Finally – the Anglican church has its first woman bishop. After decades of sometimes acrimonious debate, the General Synod adopted legislation permitting women to take on this role, opening the door for Rev. Libby Lane’s consecration as bishop of Stockport in a historic ceremony in York Minster on 26 January.
But the event was not without incident. As the archbishop of York, John Sentamu, asked the congregation whether they would accept Rev. Lane as bishop, a conservative priest, Rev. Paul Williamson (most famous for his attempt to bring a lawsuit preventing Prince Charles’ marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles) interrupted with the words “Not in the Bible”.
Indeed. There are lots of things that are “not in the Bible”. Electric pianos, youth groups and church magazines for a start. But arguments from silence are always to be handled very carefully. The New Testament does not record that Jesus ever clapped in worship, but does that mean that we shouldn’t? Examples could be multiplied but I’m sure you get the idea.
For some, the whole idea of women bishops is totally anathema, while others wonder quite what all the fuss is about. Still others accept the idea but aren’t really sure why and have this nagging feeling that Saint Paul in particular probably wouldn’t approve.
So… Without going over the reams of arguments for and against, what are we supposed to make of woman bishops?
The term “bishop” is the English version of the Greek word episkopos, which itself is not a religious word but simply means overseer or foreman. Early church leaders were not venerated dignitaries or an elite group in charge of a national movement – they were servants of God’s people. Overseer (bishop), pastor (shepherd) and elder (presbyter) were interchangeable labels given to those who served in leadership in the infant churches; it was only with the growth of the church and the death of the first apostles that bishops took on a wider role as overseers of other leaders and numbers of churches.
In this way, even if women bishops are “not in the Bible”, the current role of bishop in the Anglican communion – a far cry from that portrayed in Scripture – is also not there. Like it or not, today’s church is the product of historical development beyond that recorded in the New Testament when the infant church was just taking shape.
With that clear (!), we then have the next question: does the Bible close the door to women as bishops in the sense of church leaders? After all, Paul does say to Timothy that anyone seeking to be an overseer must be “the husband of only one wife”, literally in the original a “one-woman man” (1 Timothy 3:2).
Whilst clearly referring to married men, few insist that it excludes single men from the office of church leader – although this is the necessary conclusion with a strict or “literal” interpretation. (The Anglican communion itself rejects this, admitting single men to the contemporary office of bishop.) An open interpretation looks rather at the principle behind this statement: that sexual purity is essential for a church leader. Once we accept a wider application than solely married men, where to draw the “non-literal” interpretative line becomes a matter of conviction, usually motivated by previously held opinions, rather than exegesis of the passage as such. If we open the role to non “one-woman men”, there is no intrinsic reason to limit the role to men – whether male or female, single or married, an overseer’s “private life” is to be taken into account in evaluating a person’s suitability for leadership. This fits the context of Paul’s requirements for elders in which moral character is fundamental, much more than any theological qualification.
And finally, whilst uncommon in the male-dominated world that Scripture portrays, the Bible does give us examples of women in leadership roles whose inclusion indicates that it would be wrong to simply prohibit women from leadership. The Old Testament gives us Huldah and Debora, for example, whilst in the New, in addition to Priscilla who teaches accompanied by her husband, Junia appears to be called an apostle and Phoebe simply a “leader” (Romans 16).
Interestingly, Phoebe is also said to be a “deacon” (perhaps better translated “minister”) using the masculine term, not the anticipated feminine “deaconess”. Two immediate applications can be drawn from this. Firstly, that other apparently “male” roles or offices should be open to women – a masculine label can apparently equally be applied to a woman. And secondly, we need to return to Paul’s discussion of leadership requirements in 1 Timothy 3. Like overseers, deacons are there also required to be “one-woman men”. But if the Scriptures themselves give us an example of a woman deacon, it is evidently wrong to limit the application to married men; by the same token, if “one woman-men” deacons can in fact be women, there is no reason to reject women as overseers, that is, bishops.
Yes, we are sexed beings. Gender is part of our earthly identity and we will always be either men or women. But in Christ it is irrelevant whether we are Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. And in his body, the church, it is to be no different. We are called to be a charismatic community, where role is determined by gift, not gender.
Bishop Libby Lane, welcome :-)
(PS I realise that this short discussion cannot cover all aspects of the issue – it is not intended to do so. Whilst personally, I unreservedly accept women in any and every role or position in church, I accept that not everyone holds that view. I am encouraged by the Anglican communion’s ability to pursue unity in worship and witness, despite the evident theological disagreements, and trust that in other branches of the church we can do the same.)
Image credit: http://www.churchtimes.co.uk/