first century world and lived and spoke through that particular culture. As the incarnate Son of God he entered fully into human experience there and then. In doing so he made quite clear the kingdom principles that would challenge his culture and ours in the coming years’

This theological vision of creation restored by the work of Christ is encapsulated in Galatians 3.28 which proclaims the restoration of the original purpose of creation, ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.’ I am aware that many opponents of the ordination of women object to the use of this verse in this context. It is said to have nothing to do with the respective place of women in leadership, authority and the representation of God, but is a statement about our salvation which is concerned only to proclaim that men and women are equal and accepted by God in faith and baptism.

I agree that it refers to our salvation; but as I read the Scriptures, salvation includes the dimension that what was lost through the Fall is restored in Christ – to be experienced now by faith, and in part then in its fullness at the eschaton. This involves a full sharing in leadership, authority and in representing God on the part of both men and women in the Church as well as in the rest of the created order. We will never in this world achieve the fullness of the theological vision, but that does not free us from the obligation to follow the vision and seek to embody it to the fullest possible extent in every area of life.

Much more could be said, particularly about the of-quoted texts in which Paul prohibits women in various churches of his day from exercising certain roles. I come to these in the light of what I consider the controlling theological vision of Scripture (whereas once I used to start from these texts myself). I see them as part of the way in which leaders in the early Church related the theological vision to the church in that culture, but a way which already, in so many ways, was pointing to the future unfolding of God’s purposes in greater fullness.

Worked out in history

I, like many, am impressed by the similarities between the way in which the New Testament and the Church, in different ages, have dealt with the issues of gentiles, slaves and women (as mentioned in Gal. 3.28). In relation to each issue, the wider biblical record reveals internal tensions and counter-posed witnesses. While these were resolved within the New Testament period itself in relation to the full inclusion of gentiles, they were left partially unresolved in relation to both women and slaves. The New Testament itself stopped short of proclaiming the full implications of salvation in Christ for the practice of slavery. However, the Church subsequently embarked on the hermeneutical journey which impelled it to work for the abolition of the slave trade.

Christians now agree that the Spirit has led the Church over many centuries to see how totally unacceptable slavery is in the light of a full understanding of human beings made in the image of God and redeemed in Christ. Yet the arguments brought against Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists often relied on the fact that the institution of slavery was part of the indelible fabric of human society, and that the Bible often recorded this fact uncritically. It is no surprise to me that it took so long for the Church in the providence of God to be challenged on this issue. I believe that we are now seeing a similar process in relation to the place and ministry of women in the world and the Church, as our culture is being challenged to respond in ways that it has not previously faced.

Consequently, although I find it difficult and challenging that so many throughout the worldwide Church believe that the cause of the ordination of women is a misguided concept, it is a vision of which I am passionately persuaded. Matters of timing and the pace of change are important considerations, given these major divisions of conscience and conviction. However, I cannot leave the cause to one side because, for me, it is not merely a matter of cultural conditioning or contemporary relevance. It is the theological vision revealed in God’s Word which compels me to pray and to work for the ordination of women alongside men in both priesthood and episcopate. ND