Women Bishops

and the Revision Committee

The Modern Churchpeople's Union welcomes the Revision Committee's change of policy of 14 November 2009.

However we question the emphasis on seeking to satisfy the opponents of women bishops while showing no comparable concern for the majority appalled by the continuing gender discrimination.

Proliferation of classes of bishops

The Draft Measure proposes that each archbishop should nominate a male suffragan to relate to parishes opposed to women's ministry. To establish lists of bishops suitable for this purpose it proposes that male bishops may make one of two statements: either that 'he will not participate in the consecration of a woman to the office of bishop' or that 'he will neither participate in the consecration of a woman to the office of bishop nor ordain a woman to the office of priest' (PDFhttp://www.cofe.anglican.org/info/papers/ womenbishopsdebate/furtherreport/gs1708.pdf).

This arrangement would produce four classes of bishop:

  1. women bishops,
  2. men bishops who ordain women and may also have been consecrated by a woman,
  3. men bishops consecrated by men who have also ordained women to the priesthood, and
  4. men bishops consecrated by men who have never ordained women to the priesthood.

Only the fourth class would have all the functions which are currently invested in all bishops. For all that the others would be called bishops, and would be entitled to dress like bishops, in reality they would be the holders of new and subordinate offices which do not at present exist.

The Revision Committee proposed on 8 October 'to amend the draft Measure to provide for certain functions to be vested in bishops by statute rather than by delegation from the diocesan bishop under a statutory code of practice' (http://www.cofe.anglican.org/news/pr9509.html). This would in effect have created permanent distinctions between the classes of bishop. There would have been an obligation to fill episcopal appointments with men in classes c. and d. even if no suitable candidate were available.We welcome the withdrawal of this proposal as we believe any such distinctions should only have status for opponents of women who choose to distinguish in this way.

The theology of magic

The pressure for concessions to opponents of women bishops seems to depend on two dubious theological concepts. One is the theology of magic. Christian theologians usually distinguish sacraments from magic by describing sacraments as 'effectual signs', 'outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace' which is ultimately a gift from God, not an automatic result of performing the act. To understand them as automatic results would be to treat them as magic. In the ancient and medieval periods incantations and spells were normally understood in this magical sense, though many practitioners of magic today deny that they are attempting anything so crass.

One of the practical differences between the two is that in the case of magic close attention is applied to every detail. Like writing a computer program or designing a space shuttle today, every detail has to be exactly right; otherwise the project will fail. In ancient literature there are many stories to this effect; the users of magic understood their procedures either as manipulation of the forces of nature (which is what modern technology does) or as contracts with specific gods who might be on the lookout for loopholes so as to avoid fulfilling their part of the bargain.

For a parish today to insist that ordained people cannot be proper priests if they are women, or ordained by a woman, or even ordained by a male bishop who was himself consecrated by a woman bishop, is to appeal to magic rather than sacrament. The characteristic test case is whether the bread and wine of Holy Communion does indeed become sacrament (i.e. is in some sense the body and blood of Christ) when the Eucharist is celebrated and the Prayer of Consecration recited over it. Magical understanding of the act may insist that the consecration is invalid if the rubrics are infringed in some way, for example by using an unauthorised Prayer of Consecration. Such stances either conceive of God as refusing to bestow sacramental value on the bread and wine because of the 'loophole', or they have forgotten about God and are thinking purely in terms of naturalistic processes. Both accounts are appeals to magic. Sacramental theology, on the other hand, recognises the importance of the intention of what is being done. Proper norms for administering the sacraments are there for reasons, which we can understand and therefore vary in appropriate circumstances. According to the sacramental view, God is not being constrained to act or refrain from acting, and remains unconstrained regardless of how exactly the rules have been followed.

The theology of taint

The other dubious feature of the current proposals is the 'theology of taint'. Over and above the question of whether one's male priest has a 100% male pedigree - so that all the way up the consecration chain there was not a single woman bishop - the Draft Measure also proposes to establish a class of bishops who have never ordained a woman to the priesthood, and another class of bishops who have never participated in consecrating a woman bishop. This raises the question: if a parish wants, and has, a male bishop with a 100% male pedigree, why should it matter to them whether that bishop has on other occasions ordained or consecrated a woman? It makes no difference at all to the parish unless the parishioners convince themselves that because he has laid hands on a woman he is no longer a valid bishop. This idea of 'taint' - as though the sacramental invalidity caused by laying hands on a woman spreads like a virus and subsequently invalidates other sacramental acts - is another instance of magical theology, but with the additional notion that the invalidity of one act can invalidate another. The Revision Committee, rather than making allowances for the theological convictions of those who believe such things, would have been better advised to challenge them.

