18.7.08

The Revd Dr Jane Shaw is Dean of Divinity and Fellow of New College, Oxford, and Canon Theologian of Salisbury Cathedral in The Church Times

No second-class citizens in church

The decision on women bishops reflects justice and equality, argues Jane Shaw


Since women were first ordained as priests in the Church of England in 1994, the issue of female bishops has not been far from the surface. As we have headed towards the possibility of admitting women to the episcopate, the question has not been so much whether women would become bishops, but how. Many of the recent discussions of the subject, including official documents such as the Guildford report, have started from the wrong end. They have set out by asking: what is to be done for opponents of women bishops? Surely, if we truly value women equally with men, the proper question with which to begin is: how do we have women bishops, and when? The debate therefore became seriously skewed. General Synod’s decision last week took many people by surprise — opponents and supporters alike — because it began from the right place. The General Synod did the theologically and ecclesiologically right thing. The decision was made to admit women to the episcopate on equal terms with men. This enables the Church to be true to its theology of creation. Christianity teaches that all human beings are made in the image and likeness of God. If we believe that, we cannot enshrine in law the very idea that women are second-class citizens; that their ministry is somehow “less”, and their hands tainted. “Superbishops”, or any other legally enshrined so-called safeguard, would have sent out that message. The decision to admit women to the episcopate without legal restrictions is also the properly Catholic thing to do. A bishop’s authority must be for all the people under his or her oversight, not just a sub-section: Catholic means universal. The Act of Synod created a dangerous precedent, in which a pick-and-mix mentality emerged: some bishops for some, other bishops for others. This notion has, alas, mushroomed in the Anglican Communion. The irony here is that a Measure intended to create unity in fact put structures of disunity in place. It is right that the General Synod has resisted that this time around. Any legal restriction on the authority of any bishops because of an incidental such as gender (or, for that matter, ethnicity or class, though gender was the issue here) undermines a Catholic understanding of the exercise of oversight. the day after the vote, the newspapers gloomily reported possible splits in, and exits from, the Church. This was dispiriting to many of us because it was again starting from the wrong end. The fact is that the Church has done a very good thing. It has said this: Women: you, too, are made in the image and likeness of God. Women: you, too, have gifts that we can use in all orders of ministry. Bishops: your oversight is for the whole people of God. It has opened the possibility for some ordained women to exercise their gifts and use their experience in the office of bishop. Gifts must always be the starting point for the appointment or election to any office in the Church, as it was in early Christianity. Other parts of the Communion have been astonished by our agonies and agonising about this. Perhaps it is a peculiarly English characteristic to hope that everyone can be pleased all the time. Other branches of the Communion recognised that they needed to have the courage of their convictions: if women were to be regarded as children of God equally alongside men, then the Church itself must reflect that at all levels. They trusted that if they got their theology and ecclesiology right, then, with perseverance and faith, other things would fall into place. Key to this was and is building relationships. I spent several days last week at a conference about women bishops, looking at the theme of “transfiguring episcope”, at which many of the Anglican female bishops were present. We heard from the recently consecrated Australian women that a simple code of practice enables the majority of dioceses to appoint women as bishops, even while the diocese of Sydney does not wish to do so. The Communion has already had 20 years’ experience of female oversight, and we heard from North American female bishops how, without a code of practice, the vast majority readily accept the oversight of women. For the very few who do not, the building of relationships, one-on-one, church with church, community with community, enables those who deeply disagree not just simply to co-exist in the same Church, but also to worship and share fellowship together. Thus women exercise their ministry of oversight in a properly Catholic manner. The legal enshrinement of inequalities would have fostered distrust and suspicion within the Church, and fossilised that in perpetuity, while also sending out a permanent message to society that God does not value women as much as God values men. That is not a viable mission statement; nor is it Christian theology. The way forward that Synod has chosen will require us to keep talking to each other, praying with each other, and learning how to resolve conflict. That is what we are called to do as the people of God. The Revd Dr Jane Shaw is Dean of Divinity and Fellow of New College, Oxford, and Canon Theologian of Salisbury Cathedral

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A little background reading on the two theological integrities in the Church of England regarding women in ministry.