by Jonathan Clatworthy, November 2012

Are they any good?

Astonishment all round. How could anybody in this day and age think it acceptable to restrict the job of bishop to men? So lamented the Government and pretty well all the mass media, accurately reflecting the mood in the country as a whole. To discriminate against women in this crass way is to violate all our values.

That's the point, reply the objectors. We have different values. Society's values  are precisely what we are resisting. We have theological reasons for objecting  to women bishops. So argue two groups of people: conservative evangelicals and conservative catholics.

Conservative evangelicals

For conservative evangelicals they are about the authority of the bible. The bible (that is, Paul) says that headship belongs to men, not women. Bishops are in positions of leadership. So we must not have women bishops. End of story.

To others this is too absurd to be credible. So Paul said it, in letters to churches, nearly 2000 years ago. He did not say it applied in all places for all time; and even if he had, why can we not just disagree with him?

Because, they tell us, it is in the bible. The bible is The Supreme Authority. (Or, The Supreme Authority in 'matters of faith', depending on who you ask.) This belief dates from the 16th century. Paul certainly would not have agreed with it; he played fast and loose with the scriptures available in his day. In the early Reformation, though, it became the main justification for rejecting the pope's authority. The point was that whatever we mere humans think, the bible has greater authority; so Christians should always subordinate their own thinking to what the bible says.

But wasn't the bible written by human beings like you and me? It was indeed humans who held the pen and scratched onto the papyrus or the codices; but perhaps the words were the words of God? Perhaps God switched off the brains of the human authors and made them do automatic writing? Bizarre though it seems to others, ever since Calvin tackled the question in the 16th century biblical literalists have produced a colossal literature debating just how God made sure the texts ended up being exactly what God wanted. None of the many theories adequately explain how the bible has turned out the way it has. Even if one of them did, it would only be a theory. There is not a shred of evidence that any biblical text was written in a different manner from other texts.

Biblical scholars think they were written by human beings like you and me. People engaged with the issues of the day, committed to doing God's will and disagreeing with their opponents. Later generations thought they were right, and included those writings among their scriptures. It was later again that others developed the theories of divine authority which characterise conservative evangelical thought. Most Christians do not go so far: we value the Bible greatly, draw inspiration from its insights and see it as in some sense inspired, but we also read it in the light of developing tradition, our cultural contexts and our own experience. We therefore retain the right to make different judgements about different texts.

So while conservative evangelicals claim that the bible overrides what society thinks, the rest of us consider it right and proper to judge for ourselves whether women should be bishops here and now. In Paul's society it was socially unacceptable for women to be in positions of leadership. In our society it is socially unacceptable to discriminate against women. Of course society does sometimes develop anti-Christian values, but in this instance there is nothing intrinsically anti-Christian about women bishops. Unless, of course, you buy into that theory that the bible overrides all human reason.

Suppose it does. Suppose the bible really was written by God, word for word, to tell us how to live because our brains are incapable of working it out for ourselves. If that is true, should we not obey every biblical command? And since the number of commands in the bible is well into four figures, would this not be a major task? Precious few Christians today even know what they all are, let alone seriously attempt to obey them. For a short while in the 16th century the Anabaptists tried, but they soon gave up. It was just impossible.

Given that conservative evangelicals do not attempt to obey all the bible's commands, why the selectivity? Why pick out the 'headship' texts as obligatory, while ignoring most of the others? In the absence of a convincing explanation it seems that their theological position is not the real driving force behind their opposition to women bishops. There must be some other unspoken agenda.

Conservative catholics

The conservative catholic reasons for opposing women bishops are basically the same as their reasons for opposing women priests. Many people find them difficult to understand because the central notion of 'sacramental assurance' is unfamiliar outside this theological tradition.

It was developed by the Oxford Movement in the nineteenth century. In Anglicanism before then, and in Roman Catholicism still today, the emphasis is on the authority of church leaders to appoint bishops. In the Church of England this authority lay for a long time with the monarch: if Elizabeth I had appointed some women bishops, bishops they would have been.

Put simply, the theory of sacramental assurance is that the sacraments provide real benefits provided that they are administered correctly. The bread and wine of Communion become the body and blood of Christ if and only if a validly consecrated priest performs a valid liturgy. Similarly in the ordination of a priest and the consecration of a bishop the Holy Spirit imparts a grace which can then be effective. According to the theory these sacraments only work if every step of the process is valid.

Opponents and supporters alike often describe this as a form of magic. Sociologists distinguish between religion and magic by usually drawing the line at automatic efficacy. In religion one is appealing to a free divine agent under no obligation to respond. What matters is the quality of the relationship with God. In magic on the other hand natural processes are being manipulated, so that the effect is assured provided that the words and actions are performed exactly, and one of the precise requirements is that bishops must be male. The word 'magic', though often used, may sound dismissive. An alternative analogy would be with technology. If you want to build your own car you will need to follow the instructions exactly. One error and it may not move.

This is a very brief summary of an idea which has been extensively analysed and debated. It should however suffice to reveal its main difficulty. Magic and technology both aim to manipulate natural processes in order to produce visible effects. In the case of the sacraments the effects are invisible. This makes it possible to believe there is no effect at all: the bread and wine do not suddenly change their nature so as to give communicants a distinctive sacramental benefit, validly ordained priests do not cause this change by reciting valid prayers and a valid consecration of a bishop does not itself bestow on the recipient the gift of validly ordaining priests.

Here the theological argument is that God does certain things in certain ways. Again, however, there is no empirical evidence for it. People who receive Communion may, of course, live happier and better lives than others, but this could be for many reasons: what is in question is whether real benefits are given when, and only when, the bread and wine are validly consecrated by a validly ordained priest.

Counter-cultural theology

Both sets of opponents therefore offer theological arguments. Both arguments appeal to divine intervention: in one case to establish the text of the bible and in the other to change the sacramental nature of priests and bishops.

It is this strained appeal to divine intervention which makes them seem so incredible to modern ears. Yet that is the point: those who believe in them think modern society is at fault. They can distinguish themselves not only from supporters of women bishops, but also from modern western society in general. It is a deliberately counter-cultural stance, opposing what everybody else thinks.

This makes the 'conservative' positions newer than they seem. The conservative evangelical appeal to the divine authorship of the bible stems from the sixteenth century, when society in general believed in divine intervention; over a century later Isaac Newton still argued that God intervened in the solar system from time to time to push the planets back into orbit. Similarly, the Oxford Movement's appeal to invisible sacramental grace proved popular because at the time many people longed for signs of a rich spiritual realm functioning independently of the physical world; it was the century in which ghosts and clairvoyants regained popularity. Like every religious doctrine, these beliefs began at a time when they seemed to make sense and met a need. To hang onto them now, when they neither make sense nor meet any needs, is to do something new with them: to turn them into acts of defiance.

Religion at its best does the opposite. It helps us reflect on who made us, for what purpose, and how therefore we should live our lives. It gives us resources to help us with our reflecting, allowing us to respond to different circumstances by doing things differently in different times and places.

Religion at its best is creative and exciting.


Jonathan Clatworthy lives in Liverpool and (at the time of writing) was Modern Church General Secretary. He has worked as a parish priest, university chaplain and lecturer in Ethics.