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Dec 10 Bishop James: Women bishops

During 2011 the ‘Women Bishops’ issue will be discussed by all our Deanery Synods. Towards the end of the year the result of all that discussion will be reported to Diocesan Synod. In turn, the outcome of our Diocesan Synod debate will go to General Synod – and eventually, after a process which has been going on for years, a decision will finally be made about the best way to proceed.

To the outside world, this sounds bizarre! Why, people wonder, can’t the church just catch up with the rest of society? After all, we had the debates about votes for women – and women doctors – and women barristers – and women politicians - years ago. Even women astronauts are now taken for granted. As Air Force Colonel Eileen Collins once remarked ‘My daughter just thinks that all mums fly the space shuttle’! And when Pat Schroeder was asked why she was running for political office as a woman (which she frequently was) she used too reply ‘What choice do I have?’! So to many people the wrangle over women bishops in the Church of England sounds at best anachronistic – and at worst absurd. But of course it isn’t as simple as that. Oh that it were! Those who are opposed to the consecration of women as bishops (and there are many women among them) do so for a variety of reasons, most of which are a far cry from the prejudice and bigotry of which they are often accused. For instance, some believe that scripture simply doesn’t permit women to have ‘headship’ of an episcopal kind in the church. Others point to two thousand years of church tradition during which bishops have always been men – and to the fact that all Jesus’ 12 original apostles were male. All challenge the view that the church must just succumb to the ‘spirit of the age’, and argue that in the counter-culture which the church should be, men and women are called to be complementary – not the same. Not making women bishops doesn’t devalue women, runs the argument. In fact, quite the opposite: it values them for what they are and takes their gifts seriously rather than forcing them (as society so often does) into an ill-fitting male mould. Those on the other side of the argument interpret both scripture and tradition differently. They believe that the spirit is leading us to see ‘episcope’ as something shared, and suggest that it makes no sense to ordain women as priests but then refuse to consecrate some as bishops. This is a matter of simple justice, they say – and we should not tolerate the unfairness of our present system. Feelings run high on both sides – which is one of several reasons why it is so important to be clear about what exactly we will be discussing in 2011. We will not actually be debating whether or not women should become bishops. It has already been agreed by General Synod that they should - and I am personally very comfortable with that decision. What we will be discussing is the provision that should be made for those who, in conscience, cannot accept women as bishops. This too is a matter of justice, and of honouring past promises. The question is how we can create structures within which everyone can operate without undue compromise. The legislation that is currently being proposed is unacceptable to many of those who are opposed to women bishops, because it requires them to accept their authority. And the irony is that if the pro-lobby push it without any supplementary conditions, the whole movement towards having women bishops in England could be set back by several years. So I am in favour of women bishops. But I am also in favour of honouring those who cannot accept them, and pray fervently that 2011 will be the year when at last we are able – by God’s grace – to square what has always been a very intractable circle. James Newcome

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