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What Does The Bible Tell Us About Women Bishops?

Friday 30th August, 2013 @ 3:11 pm

by Reverend Canon Jack Higham | tags: , ,

Rev’d Canon Jack Higham suggests that the Bible must be used with caution in the debate about women bishops but concludes that the underlying message is clear

‘She [the daughter of Herodias] went out and said to her mother, "What shall I ask for?"

"The head of John the baptiser," she answered’ Mark 6.24

‘Jacob served seven years for Rachel, but they seemed like only a few days to him because of his love for her.’ Genesis 29:20

In the midst of a historic debate in the Synod on women bishops the stories of Herodias (Mark 6:14-29) and Rachel (Genesis 29) present us with two very different pictures of women. Herodias - vengeful, vindictive, ruthless, manipulative; Rachel - gentle, patient, hard-working and loving. But before we're tempted to apply those categories to the debate on women bishops, we have to look at the men: Herod - lustful, foolish, proud and yet weak, and Laban, Jacob's uncle, who seems at first to act honourably (although demanding his nephew work seven years for his daughter's hand does seem excessive) but is later revealed to be deceitful. He arranged that the wedding should be in the evening, after it was dark, so that he could substitute his other daughter Leah for Rachel, a fact which Jacob only discovered the next morning when it was too late. When Jacob expostulated, his uncle told him he would have to work another seven years if he wanted Rachel, and he was told for the first time that the custom of the land required the elder daughter to be married first - so Laban is doubly deceitful and highly dubious. It was probably this Biblical story that influenced church law which until very recently required all wedding to be before 8am and 4pm (IE the hours of daylight in winter).

We would probably find that Jacob comes out of the story well, in that he patiently puts up with all this chicanery but there's a sly detail inserted into his story. We're told that Jacob's interest was aroused when he ‘saw Rachel, the daughter of Laban, his mother's brother and Laban’s sheep,’ - the implication is that his motive was not so pure and he's a bit of a gold digger.

So in the end the only male character who comes out of either story well is John the Baptist who has his head chopped off for telling the truth.

Curiously this story was a comfort to Henry VIII who, like Herod, had married his deceased brother's wife. There are conflicting Old Testament texts on this subject - one saying it is contrary to God's will and the other saying God requires it so that your dead brother can have heirs or children as heirs.

Henry VIII had been given a papal dispensation to marry his dead brother's wife because such unions were forbidden by canon law. But when he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn he developed a convenient scruple based on this text and Leviticus, and when he wanted later to get rid of Anne Boleyn he followed Herod's precedent by beheading the offending party. All of which suggests that it is dangerous to apply Biblical texts directly to situations in modern life. If you look hard enough, you can often find a text to support the view which you have come to on other grounds.

The debate on women bishops has been bedevilled (if I may use the expression) by such selective use of scripture. The Evangelicals oppose women bishops because St Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians "I want you to understand that the head of every man is Christ and the head of a woman is her husband.” Paul (or perhaps a follower) reiterates this in Ephesians: "For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church." Paul is reflecting the views of his own day, and he clearly met with some opposition because he adds, "If any one is disposed to be contentious, we recognise no other practice" (note his use of the royal "we").

Yet, on the other hand, Paul writes in Galatians, “In the church there is neither Jew nor Gentile, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

Hence my point about the way scripture has been used. We have to try to get the whole sense, the central message, while recognising, as Paul does elsewhere, that we see through a glass darkly and we have the truth in earthen vessels.

To my mind and to the large majority of our Church, the issue of women bishops is straightforward. The suitability of a candidate must be tested and the quality of their ministry and leadership abilities carefully assessed, but their gender is irrelevant. We need the leadership of the best bishops that can be found, and to double the pool from which they are drawn can only be for the good.

But at the same time the Church needs to respect the scruples of those from both wings of our church who, on grounds of conscience, feel unable to accept the episcopacy of women. Anglicanism has always been a broad church from its beginnings, holding to people of widely different theologies. We have also generally been a tolerant church, accepting in our midst people with whom on a variety of issues we disagree.

And what I don't like just now is the intolerant attitude of some of the proponents of women bishops who almost seem happy to eject their opponents from our communion. If our broad Anglican church cannot handle these conflicts, what hope is there for any other church? There are wise heads in the synod who see that some Anglican fudge may well be necessary. It's not neat and tidy. It may seem contradictory but we've coped with flying bishops for 20 years, and it ought not to be beyond the wit of Synod to find a way of keeping everyone on board while at the same time bringing the reform which a clear majority favours.

Perhaps the key message is the all embracing love of God and the realisation that we're all sinners yet God loves us all and forgives us all. If the Synod can think in those terms, then surely a God of love will guide us all to loving one another in spite of our differences.

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