Christina Rees, one of the Church of England’s most well known spokespersons explains to those of us who disagree why opening the episcopate to women will be for the good of the whole church
The author of this month’s lead article is, in the popular imagination at least, the Church of England’s leading proponent of women bishops, second only in importance to the two archbishops. Christina is a prolific and articulate writer and broadcaster, with many appearances on BBC Radio 4’s Thought for the Day, as well as a regular contributor to Woman’s Hour, Heart of the Matter and Newsnight.
She is a member of the General Synod and of its Appointments Committee, and was formerly a founder member of the Archbishops’ Council as well as on the Church of England’s Communications Committee. Christina is best known as the Chair of Watch (Women and the Church) but is also a member of Gras (Group for Rescinding the Act of Synod), as well as a supporter of Inclusive Church. She speaks and preaches widely and is a professional life and business coach. Her books include The Divine Embrace and Voices of this Calling.
ay I begin with a confession: I never expected to be asked to write for New Directions, and I never expected that, if asked, I would agree to do so. I have to admit that it makes a welcome and unexpected change for me to be placed in the role of contributor, instead of featuring perhaps in other ways [see 30Days].
I believe that part of what we are seeing at this time is God breaking down unholy barriers of our own making and causing us to face our fears and prejudices by the cleansing and purifying power of his Holy Spirit. The obedient response is for us to submit ourselves to God’s action and to try to discern the ways in which we are being called to change.
Change is, of course, often painful and difficult, for individuals as well as for institutions. As Christians seeking to remain faithful to our heavenly Father, change can be a real threat: have we heard and discerned correctly, or are we being led astray into error? In his email inviting me to write this article, the editor referred to the place in which we are now in the Church of England as the ‘end times.’ I realize that it must seem like that to many. With all that is in me I fervently believe that it is not. In fact, I see where we are now in the church in regards to opening the episcopate to women as the dawning of a new era in which we will discover more of the kingdom of God among us in greater strength, power, truth and grace.
Part of what we have to acknowledge is that none of us knows precisely where we are being led. The walk of faith is an unfolding adventure, requiring, step by step, trust in the guidance and indwelling of God’s Spirit. We are reliant on God not only as individual disciples but also, corporately, as an institution.
As individuals, we need to take responsibility for our spiritual health and discipline, our attitudes and actions. As the institutional church, to a great extent, we have to rely on our systems, structures and leaders to keep us attentive, responsive and faithful. All of this requires trust, something that has been in woefully short supply in our church.
Trusting one another and being willing to discuss issues about which we hold very different views does not imply, or necessarily lead to, agreement. What it can do, though, is lead to a greater understanding of each other’s views and concerns and a greater sense of our connectedness in the heart of God.
As part of the subject of this article I was asked to address the issue of how a church that consecrates women as bishops will ‘cope’ with the continued existence of those on either ends of the churchmanship spectrum as honoured members. First of all, I greatly hope that we will not merely be ‘coping’ with those who, for a variety of reasons, disagree with women’s ordination. What I would like to think is that we can come to the position of living, working and ministering more honestly and openly together.
That will require an ongoing commitment on the part of the mainstream church and those who remain opposed to women’s ordination to mutual respect and mutual acceptance. It will also require on the part of Forward in Faith and Reform an acceptance of the reality of where we are in the Church of England in regards to the position of women.
Back in 1988, the then Archbishop of York, Dr John Habgood, said, ‘I believe women ought to be ordained to the priesthood… I believe that truths which were there from the beginning in the Christian faith can lie dormant until the social conditions are right for them to be perceived. And I affirm that the time has come to express this truth in the life of the Church.’
A year later, Dr Robert Runcie, then Archbishop of Canterbury, said at General Synod, ‘I remain of the conviction that the ordination of women to the priesthood ought to be construed as an enlargement and extension of the historic Christian ministry.’ Neither of these men could be described as capricious revisionists, and their comments arose from years of rigorous and serious engagement with the issues, something to which the Church as a whole has been committed for many years.
