Lent Course 2006: The People of God

Unit Four - Women and the Episcopate

In Unit Three we asked the question: should there be a special order of people (bishops and priests) who are chosen to undertake sacramental functions on our behalf as the people of God. In this unit we will be asking the question, if the answer at the end of Unit Three was "Yes", what sort of people should these be?

In answering this rather broad question we need to work out what is the same and what is different about the discussion of women priests and women bishops. Would it, for example, be possible to justify women as priests but not as bishops? Would it, to be more concrete, be possible to justify a situation where women could be seen as fit and proper persons to preside at the Eucharist (as a sacrament and not a memorial as discussed in Unit Three) but not be fit and proper persons to ordain priests?

Before we look at the distinction between the ordination of women as priests and bishops, however, we need to look at the arguments which apply to both:

a) Theology - Ordination as a first order issue.

For some people the issue of the ordination of women turns on basic theological principles contained in the Creed, referring to the purposes of the Creator, the nature of the Redeemer and the role of the Sanctifier. For these people ordination and gender is a first order issue (see Unit Two).

a) 1 The Creator. Because the question under discussion is a distinction between kinds of human beings created by God, we have to start by making a distinction between the essence of being human and the accident of gender. We were all created equal by the Creator as recipients of God's self communication and were created so that we might freely love God in return. At the basic level of theology, then, there can be no difference between women and men; the difference must be of a lower order to which we will return.

a) 2 The Redeemer. There is a quite separate argument about the difference between men and women which arises out of the human nature of the Redeemer, of Jesus Christ, fully God but fully man, the subject of Christology.

Those who believe that women cannot be ordained as priests or bishops say that because Jesus, the first Christian priest, was a man, all priests must be men and, because you cannot be a bishop without being a priest, all bishops must be men.

There is, however, a counter Christological argument. In his human nature Jesus never reflected on the subject of women as priests or bishops, even supposing he thought any further than a self perpetuating oligarchy of apostles who would behave in his absence in much the same way they had behaved with him but guided by the Sanctifier rather than by himself. As a 1st century Palestinian he could not reflect on this issue and to claim that he did so is to deny the full humanity of Jesus and is dangerously close to the heresy of Docetism to which the creeds were the Church's considered response. In his human nature Jesus chose his apostles according to the custom and practice of the day because he was incapable of thinking for all time and for all places about organisational detail. Jesus could speak timelessly about virtue and vice as we can ourselves - in principle good is better than evil - but to infer that Jesus was promulgating a timeless ecclesiological principle when he chose twelve male apostles is to call into question our credal settlement. There is nothing wrong with this - all theological formulations are provisional - but we must be clear that that is what we are doing.

How far is the Christological argument based on gender further weakened by its dependence upon chance? Jesus in his human nature had to be either male or female but to infer from this that 50% of the people of God should automatically be ruled out of certain offices by virtue of this biological lottery is difficult to accept unless we want to take a final Christological step and say that the Creator deliberately chose the gender of God's concrete manifestation of self communication in history in the Redeemer and did so with the deliberate (God does not make mistakes or suffer from accidents) intent that an ecclesiological inference should be drawn from this; or we might oppositely characterise God, as a dice thrower.

a) 3 The Sanctifier. Those who are largely in favour of the ordination of women invoke the notion of the Sanctifier present with the Church today, helping it to fulfil its constantly renewed mission.

In summary, these three theological points of view can be held separately but, by and large, those in favour of the ordination of women support a) 1, support that part of a) 2 which asserts the incapability of Jesus in human nature to foresee the future and accept a) 3. That part of a) 2. which says that the gender of Jesus as a human being is significant is naturally advanced by those opposed to the ordination of women.

b) Scripture - Ordination as a second order issue.

There are, however, many more people who would not accept the ranking in section a) but would adhere to the primacy of scripture. They would say that whatever theology we can settle upon springs naturally from the scriptures and is not a set of fundamental principles; they would say that the creeds were settled as the result of a true understanding of scripture. In our ranking this would make the issue second order, being a matter of Word and Sacrament but they would not accept this characterisation.

In considering this argument, we need to begin by looking at the list of scriptural passages in the appendix at the end of this Unit. How conclusive they are for us will determine to a great extent what kind of an issue we think we are dealing with.

Some people believe that scripture is unequivocal in saying that women cannot be either priests or bishops because there is no evidence that there were any such in the New Testament; but, further, this argument continues, had God wished there to be women priests and bishops this would either have been indicated in the words and actions of Jesus (a variant of the Christological discussion in a)2 above) or in those of the apostles acting under the guidance of the Sanctifier.

The evidence is at best mixed. There is, for example, a scriptural record (Acts 15:1-36) of the apostles changing an implied precept of Jesus enshrined in themselves, that all apostles should be Jews. This argument cuts both ways: we can either say that because the apostles changed the implied precept of Jesus over Jewishness but not over gender it is clear that such a change is contrary to scripture; or we can say that because the apostles changed the implied proscription of Jesus those in apostolic succession can also change the proscription today. Notice that the issue here is not the evidence itself but what we think we are permitted to do with it. Those who advocate no change tend to down play the change in Acts 15:1-36; those who advocate change do the opposite.

