LONDON - During the General Synod earlier this month, a progress report on the theology of women in the episcopate sparked up a fervent debate. Most Anglicans stand on the extreme sides, either they support the view of the conservatives that consecration of women bishops is theologically unacceptable, or they agree with the liberals that women should also have equal right to serve the Church as bishops.
Currently, the Act of the Synod allows the consecration of female priests but not women bishops. This has raised discussions on both sexism and theological areas. A Working Party on Women in the Episcopate chaired by the Bishop of Rochester was established to investigate the issue. It will produce a final report to provide a decision in 2005.
Reported by the Church of England Newspaper on the General Synod, Canon Patience Purchas, described the Act of Synod as “profoundly discriminatory to women”. April Alexandra, a laywoman from Southwark, condemned the church’s discrimination against women stating that it contradicted the Human Rights Act.
Some other supporters of women bishops previously presented to the delegates of the General Synod that gender is no longer a sensible criteria for the ordination of bishops.
Canon Penny Driver, the Diocesan Director of Ordinands and a member of General Synod, said, “Many of us believe that an all-male episcopate can no longer properly fulfill the role of Christian leadership - we need both male and female bishops just as we have male and female priests, deacons and laity.”
On the other hand, conservatives oppose the motion on the ground that it is likely to cause further division in an already “demoralized church.” Gender issues on the ordination of bishops have been a trouble to the Church of England for a long period of time now. No mention about women bishops, gay bishop ordinations were made, but these topics have already shaken the Anglican Communion in Britain and in the whole world.
As an outstanding denomination inherited both the Catholic and Protestant culture and practice, the Church of England’s decision will not only affect the politics within the church but even the rest of the world.
Bishop of Europe, Rev. Geoffrey Rowell, a member of the working party looking at the theological issues behind women bishops, warned that the Church must acknowledge the effect of the consecration of women bishops on ecumenical convergence with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches. He said Cardinal Ratzinger did not encourage women bishops because the ordination of women to the priesthood and to the episcopate were of an entirely different order of importance.
Supporters of woman bishops call on the church to interpret scripture to today’s culture. They believe that the issue of women bishops should primarily be framed in terms of whether it was a help or a hinderance to the Church’s mission in this century.
However, conservatives in the Church of England are comparatively more concerned about the orthodox beliefs than the liberals. They strongly insist that any change must be firmly rooted in scripture. They also have been trying to avoid the high cost of church-splitting brought by the debates.
The concerns of the conservatives and the liberals are based on the theological and sociological aspects respectively. As these two aspects do not contradict each other in nature, reaching a common ground will be the solution to the debate.
The church is already considering the plan of “Third Province” within the church to set a clear divide of administration along the gender line for the conservatives who are intolerant with women bishops. Continuous theological research by the working group will help to open a way for the two groups to compromise each others’ ideas for a common interest to the Church.
Presenting at last week’s General Synod, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali brought to the church some new insights on the issue of women ordination by referring to the early Apostles' church. The new theological research maintained that some of the leaders of house churches in the New Testament were women.
He added, “Our views are likely to be rooted in whether we see the common mission of men and women as more fundamental or the distinction in role which comes from difference in gender.”