Church of England Nonsense

As a non-CofE Christian, I would be the first to admit that I do not really understand the CofE. The heirarchical structure seems to bear a striking resemblance to Saturn’s rings: the closer you look the more levels of complexity there seem to be. Why?

It seems to me that the battle over women in the clergy was lost in 1994. Why there should now be a particular fight over the women as bishops without bringing into question women priests is unclear to me. Perhaps someone could enlighten me?

It seems simple: women are excluded on the grounds of 1 Tim 2:11-15. This trumps any appeal to ‘tradition’, which appears to be the main argument against.

There is much made of the fact that many women ‘feel called’ to the priesthood. This raises the interesting question of what constitutes a ‘call’. The women in question seem to have wholly subjectivised the whole thing. Because of an inner feeling, they demand the right to be made priests/bishops etc. I listened to The Bishop of Fulham, John Broadhurst, on Channel Four News last night (who, on the whole, made a pretty ham-fisted job of opposing the motions, IMHO) argue that it was not for individuals to claim a calling but for the church to call. I agree with this. There needs to be both subjective and objective elements. Subjectively, a man (!!) must have a sense of call and purpose about what he is contemplating. But objectively, the broader church must check that he is gifted and qualified (though the guide for this is not tradition, but Scripture). For this reason, a woman can never be called to the ministry, no matter what feelings dwell within.

But this argument will never win the day amongst the liberals. They are only interested in the politics. So looking at it politically, as I see it, there will come a crisis. But it will happen when the liberals realise that the only reason the CofE is viable is because the conservatives financially shore it up. Then the liberals will come back from the brink. They will schmooze with the conservatives in order to preserve themselves. The question then is whether the conservative evangelicals will have the courage of their convictions to once and for all deal with the theological gangrene that they live with every day.

Church of England Nonsense

7 thoughts on “Church of England Nonsense

  1. John says:

    Certainly, your point about the argument being lost in 1994 is true – there are no theological or ecclesiological differences between priests and bishops. Therefore, once we have women priests there is no clear reason to keep them out of the bishoprics.

    objectively, the broader church must check that he is gifted and qualified… For this reason, a woman can never be called to the ministry, no matter what feelings dwell within.

    Surely that’s circular reasoning? “The broader church doesn’t accept women priests because women mustn’t be priests. Women mustn’t be priests because the broader church says so.”

    If the broader church regards women as acceptable in leadership positions, does that mean that they would now become acceptable?

    As for your appeal to Paul’s letter to Timothy, it’s hardly very strong. First, it starts “I do not permit” – it’s Paul’s practice rather than a theological argument. Second, the logic (Adam was created first, then Eve) is very weak indeed – that was surely intended merely as a passing justification for this practice. Third, the claim that “women will be saved through childbirth” relegates women not simply to a silent, passive position but to having children in order to be saved – are you really wanting to say that men are saved through faith in Christ Jesus but that women are saved by having children? Here, I am convinced, Paul was off base – his opinion and practice were down to his culture, not to something deep about the relationship between men and women.

    Rather, I think that Paul was closer to the mark when he talked about there being neither male nor female in Christ, when he greeted women in his letters as notable people within their churches, when he actually made women the focus of his ministry (as he did with Lydia in Acts 16).

    I can see nothing in the Christian faith that says that women have inferior insight to men, have less wisdom than men, are less able to lead than men. I can see nothing that prevents women sharing their insights, nothing that prevents them approaching God, nothing that stops men learning from them. That being so, I can see no reason why women should not be leaders in the church, should not take the priestly role of declaring God’s forgiveness and acceptance.

    Finally, your point about “internal feelings” seems surely to miss the point about calling. Feeling a call is absolutely about an internal feeling, whether you are male or female. Testing that call is the church’s role, whether the person coming forwards is male or female. The question is thus whether gender is sufficient to exclude someone automatically from a ministry. If it is, why should that be so? Simply quoting verses will not do – we need a deep theological understanding of why one gender is acceptable in a role and the other isn’t. Anything else is an arbitrary distinction, not a real one.

    pax et bonum

  2. Stephen says:

    I don’t understand your comment about circular reasoning. Perhaps I did not express myself clearly. The argument seems linear to me: determine what scripture says –> do what scripture says. Therefore, if scripture is against women in authority and teaching, then the church should be against it. You, on the other hand, seek to undermine the foundation by questioning Paul’s right to say what he said and for it to be authoritative. There you reveal yourself to be a liberal.

