Saturday 22 December 2012

Women Bishops: Why It's Not a Big Issue

By now the dust has settled on the outcome of the Church of England's vote on women bishops. And there was quite a dust storm. The story occupied central attention on British news sites and provoked a lot of responses on facebook. Emotions in this debate run high on both sides of the table. Does it justify the furore?

Let me say straight-off that this post isn't about whether it's right for women to lead or teach in churches or not. I'm not interested in adding to that discussion, mostly because I don't have an opinion on it. I'd need to read more on this issue in order to get one. What I do feel strongly about is the effect that this discussion has on the church, and on the way in which the church is perceived by the public. I'm immensely saddened by anything that divides the church. Jesus' prayer shortly before He died was that the church might be united as one community (John 17:21). My sadness on this issue is exacerbated by my view that it's been blown out of all proportion by both those inside the church and those outside it.

I saw a lot of responses to the vote as the story broke. I saw responses from Christian friends on facebook and from non-Christians in the comments section of the BBC website. It seemed as if the people who were most upset were, firstly, non-Christians and, secondly, non-Anglicans. The loudest and most angry people seemed to be those who weren't actually affected by the decision but were disillusioned about a perceived lack of equality. But this wasn't a Church of England press release on the importance of women in general. It wasn't about making women second-class citizens. It was an administrative decision about leadership protocol in one denomination in one country. The reality is that, in the short-term, it was only likely to effect a dozen or so potential bishop-ettes. We really need a sense of scale here before we begin making wide-ranging, generalised comments about how the church relates to women.

The issue gets clouded because we tend to overstate what being a leader means. In many churches the leader is idolised as the central source of authority. The one who always preaches. The one who meets people's emotional needs. The one with the responsibility for evangelism. The one who embodies what it means to be a Christian. The one (perhaps?) who can do no wrong. There are two ways in which we get seriously off-track if we have this mentality. Firstly, we place unrealistic demands on our leaders. It's vital that we remember that these are human beings, people who are trying to be disciples just like anybody else. They're not God. That's not to undercut their authority; churches undoubtedly do need responsible leaders who exercise power with a servant-heart. But when our respect for their position under God turns into idolisation then we need to take a reality check. Secondly, we believe that if someone wants to serve God then they have to go into full-time ministry and lead a church. Or go to Bible college and become a preacher. We fail to recognise the exciting diversity of the kingdom of God, that there are so many ways in which you can serve without leading or teaching. If someone wants to build God's kingdom then that's wonderful. It doesn't mean that they have to be a teacher or leader in order to do so. God wants women to build His kingdom. That's a theological no-brainer. We need to constantly keep this at the forefront of our minds in the debate over women leaders/teachers. It's only one form of serving.

And if leading and teaching are, in actual fact, forms of serving, what does this mean for those who feel strongly about this issue? I'd suggest that it necessitates a strong dose of humility. Serving God is, essentially, joining with Him to accomplish His work. His work, not ours. There's a danger that I sound recriminating here against women who feel called to teach or lead, which is the last thing I want this post to achieve. But I wonder if we all, men and women alike, need a reminder that serving God isn't about jostling for position or promotion but about exactly that - service. If we're in-tune with God's priorities then we'll care more about the fruit of our service than about our role or function in it.

So this isn't a big issue. It needn't be widened so as to become a statement of women's ability to serve God within the church, let alone an identity-statement about women's importance in general. Of course, in saying this I'm not seeking to deny the very real centrality of the issue for those women who do feel called to lead or preach. The process of seeking God's guidance here is undoubtedly an important one for them. I respect that and don't seek to cast any judgement on them whatsoever. Like I say, I don't have an opinion here yet.

I mentioned at the outset that I was saddened by the way the church was presented in the popular press throughout this decision. I came across an article in The Guardian which argued that "the Church of England has detonated its credibility with modern Britain". You have to ask: what damages the church's credibility more (and here I mean the church as a whole, not just the CoE)? The administrative decision made by a church council or opinion articles criticising its judgement? I'm saddened that this issue has become such a big fish both in the church and in the press. The church (and, by extension, God) never seems to come out looking good. The same could be said for the debate on homosexuality. Perhaps the best thing we can do with this issue is attempt to keep it in our council meetings and off our newspages or facebook feeds, all whilst constantly striving for unity in the global church and showing grace to our brothers and sisters who see things differently.

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