Women Bishops and the February Synod

by Marilyn McCord Adams

from Signs of the Times, No. 33 - Apr 2009

When I ran for election as General Synod representative for Oxford University, I promised to support a single clause measure for the ordination of women to the episcopacy. The proposals produced by the legislative drafting committee and presented at the February Synod meeting were a far cry from a single clause measure. Unlike many who reckoned that something is better than nothing and that infiltration is the best policy, I voted against sending the drafts forward for revision.

The drafts repeatedly refer to those who "in conscience cannot receive the ministry of women for theological reasons." Some of my conscientious reasons for opposing the drafts are also theological. First, the drafts enshrine the Donatist heresy, which was condemned not only by the ancient church but also by Article XXVI of the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion! They imitate the '93 Act of Synod in giving institutional recognition to the notion that the 'sacramental' acts of validly ordained male bishops who have ordained women would not be valid, that parishes should have the right that their children be confirmed and ordination candidates that they should be ordained by male bishops who make declarations not to dirty their hands.

Second, these drafts further institutionalize the sin of misogyny, which I understand as the often unconscious but enacted belief that female human beings are so non-normative as to be unfit for symbolic or leadership roles. This is one of the sins of the fathers that has been so entrenched in social institutions from earliest times that it is possible to appeal to Scripture and tradition to justify repeating it.

Our concern here is not with individual but with institutional misogyny, with the deliberate creation of institutional machinery to house it. Despite the fact that the majority of Synod recognized misogyny as a sin in '92, Synod lacked the courage of majority convictions and made institutional provision for misogyny with the 'flying bishops' scheme. The present drafts invent still more institutional machinery on the same model.

Right after last summer's vote, Synod was told (by a bishop I shall leave unnamed) that it should be ashamed for not being more generous to conscientious objectors. My own view is that the majority of Synod who favor the ordination of women should be ashamed that our Church is so equivocal, so unable to take one step forward on women's issues without at the same time cutting down our full stature in Christ!

The procedural logic of the drafts is also disturbing. The desideratum of keeping valued members on board at all costs, is allowed to trump the majority's wish to rid our Church of institutional gender discrimination. What if other groups who have theological conscientious objections to the institutional policies of our Church, find themselves unable to remain without comparable institutional provision? What if the Donatist heresy spread, so that women clergy and CofE parishes found themselves conscientiously unable to accept the ministry of male bishops who refuse to ordain women? And/or bishops who ordain men who cannot conscientiously receive the ministry of women? What if all of the women of the CoE felt they couldn't conscientiously stay unless women were admitted to all ranks of the clergy on an equal footing? Following the procedural logic behind these drafts could turn the CoE into a government umbrella sheltering proliferating splinter groups. Or are the powers that be counting on some loyal Anglicans to sacrifice their conscientious theological convictions? Are they assuming that the procedural logic will not be evenly applied? If so, that's yet another cause for shame!

Marilyn McCord Adams is a Distinguished Research Professor of Philosophy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.