An anti-women 'church within a church' is unacceptable

By Simon Barrow
November 20, 2012

The Christian message is at heart about reconciliation. But the church which is supposed to proclaim and live that message has often failed to do so in its own life and example, sometimes spectacularly.

The row over women bishops in the Church of England will be seen by many as another example of this, which is why Archbishop of Canterbury designate Justin Welby - no stranger to conflict zones - was so keen to emphasise at General Synod this afternoon that the vocation of the C of E ought to be "how to develop the mission of the church in a way that demonstrates that we can manage diversity of view without division; diversity in amity, not diversity in enmity."

That is a right, bridge-building note to strike. But it did not work with the hardened minority. For the reality is that it takes two sides to build a bridge, and one of the difficulties of the current situation is that some opponents of full women's ministry in the Church of England clearly want to be able to maintain a 'church within a church' based on non-recognition, non-collaboration, non-acceptance, and in some cases non-communion.

The compromises that enable this are sold in terms of 'provision' and 'accommodation'. But those labels are misleading. After the decision to ordain women in 1992, the General Synod adopted the disastrous Episcopal Ministry Act of Synod 1993. This established 'flying bishops' for anti-women priests and parishes. It instituted legally sanctioned no-go areas for women. There was nothing reconciliatory about any of that, and what it mostly achieved was the institutionalisation a kind of 'trench warfare' conducted by those implacably opposed to accepting women as priests.

The proposal on the table at Synod today (20 November 2012) was a slight step forward on that Act. It would have allowed parishes who will not recognise a woman bishop alternative male episcopal oversight -- but the details of that would have been shaped by guidelines rather than legislation, and the formula by which it would have been enacted at least avoided guaranteeing that the alternative would have to be a man who himself opposes the ministry of women. In that way the deeply offensive notion of 'taint' ("you receive women's ministry so we won't receive or recognise yours") was removed from the equation.

Nevertheless, the women who would have become bishops if today's legislation had been passed would have to operate within constraints, and with a degree of blatant non-acceptance from some colleagues, which their male counterparts do not have to put up with, and which in any other walks of life would rightly be regarded as intolerable. Such a 'solution' is, at best, unfair and ungracious.

At worst, it is asking one group of people to accept a second-class position in order to placate the refusal of others to recognise their ministry as legitimate purely because of their gender. This in no way fits with the calling of the church to exemplify "a new creation in Christ"; to affirm (in St Paul's words) that "in Christ there is neither male nor female"; to honour the first witnesses to the resurrection (apostolic women whose testimony the law did not accept, but the faith did); to acknowledge female Christian leaders in the New Testament like Junia, or to follow Christ in challenging social institutions that excluded women and many others from the community.

Yes, Jesus' first active disciples were men, because the conventions and restrictions of the day made elements of their public role very difficult for women. But Jesus took every opportunity to affirm the importance of women theologically as well as socially (think of Martha and Mary). Naturally then, as the nature and circumstances of the 'sending out' changed, women played a crucial role in the early Christian movement, which recognised (in a way that some 2,000 years later some sadly still do not!) the revolutionary consequences of the Gospel for those who had been pushed aside by forms of religion that arrogated themselves ahead of the boundary-breaking love of God.

So, yes, a reconciliatory approach to the way we 'do church', internally and externally, is vital. But the true reconciliation of which the Gospel speaks involves bringing together in transformed relationships people who have been wrongly divided from each other and from God: women and men, slave and free, Jew and Greek, rich and poor, 'clean' (in ritual terms) and 'unclean'.

Any church order or sacramental theology which cannot recognise and act on this in every fibre of its being is, in the final analysis, deeply flawed. Likewise, pastoral and ecclesiastical arrangements that are ultimately allowed to deny the possibility of transformation, and which seek instead to preserve the very barriers Christ broke down, will end up being a counter-witness rather than a 'provision'.

When the Church of England finally gets women bishops (from the moment women were ordained as priests it was always when, not whether), the situation of those who cannot accept female oversight and leadership will have changed fundamentally. Attempts by some within the church to go on believing that women's priestly role might in future somehow be revoked will lack any basis. A permanent wall of refusal will become unfeasible. The big decision-time will, unavoidably, require others.

The archbishop-designate said that provisions for opponents of women bishops must be enacted "faithfully". That should mean as a bridge, not a barrier. An anti-women 'church within a church' cannot be justified. It is cruel to all concerned, demeaning of the Christian message, and offers no viable path to the future for the Church of England.

This article was originally written before the Synod vote, and modified very slightly afterwards.

* My further comment for Ekklesia: 'Vote against women bishops keeps church on wrong path' -


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. He now lives in Scotland, but was an active member of the Church of England for 40 years. He was adviser in adult education and training in the Diocese of Southwark from 1991-1996, and edited a collection of essays on that experience entitled Expanding Horizons: Learning to be the church in the world (SBCS, 1995). His essay 'Beyond the rhetoric of establishment' is published in (ed.) Kenneth Leech, Setting the Church of England Free: The case for disestablishment (Jubilee Group, 2001). He has also edited and written several chapters in Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change (Shoving Leopard, 2008).

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.