No matter which position we adopt over the significance of the Scriptural passages on the apostolic succession, the New Testament does not seem to be very clear about the distinction between bishops and priests. If we look at the passages again, we will see that most of them are not specific about the category of person receiving the Sanctifier; but there is a definite indication in 1 Timothy 3:1-13 of the establishment of the position of bishops and deacons; there is no specific reference to the priesthood in the New Testament except the implicit denial of its possibility as a sacrificial function in Hebrews 13:15-16. We may never know whether the priesthood emerged entirely from the delegation of bishops or whether it grew up in parallel and was then subsumed; but this may not turn out to be very important. What may matter more is the distinctive roles of the two orders of what came to be known as the "threefold ministry" of bishops, priests and deacons which was well established by the end of the Third Century.

Scripture is, however, clear on the role but not the gender of deacons. Acts 6:1-6 specifies that deacons must be men but, in a passage describing a later event but written down earlier than Acts, St Paul cites Phoebe as a deacon in Romans 16:1.

c) Ecclesiology - Ordination as a third order issue.

Although some people are convinced that scripture is entirely clear on the exclusion of women from being bishops or priests, much of the discussion is reduced to a third order reference to tradition and reason.

Because there were no women priests or bishops in the Early Church, the argument goes, the Church quite properly has understood that only men can be priests and bishops. We would have to ask ourselves in this context how the Church took its decision on deacons given the contradictions in the scripture; St Peter and the apostles are much clearer on this matter in Acts 6:1-6 than they are on either an emergent class of bishops or priests.

At this point it might also be helpful to turn the Christological argument in a)2 on its head; what would men think if the Redeemer had been female? Would they willingly have submitted to the notion that, consequently, all the senior figures in the Church should be women? Common sense, for what it is worth, would seem to doubt this.

Could we imagine a situation in which we agreed with the idea of women as priests but not bishops or vice versa? The answer to this must be positive. Part of the argument against women as priests arose from the Levitical concern with blood; in the Old Testament women could naturally not even be considered as priests because of their menstrual blood but they could be prophets. The issue of post-menstrual women priests seems not to have been considered but that may be because hardly any women would have lived long enough. That distinction between the priest and the prophet is viable in the New Testament era but it would not necessarily rule out women as bishops unless being a priest is, as it is by convention today, a necessary precondition of being a bishop.

What, then are the key roles? We set out the roles of priests in Unit Three, so let us compare those with bishops. The primary functions of bishops are to:

If we look at these roles we can see that it would be perfectly logical for a person to become a bishop without ever being a priest; but logic is not an issue here; we are where we are. This means that before we look at the issue of women as bishops for a final time we need to consider the basic nature of the ordained priesthood.

As we saw in Unit Three, a priest is a representative of the whole "Royal Priesthood" of the people of God. What those who oppose the ordination of women are saying is that although women are essentially the same as men as creatures of God, the accident of gender somehow takes precedence over the substance of being God's creature. Paradoxically, many of the people who elevate this accident of gender over the substance of being a creature of God are the very same who hold a view of the Eucharist (Transubstantiation) which teaches them to value essence over accident (the elements may continue to look like bread and wine after consecration but they have been fundamentally changed by consecration). Yet it must be admitted that much of the opposition to women priests is based upon a traditional view of the way in which authority has been exercised in the Church.

Anyone who holds, for whatever reason, that women cannot represent the people of God in priesthood will find it almost impossible to hold that women as bishops can represent the whole Church to the people. There are, however, two specific acts associated with a bishop which cause particular problems:

The first point raises the question yet again of the order of the issue; the problem is not so much the content of the issue as its ranking. The second point raises a number of issues concerning the nature of Episcopal competency and the nature of priesthood. Those who believe that the ordination of male priests by women bishops does not maintain sacramental assurance must in essence argue that episcopal power is peculiar to the person whereas the widely held consensus in the Church of England is that the bishops in consecration represent the whole Church and that, consequently, assurance cannot be impaired by virtue of the individual characteristics of bishops. This is a variant on the Donatist controversy.

There are currently three proposals set out in the Hill Report to handle the issue of women bishops:

In addition to considering these options at their face value, we ought to look at their implications:

As can be seen plainly, these considerations have moved us a long way from theology; so let us finish with a more basic set of questions:



The attributes of priesthood


The appointment of seven male deacons by the laying on of hands; welfare role.
Ananias lays hands on Paul.
A disciple named Tabitha (Dorcas).
The Holy Spirit selects Paul and Barnabas; they receive the laying on of hands and are sent out.
Paul and Barnabas appoint elders for Derbe and surrounding churches.
The Council of Jerusalem; Gentiles formally admitted to the Church.
Priscilla (Prisca) participates in the instruction of Apollos.
Holy Spirit appoints Church leaders.


Deacon Phoebe

1 Corinthians

On priesthood.
The offices of the Church.
God appoints Church leaders.
Women forbidden to preach.


Christ appoints Church leaders.


bishops and deacons (overseers & helpers)

1 Timothy

Women forbidden to preach.
Qualities of bishops (married only once).
Qualities of deacons, including women.
Implies hierarchy of bishops over deacons.
Record of Timothy receiving laying on of hands.
Elders preach and teach.
Caution in ordaining; may imply hierarchy of bishops over priests.

2 Timothy

Timothy receiving laying on of hands.