Repeated resistance to change

Sadly, this illustrates all too clearly what we have been getting from church leaders recently. Obvious parallels are homosexuality and assisted dying, where religious leaders have joined forces to oppose change, thus defining their religions in terms of opposing society's views of justice. One does not need to agree with every change to see a pattern: any one person may agree with the religious leaders on one issue or another, while still not wanting their faith to be defined in such negative terms.

There is legitimate concern for the future of the Church. Every parish priest feels the tension between longstanding members, who tend to be more happy with the way things are, and younger and newer attenders who desire change. When the longstanding members do not get their way they are more likely to complain and give the vicar a headache. When newcomers and the young do not get their way, they stop coming. Wise clergy know that if they always favour the complainers at the expense of the disappearers, the church will slowly die. Our national leaders do not seem to have noticed. As they bend over backwards to retain the support of a minority determined to resist change, the views of new and potential members are barely taken into account at all. Since religious organisations have gained exemption from equality of opportunity legislation with respect to both gender and sexual orientation, few church leaders seem aware just how shocked are many of the unchurched that our moral standards are, in these respects, so much lower than those of British society in general. It is hardly surprising that so many look elsewhere for their spiritual needs to be met.

To those utterly convinced that these bans are right, none of this may matter. But let us observe what kind of claim they are making. What is being claimed is that women bishops (or homosexuality, or whatever) are wrong because the Church so teaches, and that what the Church teaches is the only relevant criterion. Psychological and biological research may debunk as much as it likes the older theories of male superiority in the relevant areas, and women may excel as chief executives and prime ministers; opponents consider all this irrelevant because it does not come from the teaching of the Church.

Thus the opponents of women bishops are increasingly appealing to a church-in-its-own-world, with its own criteria of truth and moral standards, quite independently of whether most Christians agree with them, let alone secular society. Thirty years ago most opponents of women's ordination did not so defy the world around them. This newer, more anti-cosmic stance produces that exaggerated deference to the individual dissident's conscience which we come across so often now, with its demands for special exemptions from equal opportunities legislation. The logic goes: my Church teaches x; therefore I believe x; since I believe it precisely because the Church so teaches, I am bound by it; I have no scope for negotiation.

Thus the resistance to change revolves around two ideas: a presumption against change, and an appeal to the individual conscience as an unchanging basic fact.

Churches change

Of course churches change, as do all organisations. Doctrines change, ethical teaching changes. However there is a common tendency to imagine that long-held doctrines and ethical teachings are the product of divine revelation imparted in the distant past, and that ever since then the church's duty is to preserve it unchanged. Such an idea seems to attach itself easily to things considered sacred; since the medieval Faith and Reason debate, and especially since the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, it has often been defended by both the Vatican and conservative Evangelicals.

Today this inconsistency between theory and reality leads to absurd claims. In 1992 opponents of the ordination of women lamented that the Church of England was no longer the same church; it had become a different church, and they wanted to stay in the old one. This argument implies both that the pre-1992 church was unchanging, and that the absence of change was essential to its identity. Without these assumptions it is impossible to make any sense of the idea that the post-1992 church is not the same one. However, when they are spelt out it becomes clear that the arguments are based on a priori ideas of a 'true Church' which flatly contradict historical reality. No church has ever been truly unchanging.

A less extreme version of the argument is that some changes do not alter the identity of the church but this one does. This position gains realism, but at the cost of coherence. In the 1920s Parochial Church Councils were introduced, allowing the laity a say in the administration of churches. In the 1950s parochial endowments for clergy stipends were centralised and the proceeds redistributed. In the 1960s the 1662 Book of Common Prayer ceased to be the only Prayer Book permitted in Church of England churches. To most Anglicans it is by no means obvious that the ordination of women priests changes the Church so much more radically than any of these. What would make sense of the argument would be a criterion according to which the ordination of women, and this alone, altered the identity of the Church so that it was no longer a (or the) 'true Church', so that with the first ordination of a woman God immediately withdrew authorisation from it and stopped validating its sacraments. However, no such criterion has been established, and even if it were it would still need to be justified.

The objection to the ordination of women on the ground of change is therefore inadequate. It draws its strength from a widespread but vague feeling that some changes are off limits: widespread because in historical fact it is derived from an earlier theory widely held by both sides in the Reformation debates and occasionally revived since then; vague because the principle underlying it, that all changes to the true Church are forbidden, has been long forgotten - and to remember it is to remember how hopelessly unrealistic it is.

