Recently three Anglican bishops in England were ordained as priests in the Roman Catholic Church. They were unambiguous in stating the reason for their break with the Church where they had risen to the ranks of senior leadership. While they had been unhappy at the prospect, they had been willing to remain within the Church as women were ordained as priests. However, they could not countenance the ordination of women as bishops. In other words they found the idea of a woman being in a position of authority equal to or surpassing their own as something to be avoided, even at the cost of breaking with their Church and losing their own positions. The three departing bishops had been part of a vocal minority lobbying to allow any priest or parish objecting to female bishops to “transfer” to a male bishop. (The irony is not lost on me that the titular head of their Church is the Queen of England, so from one perspective they have been under the authority of a more senior woman for some time.)
This story resonates with me for many reasons, but two particularly stand out. As a woman, it’s difficult not to take the attitude of these bishops personally…as a woman who has spent a considerable number of years as a minister, it’s almost impossible. I’ve become very familiar with the standard scriptural arguments on both sides of the question of women functioning in all aspects of ministry. I’ve met both men and women who ardently and sincerely believe that it is wrong for women to lead congregations or publicly teach adult men. I have personally experienced the challenges of being accepted as a woman in a leadership role within the Church, and observed that even those who state their support of women in ministry many times place restrictions and caveats on how women can use their gifts. Many books have been written detailing the scriptural basis for these views and my purpose is not to rehash those arguments. Suffice it to say I firmly believe scripture supports women functioning in any role in the Church. My focus here is that there are many people within the Anglican Church who do not share my view.
The news coverage of this story has brought out the usual comments about the relevance of the Church and it’s beliefs. One of the loudest questions being raised is “how can any organization in this day and age be so misogynistic?” My own reaction is to cry out from my heart “why do you find women in authority so offensive that you would thoroughly reject any contemplation of following a female leader?” If I am to remain true to my desire to reflect God’s image, however, I must look at the example Jesus left us and choose to follow that pattern. He clearly challenged the Church leaders of His era when they misrepresented God’s nature and intentions. At the same time He wept over Jerusalem out of His love and care for everyone there, including the Church leaders. His experiences with Nicodemus give a wonderful example of how Jesus interacted with a leader sincerely desiring to know God.
I choose to continue to see these former Anglican bishops, and others sharing their beliefs, as sincerely desiring to live according to their understanding of God’s teaching, even while I simultaneously and vigorously disagree with their conclusions. I recognize them as also being created by God and loved by Him, and therefore worthy of my compassion and consideration. And I must be brave enough to live in the tension of Jesus’ example, loving enough to speak truth forthrightly while I maintain an open door to interaction and relationship with those who desire to know God.
(read more in Part 2)