    Set the church loose from the foundations of scripture and you find your rationality takes you in new directions. It is no surprise then that you make your “I can see nothing that …” arguments. Of course you can’t! Your presuppositions are different. But they are not the presuppositions of Christian faith.

    I agree there needs to be a deep theological understanding, but it cannot be a substitute for what the bible says. Our ‘deep theology’ must account for the words and expressions of scripture without waving them away. I admit I have not offered an explanation of the theology behind Paul’s restriction, but that is for another post!

  3. John says:

    I’m not a liberal. There is more to theology than “evangelical or liberal”. On that single axis, I’m far more evangelical than I am liberal. However, I do not believe that we can read the Bible in the simplistic way you are suggesting.

    First, the question about circular reasoning wasn’t aimed at your biblical reasoning but at your comment I quoted – you said that the broader church must check that a candidate is qualified and that therefore a woman can never be called. That’s either circular (as I described) or a complete disjoint.

    As for your reference to Timothy, I’ve explained why the text seems too weak to justify the weight you place on it. Paul himself says that this is merely his own practice – as elsewhere, he doesn’t claim always to be giving the eternal truth, just what seems best to him. To argue from the chronology of Creation that woman is inferior to man is totally unjustifiable, even if we take the Genesis account literally. Is it not equally plausible that woman is actually a later, improved version of man?

    I do not for a second question Paul’s right to say what he said. My question is whether every word in the NT is intended is an eternal rule, or whether we are presented with the account of how the early church dealt with implementing what they had learned and continued to learn about Jesus and His mission.

    if scripture is against women in authority and teaching, then the church should be against it

    You might, by the sound of it, be surprised to learn that I agree with you on this. The point is, does the Bible rule out having women in leadership? There is very little indeed in there that can be used to justify this, unless we are also going to force all women to wear headscarves, to be silent, to go back on the whole liberation of women. We cannot pick and choose our verses in that way – to justify excluding women from leadership while not forcing them to be silent in church, to sit at the back, to ask their husbands to explain things to them (i.e. to have inferior understanding to their menfolk).

    Set the church loose from the foundations of scripture and you find your rationality takes you in new directions.

    Again, I agree totally. I have no desire to sever a connection with the Bible. What I want is to understand the Bible properly, to hear what God is saying, to know God more closely and love God more dearly, to live my life more and more in conformation to God’s will. It’s just that I don’t believe that any of that requires us to be literalist, inerrantist fundamentalists. (Not that I’m saying that any of those labels apply to you – but they are the other extreme.)

    pax et bonum

  4. Stephen says:

    as elsewhere, [Paul] doesn’t claim always to be giving the eternal truth

    Surprising comment. What do you mean?

    I think you are drawing a false conclusion from Paul’s reference to Genesis i.e. that women are inferior to men. It does not follow from the data. As I said it deserves a longer post, which I will get time for later.

    However, I believe 1 Tim 2:13 shows that verse 2:12, far from being a culturally conditioned statement, is rooted in creation and therefore for all times and cultures.

    Regarding liberalism, the issue that you raise for me is that you wish to play a little loose with scripture. You mention Paul’s ‘right to say what he said’ as though he was you or I. But I do not write scripture. What Paul has written is scripture (2 Pet 3:16). Now, even a liberal may accept that – “we will call this collection of writings ‘scripture'”. But the evangelical takes it as God’s word. i.e. God has absolute right to say what he said through Paul. In contrast you seem willing to subject scripture to your reasoning, rather than the other way round. That is what liberalism is in its essence.

  5. John says:

    1 Corinthians 11.4-5,7-8,13-21

    4Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, 5but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head — it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved…7For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection* of God; but woman is the reflection* of man. 8Indeed, man was not made from woman, but woman from man…13Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head unveiled? 14Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, 15but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering. 16But if anyone is disposed to be contentious — we have no such custom, nor do the churches of God.

    That is, Paul says that women should have long hair (and a veil?) whereas men should have short hair, based on much the same logic as he uses in Timothy, and then says basically that this is custom. The justification is, at root, not theological but cultural.

    We’ve discussed this before, but please stop calling me a liberal. It’s actually quite offensive when I’ve said many times that I’m not. The problem is simply that I don’t agree with you. That doesn’t make me liberal! I am further from the evangelical extreme than you are, but that’s not the same thing by any means. Also, as I’ve said already, there’s a lot more to theology (and hermeneutics) than the evangelical-liberal axis. Indeed, there are more important differences than this one.

