The Rt Revd Wallace Benn gives a quick sketch of the scriptural argument against women bishops and suggest that it is a theological understanding too often abused or dismissed but not often adequately answered

I am writing this article on the morning that the Church of England will decide whether the consecration of a woman bishop is consonant with the faith of the Church. The problem is that according to the wisdom of Article VI of the 39 Articles, nothing is required to be believed by a Christian which cannot be proved from holy Scripture. No vote of Synod can overturn that sensible view!

The problem for the egalitarian position is that, to my mind at least, it cannot prove its position from Scripture. It can talk about different ‘trajectories’ through Scripture in a way that makes them sound like tangents, and it can make a case by special pleading to understand some passages differently than has been understood in the past, but it cannot prove its case from Scripture. I have listened carefully to the arguments and I remain, in some ways sadly for me, unconvinced. On the contrary the equal but different, complimentarian case lies clearly for all to see through the Bible’s teaching.

Biblical roles

The opening chapters of Genesis lay the foundation for all that the rest of the Bible teaches about who we are as people and about healthy sexual relations. Genesis 1.27 tells us that men and women are equally made in the image of God and together reflect that image too. So from the start the issue is not about equality – we are equal before God – but we are equally different. Eve is a one (literally = a like opposite him) who perfectly complements Adam, and in one another they find their needs and inadequacies met.

From the beginning in this equal partnership Adam is given responsibility and this is expressed by the fact that he is the one who names Eve. When things go wrong in the fall, it is Adam who is called to account by the Lord, not Eve. He is viewed as the leader or head in the equal partnership. In fact the fall can be seen from one aspect as Eve usurping Adam’s role and encouraging him to disregard the Word of the Lord, while Adam is equally guilty by happily going along with her suggestion!

What, you may say, has that got to do with women bishops? From the start, men and women are viewed before God as equals who need one another, and work best and reflect his image as they relate with one another. But they are equally different and you would expect that to be reflected in the roles adopted in the family, and in the family of the Church (roles in society generally is a different matter).

And so it is! When the New Testament talks about leadership roles in the Church, the same equality and togetherness is seen. Men and women work best together and need one another. So women were last to leave the cross and first at the empty tomb! Teams of men and women are everywhere seen in operation. But when it comes to headship or leadership roles, men alone are to take those roles. Women clearly were deaconesses, and as we see from 1 Corinthians 11, could pray and prophesy/preach in the church assembly. But it is clear from 1 Timothy 2 and 3 that the teaching office of presbyter/bishops in the church was to be reserved for men. Any amount of special pleading to get out of that is just not convincing!

Understanding the Trinity

During the Rochester Commission meetings, Professor Anthony Thiselton conceded that, although there were a number of articles written from the egalitarian viewpoint reinterpreting the teaching of the Pastorals, the main large modern commentaries largely take the traditional interpretation! Furthermore, the modern argument that equality must allow access to all the same roles in the family of the Church can, I hope, now be seen to be just one more evidence of the cultural captivity to the passing opinions of our time. It is not the God-given way to express the equal but different dimension to the way our Creator has made us. It is that which needs further work in the life of the Church.

This too has profound implications for our theological understanding of the Trinity. The historical orthodox understanding of the Trinity, well witnessed in the Fathers, is that there is equality between the persons but filial submission from the Son to the Father. Equality in the Trinity does not demand identical roles. ‘Functional subordination’ must be distinguished from ‘subordinationism’ and does not imply any inferiority in the Son to the Father. And of course, while unique, the Trinity remains the model for us of good interpersonal relationships.

Needlessly divisive

I understand both sides of the argument and respect those who seek to argue a different case biblically to the one I have outlined above. I am perfectly content to live and work as a bishop in a church that has two views held with integrity, and in my own work to be scrupulously fair to both points of view. We need to respect and love one another and find ways not to seek to unchurch one another – we can agree to disagree on this in love. But a decision to consecrate a woman bishop is, I believe, the wrong way to go and is potentially needlessly divisive.

If the decision is taken to go ahead, then it will be imperative for the unity and well being of the church that a carefully devised means of us living together in the highest possible degree of communion is worked out. While egalitarians will want to press ahead, and I understand that, in the light of Article VI and the sincerely held biblical arguments outlined above, it is my fervent prayer that those who hold to the traditional position will be granted a secure and not marginalized place in the church.

One final plea. Evangelicals need to consider again the force of the biblical case (see pp.148–156 in the Rochester Report), and Catholics need to broaden their understanding, from the ecclesiological and sacramental views which they put powerfully, to see the wider biblical picture. In this respect it was disappointing to read the Roman Catholic dismissal of the biblical arguments in their bishops’ otherwise carefully considered response to the Rochester Report. The case I have tried to outline above is often abused or dismissed but not often adequately answered!