by Alan Wolfe
from Signs of the Times No. 50 - Jul 2013

In the Church Times (28th March) it was suggested that this book was put together because the legislation to permit women as Bishops in the Church of England was blocked only by a minority of the House of Laity. It assumes that this was the outcome of misconceptions among the laity arising from mis-readings of Scripture, which it intends to put right.

Its format is designed to be used in Church discussion groups, and it covers a number of relevant issues with clarity and accuracy. Those of us who would like any discussion to be based on fact rather than prejudice may find it helpful.

However, it seems unlikely to achieve its objective, first because six of the nine contributors are women which could imply to a critic a bias in its basic viewpoint; secondly because people who know their Bible, read widely, listen to sermons carefully, discuss the issues tolerantly with others (and who possibly already accept the case for women as Bishops), will find little in it which is unfamiliar; and thirdly that those who are most likely to be opposed (people with traditional and fundamentalist beliefs) may well refuse to read let alone discuss it.

In any case, those who believe that every word in the Authorised Version of the Bible was dictated by God and must be interpreted only in the most simple way possible, are not going to be persuaded differently by yet another statement of the usual "liberal excuses", such as: after 1,500 years of hand-copying and at least two translations (from Aramaic into Greek, Latin and then English), Jesus' teaching might have undergone some accidental (or even deliberate) changes, or that the everyday meaning of words can alter from century to century, or that certain verses appear to contradict each other. God must have already dealt with all that!

The book is very thorough about "gender" in the Bible,  but less so about the Church. It is a pity that as a result, some of the most common misunderstandings are not resolved, or even mentioned. Especially that its three-decker administrative structure (bishops, priests and deacons) was not instituted by Jesus when on earth. These were gradually developed and accepted by different and independent Church communities over a period of some 300 years. The 12 (who were not only all men but also Aramaic-speaking, Palestinian, practising Jews), and before them the 70 (Luke 10:1-9) were commissioned by Jesus as Apostles (meaning missionaries - "go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel" - Mark 16:15).

They were later joined in this task by many others (like St. Paul and apparently including some women). In the time of Acts and subsequently, Church communities were led by "Elders" (presbuteroi in Greek)  many of whom were women and who were usually chosen and blessed (not "ordained") by their congregations. A great deal of relevant, but sometimes contradictory, information can be found in the writings of the Early Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch (c35-107), Clement of Alexandria (c150-215), Tertullian (c160-220), Origen (c185-254), and Eusebius of Caesarea (c260-340). The Greek word "episkopos" (originally meaning an overseer or supervisor) was adopted very early by Christians but at first meant no more than "the senior among the elders". Interestingly the word episkopos is used several times  in the Old Testament but never translated into English as "bishop" yet the only three times it is used in the New Testament were all translated in the Authorised Version as "bishop".

While it is a fact that the active role of women in the Church gradually diminished in early mediaeval times, women were still ordained in special circumstances (such as the heads of convents and nunneries) until the 4th Lateran Convocation of 1215 which for the first time definitively excluded all women from the entire priesthood. This is the system by which the Roman Catholic Church has run itself ever since, and from which the Church of England derived its original principles.

This remains a highly-visible topic and I fear that to some extent the future of the Church of England will depend on coming quickly to a solution which will both satisfy the great majority of its members and reassure the general public about its sanity! So (with the help of our leaders) we laypeople must clarify our minds and make our views known to all.

Women and Men in Scripture and the Church: A Guide to the Key Issues edited by Steven Croft & Paula Gooder is published by Canterbury Press, ISBN 9781848255104