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Dr Ann Young - against Women Bishops

Posted on: July 24, 2001 3:16 PM
Related Categories: Australia

23 July 2001

Your Grace, fellow members of Synod.

As in 1998, my role is to present an alternative to the support for the move to ordain women as bishops in the Anglican Church of Australia.

During the past 3 years, I - like many of you and many others in the church - have had to ask myself 'am I opposed to this because of habit or perversity or reluctance to change?' I have had the privilege of working with a group of people for whom I have had increasing liking and respect, although as Muriel has noted, we and other members of the Group have not changed our theological position. Professional colleagues obviously think mine is inconsistent with my professional career path. Most of the women in my family and several of my close friends - including Christian ones - think I am just plain wrong. If it takes a generation to achieve social change, does the church have to wait a generation to achieve social change, does the church have to wait for diehards like me to get off synods before 'progress' can be made? I often wish I could support the move for ordination, but two things stop me doing so - the plain reading of Scripture, and the practice of the church over 2000 years.

In salvation, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. But in my mind, it does not follow that responsibility for feeding and correcting the flock of God, for administering the sacraments instituted by Christ, and for teaching sound doctrine is gender non-specific. If the leadership role of men rested only on one or two verses in the letters of St Paul, then I might be convinced that it was a practice for that time, but not binding us now. However, that is not the case. As I read it, the consistent teaching of Scripture is that men have the responsibility under God to take these roles. It was so in the Old Testament times, with a few rare exceptions. There is no doubt that Jesus gave new and unheard dignity to women, and they were key supporters of his ministry. Yet he did not appoint any women as disciples. Was this just because it would have gone against the demands of social norms. The Holy Spirit 'brought to mind all that Jesus had taught'. Yet the apostles led by Him chose no women, only men, to fill the leadership roles in those decades of the church.

Was that just for then? Is the holy Spirit leading us to change now? Obviously, many people think so, but I am uncomfortable with the arguments put forward to in support of this idea. Since the ordination of women to the priesthood was authorized, the concept of reception has been widely promoted. This means that if the move is of God, then it will succeed, and if not, it will fail. This strikes me as dubious on both theological and historical grounds.

It may seem odd that I am going over again matters that for many people became obsolete with the clarification canon concerning ordination to the priesthood. But these matters are still the root of many objections to the current proposed canon. The objections are theological; the yare founded on the belief that holding the received tradition of the Church is not just clinging to earlier patterns, but rather an appeal to the experience, wisdom and knowledge of the catholic church. We need to be very sure that it is new wind of Spirit of God, and not a tornado of our times, that we allow to blow away two millennia of acceptance of the leadership role of men in the church. I believe that it is not a new revelation, that the church be established by Christ and sustained by His Holy Spirit is not for us to change. Nevertheless, we have today a partial fait accompli. We have women ordained as priests in the Australian Anglican Church, and we have a serious proposal to authorize their ordination as bishop.

I was listening to Margaret Somerville, the medical ethicist, on the radio the other day. She commented that we are in a Western, secular, democratic, litigious society, that values the rights of the individual over the rights of the society. Because of all those characteristics, we will disagree about ethical issues. Our Church is part of that society, and all of us are moulded by it to some extant at least. So we can expect that we will be divided on issues of significance. And any large gathering of people like this is intrinsically a political forum, so that division into 'parties' is almost inevitable. The challenge for us as Christians is to resist using the Synod primarily as a political venue, and to acknowledge that all of us continually fall short of the Glory of God. When we come to the end of the debate and vote, how we will see the majority see the outcome? As a victory? As the Holy Spirit affirming their stance? As a majority opinion of this group at this time? How will those in the minority react? In bitterness against a crushing blow? In anger, and rejection of the Church? In recognition that the majority have in good conscience held a contrary view? If we are united in Christ, how do we deal with an issue for which there is such strongly held opposing views?

