As I write this it looks overwhelmingly likely that the Church of England will embrace women bishops and—despite commitments made when women priests were introduced—will introduce women bishops without any structural solutions for those who disagree with the change. A structural separation is imminent. Those opposed to women’s ordination—conservative evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics—will leave the Church of England (unless they find a technically illegal mechanism to stay in, such as consecrate their own bishops, who would be Anglican but not Church of England). Consequently, the Church of England will be composed almost entirely by those who agree with, and support, the ordination of women and their role as bishops. Similar moves are afoot in other denominations in different parts of the world.
I suggest that this means we have reached the next stage of the debate on women’s ordination—separation into separate churches and religious institutions making rival claims. For most of us it will be far less emotionally distressing than the brutal years of open and sustained personal debate that occurred two decades or more ago. Unless we happen to be the one on the wrong side as the institution we are in moves the other way, it is all going to seem a bit removed. Nonetheless, this next stage is going to be far more significant in its consequences than those bruising debates ever were.
Supporters of women’s ordination are almost always egalitarian. That means they believe that authority and necessary submission cannot coexist with genuine equality. If I have to submit to you, it can only be because I am inferior to you. Genuine authority must, in some sense, be based upon merit—upon something superior in the person wielding the authority. The only exceptions to this are when the submission is voluntary—when there is no obligation upon the person submitting to do so, or when the submission is mutual—when both parties submit to each other in a give-and-take situation like two friends.
Opponents of women’s ordination are usually complementarian. They hold that genuine authority and genuine equality can go together. While I may have to submit to the prime minister or to a police officer, I am not in any essential way inferior to either—in law, in personal qualities, or in my essential humanity. Genuine authority in a specific relationship can coexist with genuine equality of persons.
This is one of the key issues that is at stake in the contemporary debate over women’s ordination. If women cannot wield authority over men in the context of church, and if in a marriage a woman must be under the authority of a man, then, so it is argued by proponents of women’s ordination, women must be substantially and significantly inferior to men. There can be no other reason for necessary submission than essential inferiority. This is the issue and it means that the debate over women’s ordination is playing for very, very high stakes.
For their part, egalitarians see complementarians as guilty of a kind of gender-based apartheid, of chauvinism or even misogyny towards women that prevents women from blossoming, channels them away from genuine power and influence, and sets up permanent structures that make abuse more likely. For the egalitarian, complementarians believe (either knowingly or unknowingly) that women are inferior to men by virtue of being women, but try to hide this with a claim that someone can be both inferior and equal at the same time. For the egalitarian, the complementarian position that authority and equality can coexist is incoherent.
Further, for the egalitarian, the complementarian practice of keeping women subject to men is a denial of the gospel. For the egalitarian, the gospel is given to redeem us from sin—and oppressive relationships are an expression of sin. Christ died to bring us into the genuine freedom of equality—the freedom of the children of God. For the genuine egalitarian, women’s ordination is a gospel matter—it is a way of showing how the gospel transforms sinful patterns of male-female relationships. Convinced egalitarians do not merely believe that women may or can have authority over men but that they should or must. To deny women this opportunity is to sin against the face of God.
It should be observed that some supporters of women’s ordination will not recognize themselves in this description—you support it, but do not see the issue as commanding this kind of absolute right/wrong loyalty. You think it would be good if women had authority, but it’s not a great sin if they are excluded from such roles. For you, unity or the cause of the gospel trumps opening up public ministry roles to women. For you it’s more of that women may have such roles rather than that they should or even must. If that’s the case, then you might still find some of the discussion over this series of posts helpful to understand the bigger debate into which you fit, but you aren’t really at the centre of what’s being looked at.