Women in Church Leadership

7 Jul

Given that the Church of England General Synod are speaking about Women Bishops this week I thought I would offer my two-pence-worth on the issues that it brings up. The draft measure that Synod are voting on can be found here.

First off I wish to declare my colours loud and clear. I am in favour of women in leadership at all levels of Church. I believe that those who are either against women in leadership or simply against women bishops are wrong biblically, traditionally and culturally. However, I find myself in disagreement with the measure and feel that it should be put off for at least another 20 years.

Let me explain myself.

First off, why I believe that those against are wrong:

  • Biblically

Women have been in positions of leadership throughout the Bible. Look at Deborah and you will find that we have a leader, indeed a prophetess, being asked to go with a commander of the Israelite army to a battle. Whilst Deborah is possibly the only female leader in the Old Testament we do see several other females in prominent roles. Rahab, who is in Jesus’ genealogy, was the prostitute who saved Joshua and Caleb. Naomi and Ruth, who are also in Jesus’ family (Ruth becoming the wife of Boaz and great-grandmother to David) get a whole book dedicated to their story. Esther also has an entire book dedicated to her as her actions help to save the Jews in the Persian Empire.

Then we come to the New Testament. Mary is given the role to bring up Jesus. You might say that this is the only way it could happen, but with a God who could do anything He still allowed it to be done as such. So Jesus’ early years of teaching would have come through Mary. Jesus very clearly had female disciples. Indeed Mary, the sister of Martha, sat in a position that culturally was for men as only men were supposed to sit at the feet of a rabbi and learn. We also see Mary Magdalene as the very first evangelist, the first person given the responsibility of telling people of the resurrection. Men could have been used, but Jesus chose to reveal himself to Mary first. Then we have Junia (wrongly named here as Junias, which has often led to her being thought a man), noted as “outstanding among the apostles” by Paul. We have Lydia who, because the church was held at her house, was a leader (as was the custom) within the church at Philippi. And let us not forget Phoebe who Paul describes as a servant of the church at Cenchrea or, to use the Greek Paul uses, deacon. Paul says she is in the leadership by that very word! I could go on, but suffice it to say that the Bible does not say that women should not be in leadership. Indeed, as I have shown it says the very opposite!

Biblically, regarding bishops, I have seen an argument made that the Bible does not talk about priests in the Church (indeed, this argument suggests that the early Church would have been against priests as they were a part of the fallen order of Temple worship) however when it does talk about bishops (also known as overseers or elders) it apparently only talks about men. Well, certainly in letter to Timothy Paul only uses the male pronoun. However given that the Bible tends to use male pronouns widely in areas where it can also be taken to include women I do not find this to be a convincing argument. And given that we, as non-Catholics, do not hold anyone to be infallible I have to take the view that a woman can do the job just as well as a man because she is just as likely to fail as a man.

There are claims also that Paul writes about women by saying that they should not be in leadership. Whilst this is true, Paul is also very clearly not one for hypocrisy. Thus the writings must be seen as writing to a specific time and place. If they were not to speak, teach or lead at all then the above mentioned examples would not have been praised by Paul, which they clearly are. To deny this fact is to deny the Bible’s authenticity, which is something that those arguing from a biblical perspective cannot do as it would remove their argument.

  • Traditionally

This argument could be seen, at first glance, as being a clear loser. However, when we take in all that is mentioned above about women in leadership we see that actually the tradition held where women were not in leadership was not tradition but an innovation that does not follow the Bible but changed the Church to follow the societal norm that was imposed upon women. Therefore the claim of tradition to keep women from taking positions of leadership is flawed at it’s very outset by virtue of  biblical proof of women in leadership in the early church.

  • Culturally

My cultural argument is very similar to the argument that those who argue against women being in leadership simply to try and get the Church moving towards the culture of the day. However, my argument is aimed at the point at which women were removed from leadership by the early Church as they clearly left what was already working and turned it to fit the way the world was at that time. The “innovation” of women in leadership is actually a return to what was before, rather than adhering to modern culture. What WAS adhering to “modern” culture (of the time, at least!) was to remove women from leadership when they were already there with biblical blessing! The Church should NEVER bow to the way society thinks things should be. But the Bible clearly shows that women were in leadership in the early Church and that this was ok (Paul said as much) so any change to bring women into leadership is returning to a biblical model of Church, rather than “moving with the times”.


In 1993, when women vicars were finally given the go ahead by General Synod, the Act of Synod was created that set in place ways to continue to minister to churches that were against women priests. They were promised an “honoured place” within the Church of England. However the way that the current legislation is created does not “set in stone” provision that meets the requirements of those who still cannot accept the ministry of women.

For starters, there are NO bishops of the conservative evangelical wing of the Church of England. None! How can we claim to be looking after churches and clergy of such a disposition if they are not represented in discussions at the highest levels of the church? There is a suffragan bishop, Bishop Wallace Benn, however given that he is not a diocesan and is due to retire later in the year this is hardly looking good as an “honoured place”.

The fact that the measure has nothing “set in stone” for those against the ministry of women means that it leaves the door open for someone, acting in an ungodly fashion, to be able to force something upon them whenever they feel like it.

