One of our Bible study groups met this morning to discuss chapters 7 and 8 of 1 Corinthians and I found Chapter 8 particularly useful in relation to how I (as a minister in the URC) should think about the row in the Church of England about women bishops.
In that chapter Paul responds to a query about whether it’s allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols. He responds subtly but rather confusingly.
First he says that of course there is nothing actually wrong in eating this meat, The idols aren’t representations of false gods because there are no false gods. People think they’re sacrificing to a god but in fact they’re just butchering the animals in a strange way. If one understands monotheism properly then the meat hasn’t been contaminated or made bad by contact with false gods. Nothing real has happened and it’s fine to tuck in.
However, he says, some of those in the Church haven’t achieved this knowledge of Christian truth. They (wrongly) think something real has happened in the sacrifice and hence believe that it would be wrong to eat the meat. Their consciences are weak (as he says). If then they were to eat the meat they would believe themselves to be implicated in the worship of false gods ad because of this they would actually be sinning.
Thus, says Paul, those with strong consciences, although they on their own part would be doing nothing wrong, should avoid eating the meat,. This is because if they did so they might lead others to sin (those who might follow their example while themselves believing, mistakenly, that doing so was wrong). This in itself would be a sin on the part of the strong who would have led others into sin. Hence, no sacrificed meat for anyone.
Something like that is the position of somebody like me, who thinks that being a bishop isn’t a real thing, from a theological point of view. Episcopal churches, like the Church of England, have what seems to me a very strange view of how the Church is constituted and persists. They think that the apostolic succession is a literal succession from person to person of the authority to be the Church. When a bishop is consecrated by existing bishops the new bishop is granted the authority to create the church. Vicars represent the bishop (vicariously). The Church is created “top down” from the bishops. These individuals are thus incredibly important theologically. They ARE the Church and other Christians join in at their invitation.
To me this is about as real as the idols Paul talks about. I just don’t believe that a bishop, in this sense, is something that it is possible for anybody to be. I don’t think anyone can be called to be a bishop by God because, in a real sense, I don’t believe there are any bishops. The people who are called bishops are occupying a different role and one that may or may not have some usefulness but is not what the Church of England thinks it is.
Hence whether women are appointed to this position is a matter of interest from some points of view but a matter, more or less, of indifference theologically.
Further the predominant argument in the recent kerfuffle in favour of this move is one that I regard as actually harmful to the Church. It is suggested that in refusing to appoint women the Church is out of step with changing social attitudes. This is an argument we should reject. It is neither right nor wrong in itself for the Church to be in our out of step with changing social attitudes. What matters (in the first order) is what is right, what is in line with God’s guiding Spirit, discerned in the Word,
That isn’t the end of the story though. There are those with weak consciences on both sides of the debate who think being a bishop is a real thing. They have differing views about the consequences (some think it’s really important women be consecrated, others think it’s really important that they’re not). The’re all wrong but we still have to decide whether to consecrate or not, just as those Paul wrote to had to decide whether to eat or not (I know the analogy of the potential “bishops” with food is highly unfortunate, but bear with me).
I think it’s a bad thing that women can’t be bishops. It sends a message that women can’t be fully part of the church (even though in reality a “bishop” is no more or less part of the Church than a newly baptised baby in my opinion). For this reason we should encourage our Anglican brothers and sisters to change their decision, but we should bear in mind that leading someone into sin (even if that sin is based on something we know to be a mistake) is also wrong.
Given that more than a third of the House of Laity voted against the change it looks like a substantial minority of the CofE (wrongly) think that it would be wrong to make women bishops. If their (wrong) view was ignored it’s hard to see how they wouldn’t be led into one sine or another (going against their consciences or dividing the Church). It may, therefore, be that the CofE isn’t yet ready. That’s a shame and I feel sorry for them, as I would for those missing out on the sacrificed meat, but maybe we all just need to be patient with them.
After all denying someone to be a “bishop” is stopping them pretending to be something that doesn’t actually exist. Maybe we in the URC should be taking the opportunity to argue for our ecclesiology (that the Church is constituted by believers gathering) rather than going along with their mistaken one (that the Church is constituted by bishops).