    The difference between us has nothing to do with seeing the Bible as the Word of God, God-breathed, authoritative or reliable. Our difference is that you seem to believe in some abstract Absolute Truth that resides in the letters of the text and which we can extract by reading uncritically and simplistically. I believe in God as ultimate truth, not the Bible (the Christian Trinity is not Father, Son and Holy Scripture). When we approach the Bible, we are reading words written in a different culture for purposes we might not know. Without applying human reason (as you put it), we will make serious mistakes in understanding what the Bible says. For example, take the story of Jesus and the fig tree in Matthew 21:18-19. Unless we apply human reason to this story, considering history, culture and literary devices, we will start to believe that Jesus acted capriciously and selfishly by cursing a fig tree that bore no fruit despite the fact it wasn’t the fig season! And that would distort our idea of God.

    We cannot and must not “explain away” but unless we explain, we will not learn about God properly. Unless we engage with the text on this level, we are actually failing to take the Bible seriously. That is, I believe that true evangelicalism requires that we not ignore the cultural aspects of the Bible. Doing so impoverishes our understanding and our faith. It’s exactly the same as paying attention to the way poetry, myth, apocalyptic and so forth work. We have to read the text as it was written, not as though it was written by some 19th century evangelical gentleman.

    pax et bonum

  6. Stephen says:

    Would you believe it? 1 Cor 11 is on my to-do list of passages for more detailed exegetical study! So I will hang fire on commenting just yet. (But it so happens that in the church where I am working has some women who will put a veil over their heads when praying in direct response to these verses.)

    I’m sorry you are offended by my use of the word ‘liberal’. The trouble is, from where I am looking, you present yourself as one! This may come as a surprise to you, but I can’t help that label coming to mind in relation to you. I recognise you may have come from a form of evangelicalism. You may still feel a degree of affinity with the name, but the fact is that often people whose views shift in practice end up in a place which at first they do not willingly acknowledge. I am assuming this is true of you. If not, set me right!

    “Father, Son and Holy Scripture” – that old chestnut! All I can say is that you encourage me no end. I must be doing something right. In passing, isn’t Romans 6:17 interesting? When God delivers us from sin, what are we delivered to? The Holy Spirit? Christ? Paul actually says “that form of doctrine” (NKJV) i.e. that which Paul spoke, preached, taught, wrote down. (Of course this word opens up to us knowledge of the relationship with Christ through the Spirit – much more could be said.)

    Other than these things, I agree with everything you say about the need for explaining, taking account of genre etc etc. I know the general principles. But I’m not aware that I am doing any explaining away.

  7. John says:

    I’ll eagerly await that further exegesis, then – I suspect we differ quite a lot on that passage…

    The problem with calling me “liberal” is that it leaves you with no word to describe those who really are liberal. I am more liberal than you, I agree, but you are quite a long way to the evangelical extreme. It’s not an either/or choice of evangelical or liberal. Rather, it’s a spectrum of interpretation. So, if you said “You are more liberal than I am”, I wouldn’t disagree. However, to say “You are liberal” is simply false. I have shifted a long way from the simplistic evangelicalism of my student days, this is true, but most of my movement has not been towards liberalism but towards different forms of theological understanding – postmodern, catholic, neo-orthodox, Moltmannian and others. None of these is “liberal” except in the sense that they’re not evangelical – and labelling anything that’s not evangelical as “liberal” is to confuse matters rather!

    As for Rom 6:17, it doesn’t get you very far. Within its context of saving faith and spiritual life, you can’t defend elevating Scripture too high. The point of what Paul is saying in this whole section is precisely that we are no longer living under a written law but directly under the grace of God, by the faith of Abraham and in the life of the Spirit.

    Re the explaining thing – I was replying to your suggestion that I was “explaining away”. We agree on the need to explain; just because my explanation doesn’t agree with yours doesn’t mean that I’m “explaining away”. Indeed, if we are serious about engaging with Scripture in a way that takes seriously all those elements, we cannot take a literalist, fundamentalist, inerrantist approach because the two approaches are incompatible. So, if we are committed to taking culture seriously, we must at least address the question of how much of the “church order” teaching of Paul was culturally driven. And if our final answer is “none of it”, I’d question how seriously we have taken culture in our thinking.

    pax et bonum

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