And finally, the thing which REALLY gets my riled up against people from WATCH, we see the abuse of the English language with the terminology of “bigot”, “sexism” and so on with some people either representing or supporting WATCH declaring that those against women in ministry are “behind the times”. Inflammatory language shows that they really don’t care about a point of conscience by those they disagree with and declarations of needing to catch up with society shows a complete lack of understanding of what the Church is about!

It also shows a complete lack of grace on the matter. And this is where my view on the delay of a move towards women bishops comes from. As Paul writes, that if we do something that causes a problem for a fellow Christian then it is better for us not to do it than to cause distress within the Church. The only time that this is not the case is where not doing something is to go against God’s commands. Therefore the gracious way forward, at least to my mind, is to hold back from introducing women bishops until a time when it will not cause problems. After all, we are only 20 years from when women vicars were first given the go ahead. That means that the oldest members of Church of England leadership  have potentially had less than half their time in ministry working alongside women. Surely it would be better to wait until no man in ministry has not been in ministry at a time when women priests were not around. Comfort zones would hopefully be far wider and, again hopefully, those wanting women as bishops would be willing to give more so as not to cause a schism within the Church of England.

I say again, I want to see women bishops as I believe that it is theologically correct to do so. However I do not want to see a “weak brother” be “destroyed” just so that a second order (if not lower) matter can be brought in line with my understanding of Scripture.

**Additional comment on the House of Bishop’s amendment**

As far as I can see, the amendment from the bishops simply puts on paper what the original measure would be hoping would happen. Surely there is nothing wrong with ensuring that excessive zeal (no matter how well intentioned) cannot cause hurt to a church that, purely on their theological understanding of what the Bible says, cannot accept the ministry of women, either as priest or bishop. The intention of the original measure was to do just this, so where is the problem?


4 Responses to “Women in Church Leadership”

  1. Ian S July 15, 2012 at 19:26 #

    Interesting thoughts, better than most, but still rather one-sided.

    Put yourselves in the shoes of a women vicar. You would be livid at the suggestion that you would have to wait another 20 years before you and your fellow ladies could even be considered for a bishop’s position.

    By your own admission, there is no theological barrier to women bishops, so why are you seeking to prolong the injustice and discrimination for another 20 years? Only a man would suggest that! The women have had to wait for ages and have shown immense grace and patience.

    Some of WATCH’s tactics may be dubious, but equally the opponents of women bishops do not behave very well. Threats of leaving are very childish. I also find it very arrogant the way that the conservative evangelicals claim that their theological opinion is the only correct one and ignore those who interpret the Bible in a different way.

    • youthpastablog July 15, 2012 at 20:05 #

      I say to delay, and potentially by that length of time, for 2 reasons. The first is that being a bishop is not a right, it is a calling. Thus I would suggest that anyone, be they male or female, who was livid about not being able to be a bishop had their priorities wrong. And the argument that might then reply “Well what about those women who have a calling to the episcopacy?” is just as false as if it were just about calling then there would be no problem with the behaviour of a person in leadership, as they are called to be where they are. If, theologically, the CofE is currently against women being bishops (which, let’s face it, is the current state of things regardless of what stage we are at in the process) then no amount of calling can make a woman a bishop. It’s like Eric Idle’s character in The Life Of Brian, Stan, who declares that he wants to be a woman and have babies. He is not female, so is incapable of having babies, no matter how much he declares it is his right to do so. Women priests need to accept that whilst they can fight to change the situation as it currently is (which they are so doing) they are still in a church that does not allow them to become bishops and that is the way it will be until things are changed. Getting upset by this is of no benefit to anyone, least of all themselves, as the fact that rather than getting a 2 thirds majority vote in favour of women bishops (with 5c in the measure) we got an adjournment suggests.
      The second is biblical and comes from the situation with the Israelites as they wandered the desert, waiting for a generation to die before they could reach the Promised Land. I do feel that as the arguments have progressed certain people, Christina Rees being the main one that springs to mind, have done their cause AND the CofE no favours by how they have spoken and behaved. It may be that by waiting for a time we will find that a new generation who are willing to keep Conservative Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics within the CofE fold will arise and we can remain together as a church.
      As I have said above, I want women bishops because I believe that the Bible says that women in leadership is fine. However it is not the be-all and end-all of Christianity and should be treated as such, thus putting unity far higher in importance for the Church.

  2. Tanya Marlow November 19, 2012 at 22:06 #

    I really enjoyed reading this thorough and tightly-argued piece. I particularly like your observation that forbidding women from leadership was a move towards culture and away from the Bible. (you said it better!) This is true, and a very helpful one for those in the ‘yes’ vote to remember. The arguments that have been used in the media of late have been very weak indeed, appealing more to how it looks to outsiders than seemingly taking the Bible seriously. I would have liked there to have been more dialogue on the abible passages. But then, it’s unlikely that we would reach agreement!

    Thanks for stopping by and for pointing me to your post – great stuff.


  1. Women Bishops: Honour before glory « youthpastablog - November 21, 2012

    […] those that are still reading and are still hurting, I know how you feel. I am as much in favour of women bishops as the majority of Synod and when the vote result came through, whilst I felt it was the right […]

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