In the proposed Canon, Muriel has emphasized the possibility of a principled compromise. For some, there is no such possibility. The ordination of women to the priesthood is such a gospel imperative that no diminution of its dignity can be contemplated. Or -a view held equally strongly - the ordination of women to the priesthood is such a betrayal of gospel principles, that this is only a further insult. It would be so much easier if the way we express our faith in God were a light matter, if we didn't really mind either way. Or if we could come to a point when we echoed the Jerusalem Council and said 'it seemed good to us and to the Holy Spirit…' But friends, that's not the way the debate is shaping. As the Working Group has discussed the issue over the past three years, we have wrestled not only with basic questions, but also with how to present them here.

As you can see from the structure of the proposed canon, we decided that the first question is the basic principle - do we or do we not consider it proper to consecrate women as bishops in the Anglican Church of Australia? We purposely separated that question from the possibility of alternative episcopal oversight because of the responses we had to our initial suite of suggested forms for oversight. What did we get:

  • We might accept the canon only if it has this method
  • We won't accept the canon if it has any method
  • We would consider the canon if it had this, but not that method
  • We would consider the canon if this method was modified in this way
  • We don't care what alternatives are, we'll support / reject the canon

I invite you to contemplate just how convoluted and confusing a debate with multiple alternatives would be! However, part of our brief was to propose methods of alternative episcopal oversight. So, first we discuss the basic issue of principle. The next step is to decide whether the attached Protocol adequately provides that, or whether even that is unacceptable / unnecessary, or whether it needs to be modified. Then, if more protection is needed for those disaffected by the canon, we need to decide whether this should be imposed legally on the diocesan bishops, and then if so, how. We have proposed a method which fits comfortably within the existing structure of our church.

There is one other question which was raised during the consultation process that I would like to mention here. The brief asked us to bring forward a draft canon, and to propose a method of alternative oversight for those who oppose the consecration of women as bishops, to provide for the good conscience of those who hold the position that I share - that ordination of women to the priesthood and thence to the episcopacy is contrary to the teaching of scripture. Many of the submissions to our group turned the coin over. What of those who support women's ordination but are not able to receive the full ministry of women as priests or as bishops? This reinforces for me the concern behind the move made last Synod to provide for alternative oversight. We as a Synod make decisions by majority vote. It's a method that fits our society well. It's at best doubtful that it is a biblical method. But it's the method we use. So how do we care for the marginalised, the disaffected, the hurt, the less powerful, the minorities? No matter which way the canon is decided, those people will be in our church. Either Muriel Porter or I will be one of them. So will a goodly number of you.

The basic question is theological - we each will vote on the canon according to whether we believe it is, or is not, proper for women to be ordained. But bishops are not simply promoted priests. They have responsibility for ordination of others, for confirmation, for maintaining unity and sound doctrine. Consequently, passing this canon would raise added concerns and practical problems. It may be possible within a diocese to move parishes to seek or to avoid the ministry of an ordained woman; it is hardly practical to move dioceses in response to the gender of the bishop. Realistically, though, many Anglicans are not wholly happy with their bishop, because of differences over theology or churchmanship. In some cases but not all, the matter of gender may simply be another point of difference. The concerns are probably greater for men and women who are or wish to be ordained, and hold a view contrary to that of their diocese or bishop. It is a very serious matter if a woman's ordination is not accepted, or if an ordained person cannot accept the validity of his colleague or bishop. Yet the reality of the situation is that both these scenarios are inevitable, as are concerns over the validity of confirmation. No amount of protocol or legislation can completely overcome this. However, to discuss and work through the concerns over the past three years has given me a greater understanding of, and empathy with, people of different views to my own, and we as a Working Group have tried to share that better understanding with the church via the consultation process. The group discussions here are a further extension. We may not alter one another's mind, but we may find that we can work together.

I will vote against the principle canon. I cannot set aside my conviction

  • That Jesus Christ established His church on a pattern that is eternal,
  • That the Bible plainly places the responsibility for leadership of God's people on men,
  • And that the Holy Spirit's guidance has maintained and continues to maintain the church according to the will of God.

If the canon passes, it becomes less to do with theology and more to do with practicality and the weight we give to tradition. Whether the canon passes or not, we will need to show one another respect and care if we are to honour God rather than act as a group engaged in political debate.