N.T. Wright on the Women Bishops Debacle in the Church of England

N.T. Wright on the Women Bishops Debacle in the Church of England November 23, 2012

I must confess that I’m growing weary of the mantra that the failure of the Church of England (COE) to ordain women into the episcopacy is the fault of a few geriatric conservatives among the laity who have been exercising a disproportionate degree of power. For instance, see Sarah Coakley’s piece at ABC Religion and Ethics where she says: “[I]t has long been noted that the House of Laity contains more than its expected share of conservative, elderly or bureaucratically-inclined church people.”  So much for encouraging a broad church and listening to our elders! Moreover, British PM David Cameron has said that the COE should “get with the programme.” Cameron’s remarks summarize my concern. I can understand people advocating the elevation of women to the episcopacy as a matter of scriptural principle and missional imperative, in fact I’m broadly sympathetic, but I’m hearing others advocate the position because there is a widespread belief that the church, as a state church no less, is morally obliged to mirror the values of society.  To which I would reply, “Ahm, no it’s bloody not.” This is the Church of England, not  Die Deutsche Reichskirche we are dealing with here. We are not beholden to the state to do its bidding in social policy.

Over at Fulcrum N.T. Wright has an article taking on David Cameron’s premise, titled, “It’s About the Bible, not Fake Ideas of Progress.”

According to Wright:

It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops. And Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.

Now Wright believes in women bishops (see this video), so his criticism here is quite acute.

Note: I should add that my own ebook on women and ministry will be released on Christmas day by Zondervan along with two other ebooks on the same topic by John Dickson and Katherine Keller. More anon!

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  • bwsmith

    I was raised in the Episcopal Church, but wandered from it in 1960 – seeking the
    liberation that the time heralded. When I thought again about God and how He
    might be a missing piece in my well being, it was 1970 and in Washington DC.
    Oh!The changes this diocese underwent – as did many others. The push for ordaining women priests was one change – as was the battle over the Book of Common Prayer. These were upsetting, for I had tasted the fruit of women’s liberation, and I was finding solace and help in from the prayers in the 1928 edition.

    The battles in the church over a woman’s right to preach, teach, and have authority
    over men coalesced with a woman’s right to choose abortion, and swirled with the
    push for Rite II, wherein the General Confession could be omitted before
    Communion. Those battles provided no answers for many questions, doubts and fears besetting me.

    When I began studying Scripture, I found answers, and I saw that God in no way
    created women as less than men. In Scripture God, however, established a pattern for worship, which for one component, limited the role of women. Men alone are to preach and have authority – in one way it’s as constrictive and liberating as God’s first command to Adam: You may eat for any tree except one.

    Adam blew it, and today women chaff under this one tiny restriction. We want the authority that goes the position of pastors and elders and priests. We have a right within the church to rule!

    The church, alas, contributed to the political battle of women’s ordination by
    elevating the power of its leaders, to the point that they overshadow the Bible
    that teaches the power and purpose of God revealed in Christ.

    In my humble opinion, yielding on the “right” to preach and have authority is
    obeying God. Women obeying God in this requirement are goad to men who would hide behind women from their obedience to God – which is to lead in worship.

    Because of the church conflicts, theological, political and within a local vestry, (which preferred arguing to reconciliation) we left the Episcopal church – especially
    when priests and the bishops within the church approved abortion, of course
    with regret.

    No church, even the most biblically grounded, is not without its problems;
    pastors, priests and all male sessions need the counsel and contribution of
    women and those who listen to women are wise – they are often slow or reluctant
    to do so. Perhaps, those who resist the help of women in the church would do
    well to see how Christ depended on women for His earthly ministry, (Luke 8:1-3)
    and how grateful Paul was to the women in the early church?

  • Laura

    thanks for the upcoming christmas present – I’m looking forward to reading it

  • editor

    Yes, Tom is right, but there is an internal, rather than external, problem with the House of Laity. Consider these stats:

    Percentages voting in the dioceses in support of the legislation: Bishops 84%, Clergy 76%, Laity 77%

    Percentages voting in Synod in support of the legislation: Bishops 90%, Clergy 77%, Laity 64%.

    There is one out of the three significantly out of line. Can you spot it?

    I say more about this issue in my latest entry at http://www.psephizo.com

  • John Thomson

    My problem is not that David Cameron wishes the church to get with the programme but that the present Archbishop seems to think this is the issue too. Keeping in step with the trends and priorities of society (read the world) and having its sanction as credible seem far too high on his agenda.

  • ortcutt

    If the CoE doesn’t want to be a state church, they are free to seek disestablishment. It’s more than a little contradictory for the church to have 26 Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords and then turn around and claim that the state has no input into the direction of the church.