The individual conscience

If the argument from change had been successful, it might have followed that the pre-1992 Church of England has ceased to exist, and the post-1992 Church of England is a different entity. On this basis opponents argued that they had a moral case for severance pay. The argument would parallel an argument by police officers or school teachers that they should be offered severance pay if they choose not to accept the latest government-imposed changes to their job description and terms of employment. No other profession, of course, has been offered such a thing.

The argument has clearly failed. The Church of England's leadership, and the overwhelming majority of baptised Anglicans, believe that the present Church of England is indeed a continuation of the pre-1992 Church. What remains is that opponents declare themselves unable in all conscience to acknowledge the priesthood of women. Either special arrangements must be made to accommodate their consciences or they will be forced to leave.

So what is conscience, and why does it oblige people to behave in this kind of way? The most influential Christian account of conscience is Thomas Aquinas' distinction between two elements: the innate ability to perceive basic moral principles, which he called synderesis, and the faculty of rationally applying them to particular situations, which he called conscientia. Putting the two together, individuals make moral judgements which they believe to be true. All of us, though, are sometimes in error. Aquinas believed we should do what our conscience tells us, but we have a prior moral responsibility to inform our consciences properly, taking into account unwelcome as well as welcome information.

Aquinas believed that God has established true moral principles and enables our minds to perceive them. What follows from this is that when we all use our synderesis properly, the principles one person perceives must be consistent with the principles other people perceive; otherwise God would have been inconsistent. Similarly, we can apply our conscientia by observing the context of a particular situation, applying the principles to it, and checking our observations and applications against other people's conscientia. In this way both elements, the basic moral principles and the way we apply them, are subject to rational examination.

This account suggests that the Church of England, having made a corporate judgement of theology that women can be bishops - and not half-bishops - should now legislate accordingly. It would be entirely appropriate to respect the minority who disagree and negotiate suitable pastoral provision for them, WATCH's current policy. It would not however be appropriate to legislate for a permanent nation-wide alternative provision, still less to reduce the role of women bishops to oblige them. We might compare the situation with conscientious objectors in the Second World War. In some countries the price was death; in others, like the UK, permission was granted for many pacifists to do alternative work in organisations such as the Family Service Unit. No government, however, modified its military strategy to accommodate their views; both sides were realistic enough to acknowledge that the majority view would prevail.

Modern secular accounts of conscience have a different structure because they dispense with the mind of God. In secular theory moral principles reside nowhere except in the human mind, and human minds notoriously disagree with each other about what those principles are. There is therefore no reason to presume that there are any objective right answers, so our moral disagreements come to be seen as irresolvable. The result is that in secular discourse, what the individual's conscience dictates is often treated as a basic unchangeable fact, raw data about an individual's mind, just as political discourse about 'choice' treats what the individual wants as a basic fact. The idea that we ought to inform our consciences, like the idea that we can reflect on what we ought to want, is becoming increasingly alien to secular thought.

So secular thought influences church debates. Thus Forward in Faith's website describes FiF as 'a worldwide association of Anglicans who are unable in conscience to accept the ordination of women as priests or as bishops' (http://www.forwardinfaith.com/about/). The Revision Committee speaks of 'those with conscientious difficulties' (8 October) and 'those unable[sic!] to receive the episcopal and/or priestly ministry of women' (14 November). These phrases imply that the individual's conscience is a personal 'inability' or 'difficulty' which exists over and above public and private reflection on the rights and wrongs of the matter, and just has to be accepted.

In the traditional Christian view, by contrast, to say that a person is 'unable in conscience to accept the ordination of women' is precisely to say that, in the light of basic principles and their application to the circumstances, that person currently believes it contrary to God's will. No more, no less. The conscience is not something additional, separate from the reflection. Our disagreements reveal that some of us must be wrong, and this should prompt us to inform our consciences as well as possible so as to avoid being the one in error.

In effect the opponents of women bishops have reinterpreted their consciences as basic unchangeable facts, in secular fashion. Taking the matter one step further they are now using them as bargaining chips in negotiations to block the changes desired by the majority. This is not what morally principled Christians do with their consciences.

Religious constipation

These appeals to an unchanging Church and an unalterable religious conscience have for over a century been the stock in trade of atheists condemning religion for being dogmatic, irrational and outdated. What is more recent is the enthusiasm of church leaders to agree with them. It was not always so: in the 1960s, for example, the bishops in the UK House of Lords were in the vanguard of progressive opinion in a succession of social legislation including the decriminalisation of suicide and homosexuality and the abolition of capital punishment.

