John Shepley is prepared to be persuaded by a positive argument from Scripture in favour of women bishops but remains most uncertain as to whether any such case can ever be convincingly made

With Canon Jane Sinclair’s amendment to the second of the synodical motions on the ordination of women to the episcopate in July, Canon A4 has come into a new prominence. It was clearly being cited in that amendment as a means of enforcing the acceptance of the ministry of women bishops on every member of the Church. ‘Private opinions’ might be entertained to the contrary; but public acceptance is to be rigorously enforced. Gras will have its way in the end (though by canonical procedures oblique to say the least).Such a degree of enforcement (plainly contrary to the spirit of the Bonds of Peace statement and the letter of the 1993 Measure and the Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod) raises acutely the nature and status of the arguments in favour of women’s ordination. For it has to be seen as effectively unchurching opponents of the innovation, and so runs the risk of being contrary to the spirit – if not the letter – of Article XX ‘Of the authority of the Church.’

Read therein?

We need, therefore to be asking again: ‘What are the scriptural arguments in favour of women’s ordination?’ In what way can this supposed development be ‘read therein’ and ‘proved thereby’?

Historically those in favour of women’s ordination have tended to rely on a rather ham-fisted use of a small number of proof texts, in particular Genesis 1.26–27 (as interpreted by David Atkinson rather than the Apostle Paul) and Galatians 3.28 (wrenched from its baptismal context). But diligent followers of the debate will have noticed a recent change of tack.

The difficulty has been that, despite decades of polemic, no real consensus has emerged about important texts (1 Corinthians 14.33–38, for example). Of this passage the Rochester Report honestly admits that it is seen by proponents ‘either as prohibiting women speaking inappropriately in Church, or as containing a non-Pauline interpolation, or as reflecting St Paul’s indignant repudiation of the views of those who want women to be kept silent.’ Clearly all three cannot be right. Just as ‘clearly’ the only thing that they have in common is that they all, more or less, support the ordination of women – the desired conclusion!

Talk, therefore, has now come to centre on ‘the overall trajectory of Scripture.’ What matters, it is said, is not the exegesis of individual texts (which is castigated as desiccated ‘Biblicism’) but the general significance and overall flow of the Bible in its entirety. David Gillet has neatly characterized this for us: ‘The main teaching of Scripture is the essential dignity, equality and complementarity of the whole of humanity before God.’

Sweeping statements

Sweeping statements like that, of course, are inclined to tell us more about their authors than about the Bible. Would any previous generation have assumed with the same nonchalance that Scripture is more anthropocentric than theocentric – that it intends to tell us more about mankind than about God? Be that as it may. Gillet has a more serious problem, which is simply that many of the most articulate feminist theologians roundly disagree with his conclusions. They see Scripture as deeply and irredeemably patriarchalist. Let Daphne Hampson speak for them all.

‘Christians believe there to have been a revelation of God in history. Therefore they must necessarily make reference to that history… Now that history is a patriarchal history. The relationships between persons of which the bible tells are relations between people existing in a patriarchal society. Women are either absent, or present fulfilling for the most part the roles which were assigned to_ women in that society. The figure of Christ is that of a male figure, and that is not to be evaded. God is conveyed through the use of metaphors which are male not female. And that history is not to be disposed of. It is necessarily present, and present as central to the religion. Even if at a conscious level people think that of course that was a patriarchal age, and we now live in certain respects in a more enlightened age, the metaphors and symbols which are present will be impressed on people’s minds.’

What about patriarchialism?

In short the problem with Gillet’s exegetical ‘trajectory’ is that it overlooks what others (including the most ardent advocates of sexual equality) see as the heart of the matter and the nub of the problem. It is little more than a transparent device

the simple question: ‘Is there is a scriptural case for women’s ordination?’ Can it be ‘read therein’ and ‘proved thereby’? And we need to be asking if it is rational to innovate in an area where there is so much confusion and contradiction.

As we have seen, it is not just the so-called ‘traditionalists’ who dispute David Gillet’s ‘overall trajectory,’ it is seasoned and doughty upholders of gender equality too. It is, after all, a long time since Monica Furlong declared that in these matters she had more in common with Graham Leonard and Pope Paul VI than she did with the liberal bishops of the Church of England. (She had in the forefront of her mind, I think, the theories of John Austin Baker, who was currently advocating the kairos approach – which receives similarly short shrift from Daphne Hampson).

But whilst asking the questions, we need also, in the interests of fair and reasonable debate, to give some clear indication of what arguments would persuade and convince us. This is all the more important since there seems to have begun a process of wilful erosion of requirements. Michael Adie famously claimed that the ordination women to the priesthood was ‘consonant

with Scripture and required by tradition.’ The recent motion on women bishops in the General Synod both moved the goal posts and lowered the bar. The consecration of women as bishops was said to be ‘consonant with the faith of the Church as the Church of England has received it.’ A decision to overthrow the consistent and continuing practice of the churches from whom the CofE received that faith should be made of sterner stuff than that.

Looking for proof

What we would need (as Article XX itself requires) would be conclusive proof. And that would need to come in two forms. First a clear and unassailable demonstration that the Pauline passages formerly taken to rule out female participation in the formal public ministry of the Church were never so intended – but that they were instead, for example, pragmatic concessions to current mores. Secondly, we would need unmistakable evidence of women presbyters and bishops in the apostolic period.

Proponents have tried to provide both; but the results have been so inconclusive that it should not surprise them that we

remain unsatisfied. It is not enough, for example, as Stackhouse does, to dismiss 1 Timothy 2.11–15 as ‘easily the most obscure of the classical passages of this matter.’ It did not appear so (as Rochester points out [5.3.23]) to C.K. Barrett, J.N.D. Kelly, G.W. Wright and W.D. Mounce; nor to Luther, Calvin or John Chrysostom. And it does not seem so to us. To give either a crudely egalitarian or a merely pragmatic rendering of Ephesians 5.21–33, moreover, as the Stackhouse attempt demonstrates, is to knock the stuffing (and the poetry) out of it.

Nor are the arguments about ‘Junia Apostola’ remotely convincing. Link them to attempts to date the frescoes in the ‘Catacomb of Priscilla’ to the apostolic period and claim them as a female ‘concelebration,’ and they become faintly risible. Nor would anyone who was not already an ardent partisan of women bishops have been impressed by Tom Wright’s bluster about Mary Magdalene at the recent Synod.

So – before it is too late – will the real biblical arguments in favour of women bishops please stand up. Be assured, when finally they do so, we will unreservedly applaud them!