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Women Bishops: It's About the Bible

On November 28, 2012

Exhorting the Church of England (CoE) to "get with the program" dilutes the argument for women bishops.

"But that would be putting the clock back," gasps a feckless official in one of C. S. Lewis’s stories. "Have you no idea of progress, of development?"

"I have seen them both in an egg," replies the young hero. "We call it Going bad in Narnia."

Lewis nails a lie at the heart of our culture. As long as we repeat it, we shall never understand our world, let alone the Church’s calling. And until proponents of women bishops stop using it, the biblical arguments for women's ordination will never appear in full strength.

"Now that we live in the 21st century," begins the interviewer, invoking the calendar to justify a proposed innovation. "In this day and age," we say, assuming that we all believe the 18th-century doctrine of "progress," which, allied to a Whig view of history (that history moves toward greater progress and enlightenment), dictates that policies and practices somehow ought to become more "liberal," whatever that means. Russia and China were on the "wrong side of history," Hillary Clinton warned recently. But how does she know what "history" will do? And what makes her think that "history" never makes mistakes?

We, of all people, ought to know better. "Progress" gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that "history" was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of "progress."

"We call it Going bad in Narnia." Quite.

It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should "get with the program" 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.

What is more, the Church’s foundation documents (to say nothing of its Founder himself) were notoriously on the wrong side of history. The Gospel was foolishness to the Greeks, said St Paul, and a scandal to Jews. The early Christians got a reputation for believing in all sorts of ridiculous things such as humility, chastity and resurrection, standing up for the poor and giving slaves equal status with the free. And for valuing women more highly than anyone else had ever done. People thought them crazy, but they stuck to their counter-cultural Gospel. If the Church had allowed prime ministers to tell them what the "program" was it would have sunk without trace in fifty years. If Jesus had allowed Caiaphas or Pontius Pilate to dictate their "program" to him there wouldn’t have been a Church in the first place.

So what is the real argument? The other lie to nail is that people who "believe in the Bible" or who "take it literally" will oppose women’s ordination. Rubbish. Yes, I Timothy 2 is usually taken as refusing to allow women to teach men. But serious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words occur nowhere else.

Despite the learned intervention of Professor Christopher Tuplin (The Times letter, Nov 28), 1 Timothy 2:11-12 is far from being "beyond debate" among serious scholars, as recent commentaries and monographs indicate. Few would now follow the Authorized ("King James") Version, "Let the woman learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence." Plenty of other options are available.

The most difficult word here is authentein, which (as I should have said) is unique in the New Testament but is indeed attested elsewhere in ancient Greek. It offers a range of meanings, including "rule/reign," "control/dominate," "act independently," "usurp authority," "be the originator of something," or even, surprisingly, "murder." Professor Tuplin’s proposal, "have power over," is one option among many, not widely followed of late.

That is not all. The verb for "I suffer not" (i.e.  "I do not permit") is in the present tense, sometimes taken to imply a temporary ban while the women in question are taught the faith. "Silence" may indicate the "leisure" required for a woman to study in preparation for eventual teaching. Some suggest that "teach" and "usurp authority" belong together, so that what is prohibited is a woman usurping teaching authority. And so on. Many variables: multiple interpretative options. That was my point.

Many consider the letter's likely destination to be Ephesus, whose splendid temple of Artemis had an all-female priesthood. Female Christian converts might well assume that this new cult, too, ought to be run by women only. Whether or not I Timothy is prohibiting such a move, it provides no secure basis for preventing women in perpetuity from holding positions of teaching and/or authority in the church.

That, in any case, is not where to start.

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.

Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an "apostle"called Junia (Romans 16:7). He entrusted that letter to a "deacon" called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul's greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.

The resurrection of Jesus is the only Christian guide to the question of where history is going. Unlike the ambiguous "progress" of the Enlightenment, it is full of promise—especially the promise of transformed gender roles.

The promise of new creation, symbolised by the role of Mary Magdalene in the Easter stories, is the reality. Modern ideas of “progress” are simply a parody. Next time this one comes round, it would be good to forget "progress"—and ministerial "program"—and stick with the promise.

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