Women Bishops: It’s About the Bible

29 Nov

Tom Wright, a former Bishop of Durham, is research professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of St Andrews.

(via Arise: a weekly exchange from CBE connecting you to the movement for Biblical equality)

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Tom Wright is uncomfortable with the language of rights and progress.  We are not totally convinced as we’re talking about justice. The first extract reflects our take on the matter – from Gaudete Theology.

What I’m thinking of, and what I suspect most other Christian feminists are thinking of, is the progress that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had in mind:

“The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Progress along this arc of history is progress towards that very promise, the promise from the Book of Amos to which Rev. King frequently alludes that justice will roll down like a river, the justice that is one of the characteristics of the new creation. Sexism, racism, and all forms of bigotry are sins of injustice. And when they are embodied in societal or institutional structures, they are structural sins of injustice.  Progress or Promise?

However,  Bishop Tom Wright makes a strong case:

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.


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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2 responses to “Women Bishops: It’s About the Bible

  1. m beach

    December 1, 2012 at 4:32 am

    This is not particularly realted to this post, but I’m quite disturbed by the tone that this website has taken of late, esp since cyclops has begun to play dirty. My point is that ultimately it doesnt matter whether he plays dirty of not. He has a job to do, called & ordained like the other priveliged gentlemen in our LCA. Our job as disciples of Christ & lovers of Lutheran theology who are eager for the ordination of women, is to argue our case without resorting to the dirty tricks we have now to deal with. I’m reminded of what Gemaliel said in Acts. If (this phenomenon ) is from God, we cannot oppose it…… or words to that effect. And something from my esteemed namesake, commeniting on the fact that he hadn’t noticed any dovelike tail feathers on his ‘acharith” (hinder parts) when he cleaned up after his morning ablutions. So, martin concluded to his students, I’m clearly not the Holy Spirit. A fitting reminder for all of us, I’m sure.

    I beg of you all; please don’t shoot from the hip, this is serious business for the whole LCA. Clearly Semmler et al are responding to their fears about losing their stranglehold on power along with their gerontocratic mates. Let them shoot themselves in the foot. Let’s not stoop to their level, otherwise we are just creating a more insidious evil in order to take out something that is onlyu mildly insidious. We have a great responsibility to the LCA & also to the future generations. Let’s not settle for a ‘politically correct’ solution. Let’s help create an LCA auf eine neue Grundlage. (cf c19 LCA)

    • Katie and Martin

      December 2, 2012 at 2:39 pm

      Martin, your point is well received. A little more restraint is never wasted. Please add your thoughts whenever you can.


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