The present reactionary mood is expressed clearly in the exaggerated sympathy for the minority opposed to women bishops, and at present threatens to reinforce, or even extend, the disastrous 1993 Act of Synod which set a precedent for dissidents on other issues to demand their own sets of bishops. However it ranges far more widely: in the examples of homosexuality and assisted dying, mentioned above, leaders of most of the main religious groups have been quick to declare what their religion believes, even though most of it does not. Recent attempts to institutionalise the opposition to women priests and bishops within the church are thus part of a wider trend, a kind of religious constipation: nothing is allowed to move, and as the pressure builds up the determination to resist it becomes ever more extreme.

The proposed Anglican Covenant

Plans are afoot to turn this reactionary mood into a permanent part of the Anglican Communion. The proposals for an Anglican Covenant are designed to achieve precisely this. According to current plans each church is asked to commit itself, in the wording of the present (Ridley) draft:

(3.2.5) to act with diligence, care and caution in respect to actions, either proposed or enacted, at a provincial or local level, which, in its own view or the expressed view of any Province or in the view of any one of the Instruments of Communion, are deemed to threaten the unity of the Communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission, and to consent to the following principles and procedural elements:
(3.2.5.a) to undertake wide consultation with the other churches of the Anglican Communion and with the Instruments and Commissions of the Communion;
(3.2.5.b) to accept the legitimacy of processes for communion-wide evaluation which any of the Instruments of Communion may commission, according to such procedures as are appended to this covenant...

Although there are some administrative reasons for favouring an Anglican Covenant, the driving force behind it is overwhelmingly the determination of conservative evangelicals to establish that homosexuality is immoral, active homosexuals cannot be bishops and churches cannot offer same-sex marriages. Behind this focus, however, lies an additional implication, fully intended: that it will be possible for the central Communion authorities to block any innovation by one province which another province finds objectionable.

This means that once the Covenant was in force, it would become virtually impossible for any province to introduce an innovation if there is another province, anywhere in the world, which disapproves of it. If the Covenant had been in force in 1992 the Church of England would not now have women priests. Of course the Covenant's supporters insist that this is not their intention. They do not all want to block every innovation. But each of them wants to block some innovations, and the new procedures, once in force, will be available for use by any group with the determination and resources to mount a campaign against any innovations anywhere else in the world.


The recent attempts by church leaders, Anglican and Roman Catholic alike, to woo the opponents of women bishops while ignoring the concerns of far larger numbers who disagree with them, illustrates a more general failure of leadership in the current era. Now that religious organisations are the last remaining refuge where men who so wish can legally impose their prejudices, it is hardly surprising that they are over-represented within them. To pander to this constituency does a grave disservice both to the institutional churches and to the credibility of the Christian faith. In effect church leaders are inviting support from the most reactionary elements and thereby discrediting themselves in the eyes of far larger numbers. We believe the future of the Church lies with those who think its offices should be open to men and women alike.

Church leaders are increasingly describing their faith groups as though they were self-sufficient entities with their own unchanging facts and values, refusing on principle to learn from the insights and values of their host society. They thus present religion as something which demands unquestioning subservience to the inherited teachings of their faith tradition. We believe they should acknowledge both that the Church has often been in error in the past, and that it has often overcome its errors by learning from contemporary society. To accept that senior ecclesiastical posts should be open to women as well as men would be one more instance of this pattern.

To justify their authoritarian view of doctrine and ethics church leaders are increasingly appealing to an anti-intellectual account of the individual conscience in which the individual, rather than engaging in personal reflection, dutifully accepts what church authorities teach. Thus different religious leaders repeatedly ally with each other to uphold older beliefs at the expense of newer ones. We believe every individual should inform their conscience by learning not only from church authorities but from all relevant sources, and that nobody's conscientious beliefs should be considered immune from examination and criticism.

Some faith groups are more centralised and authoritarian than others. Anglicanism, hitherto the least centralised and least authoritarian of the largest faith groups, is being threatened by a change to its constitution precisely in order to make it more centralised and authoritarian. We believe our decentralised structure and diversity is a strength; far from being suppressed for the sake of conformity it should be promoted as a model for faith groups open to new insights in a changing world.

Supporters of women bishops vary in their views on other issues, but we share a progressive conviction: that churches often need to change their doctrines and practices in the light of new insights derived from outside their faith's tradition. God teaches us not only through the church but also through the world around us. We therefore share with the supporters of other changes a commitment to keeping church structures open and adaptable, so that we may follow when the Holy Spirit leads us in new directions, shake off the backward-looking image which the major religions so often present, and proclaim a gospel which is truly good news and offers hope to the despised and oppressed.

Jonathan Clatworthy
16 November 2009