Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Women bishops again

Happy New Year to all. And with it, more thoughts on this still unresolved problem. Not whether Synod can somehow be persuaded to break the deadlock in the summer, but on the fundamentals underlying it.

In short, in all the discussion about women bishops, we've been worrying about women. But should we perhaps be worrying about bishops?

Full disclosure: I am wholly unpersuaded that bishops are jure divino, or indeed that they are anything more than a pragmatic governing structure which any Christian church can choose to adopt or discard as it sees fit. I don't object to them, because (a) they seem to work; (b) there's a long tradition there, and there are worse things in life than intertia and institutional conservatism; and (c) lots of other Anglicans do think that they are jure divino, and there is no harm in going along with them.

(There is harm in that partisan opinion, and all the stuff about apostolic succession, being mistaken for Anglican orthodoxy, which it is not: that kind of thing lies behind the pernicious and sectarian language of the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which virtually unchurches non-episcopal Christians. Even Richard Hooker would have balked at that. But that's another post.)

Still, even if you think bishops are jure divino, 'bishop' is a capacious word and has been used to describe very many things, from urban church leaders to grand ecclesiastical princes, and that today's Anglican bishops are very different in the nature of their authority and ministry from most of their predecessors. I wonder if those differences might be worth exploiting a little.

The reason so many of those who oppose women's ministry find women bishops intolerable is that they cannot ignore or evade episcopal authority - not completely, anyway. And that is because we are wedded to the notion not just of episcopacy, but of geographically contiguous, uniform and exclusive episcopacy.

This is, frankly, a little weird. To take the analogy of parishes: I like the parish system very much, but we also have to recognise that geographical parishes are now overlaid by what you might call metaparochial structures, in which church communities are assembled from people residing across a wide area. So it is, and so, probably, it should be. We choose our parochial ministers, from the menu of those available in a particular area.

Why shouldn't individual churches be able to do the same with their bishops? This isn't just about gender. The Church of England's episcopate includes plenty of towering spiritual leaders, but they're a pretty funny cross-section of the Church. Mostly liberal Catholics and liberal Evangelicals, on the grounds that those are the people who find it easiest to be on speaking terms with everyone. Very few conservative Catholics; no conservative Evangelicals at all, which, as the representatives of that constituency keep saying, is a little odd. I know conservative Evangelicals are widely regarded as not properly housetrained, but that kind of distaste is no reason for keeping them out.

What I'd like to see is a set of super-dioceses, say eight of them, in each of which there were about five collaborating bishops: they'd have to recognise one another's legal authority, but they would be free to despise one another as long as they made the institutions work. And the parishes could choose who to look to, rather than chafing under a regime which they found disagreeable, as plenty do now. A commitment to having at least one bishop of each gender in each grouping would be easy.

But then I'd also say that the leadership of those groups should be collegial, with perhaps one of them elected by his or her peers as temporary archbishop (where does it say in Scripture that archiepiscopal office is indelible?) - and my underlying Presbyterian agenda comes out.

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