As a result of this engagement, women were ordained as deacons nearly twenty years ago and as priests twelve years ago. There are over 2000 licensed priests who are women, and now one in every five Church of England clergy is female. Over the next few years we will be drafting legislation that will make it legal for women to be consecrated as bishops.
There cannot be genuinely mutual respect unless this reality is acknowledged and accepted – not necessarily agreed with – but accepted as where we are as a church. Only then can we go about the business of honouring each others’ presence and position.
We have got to where we are by a steady, prayerful and painstaking process that will continue in our synods and in the College and House of Bishops. Our church is imperfect, but it is what we have. We hold in tension the reality of the church as a particular institution and also our understanding of the Church universal as the body of Christ. In that Church there are no synods and working parties, no legislation and arrangements, only Christ as the head, ‘from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.’ [Ephesians 4.16]
Until the eventual reconciliation of all of creation with God, until the ultimate triumph of love, we will have to live with our flawed and imperfect structures and also with our flawed and imperfect selves. Theologians tell us that God has the patience to wait for, and the power to bring about, this ultimate fulfilment and reconciliation. If only our perspective and vision could be so enlarged!
It is apparent that, with the issue of women’s ordination, and with other issues where there is difference, we cannot agree on what Scripture says or even on how to interpret it. There is, of course, the principle, that, when there is a seeming contradiction in Scripture, to go for what is clear and to build on that. One of the things that is clear is that we, men and women together, are made in the image of God: ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.’ [Genesis 1.27] There is not more of the image of God in the male and less in the female, or more of God in the female and less in the male. Together, and equally, we are made in God’s image.
It is also clear that the baptism of Christ is not different for males and females, but the same for both. All those who are baptized into Christ share the same inheritance. Hence the famous cry of women, ‘Either ordain us or don’t baptize us!’ Likewise, men and women are to share equally in the ongoing life of the Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, men and women together received the Holy Spirit in tongues of fire and in the sound of rushing wind.
When Paul wrote his great treatise in his letter to the Romans on the pre-eminence of salvation by faith and of new life in the Spirit, it was not a gendered message. Women and men together were included in the salvation offered by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Paul, the traditional Jew, was passionate about the transformed state of those who are in Christ: ‘But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.’ [Romans 7.6] This liberation was not just for men, or just for women, but for both men and women.
In 1 Corinthians, when Paul enumerates the gifts of the Spirit, it is clear that they are not given only to men or only to women, but to all who are in Christ. After his wonderful description of the parts of the body of Christ, Paul writes: ‘Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.’ [1 Corinthians 12.27–31]
In 1992, Desmond Tutu then Archbishop of Capetown wrote, ‘I am more convinced than ever before that theologically, biblically, socially, ecumenically, it is right to ordain women to the priesthood. The most radical act that can happen to any human being is to become a member of the body of Christ. If gender cannot be a bar to baptism, then gender cannot be a bar to ordination. The Bible is quite clear that the divine image is constitutive of humanity, irrespective of gender.’ In that one comment, Tutu encapsulates the far-reaching ramifications of what it means to be a Christian. Former views of what men and women were, and what they could and could not be, or do, are replaced by a new understanding of our identity in Christ.
In the months to come I pray that we might be able to reflect in new ways on the infinitude of God’s unconditional love and on our own absolute indebtedness for our very existence and for our capacity to relate, to reflect, to love and to be loved. I would like to think that we can begin to trust God more as we dwell on the mystery and wonder of the universe we inhabit, and on own place within that universe.
To what extent are we willing to discern and discover God’s purposes for ourselves, our church and for all of creation? To what extent are we willing to allow ourselves and others the freedom and opportunity to be changed into the likeness of the Lord? Do we dare to accept God’s invitation to join in the Divine Dance? Whatever we choose, however willing or unwilling we might be, we can trust that the Dance will go on.