We see a sign of this incompatibility of the two positions of egalitarianism and complementarianism in a recent post on the Ugley Vicar’s blog. He reports a conversation where a prospective ordination candidate in the Church of England was informed that they could not be ordained if they did not agree with women bishops. This was hardly a surprise to me, I have heard similar reports back in Australia coming from dioceses that were seeking to have women bishops (and I’m hardly Mr Networker). What this suggests is that usually, if not in absolutely every instance, when a diocese or denomination is close to having the political numbers to introduce women bishops, it makes support for women being bishops a requirement for ordination. Complementarians are henceforth excluded from that structure—first of all from the clergy and, eventually, from the laity as laypeople eventually find it impossible to find a church where complementarianism is not treated as a form of sin. Only those complementarians prepared to submit to a woman bishop’s authority and, one suspects, not be too vocal about their view that their bishop is sinning by being a bishop in the first place, can be ordained once women bishops are set up.
When that happens, complementarians need to understand that they will get no sympathy from convinced egalitarian evangelicals, whatever promises and assurances were given in the early stages of the process when the fight was over ordaining women. Two examples from this year are worth reflecting upon.
When the issue of women bishops came up in the Church of England again this year, Reform—a conservative evangelical group in the Church of England—released a statement saying that if women bishops go ahead without provisions for opponents, then conservative evangelicals will end up leaving. They mightn’t go en masse, but the ordinands they send each year would go elsewhere, and the money raised would probably be earmarked elsewhere.
Peter Kirk, an egalitarian evangelical, on his blog said in response to Reform’s statement that the likely outcome of introducing women bishops is that conservative evangelicals will end up leaving and setting up a new structure for gospel work. He made it clear that he thought that was a good outcome for the Church of England, and then discussed what the real danger is if/when evangelicals who oppose women’s ordination leave:
… the danger is that many more, perhaps the majority of its [the Church of England’s] evangelicals, might decide that the new structures are more supportive of them than the old ones are.
The danger he sees is not that complementarian evangelicals would be pushed out of the Church of England. The danger is that, having been pushed out, they might set up a new structure that is more attractive to evangelicals than the CoE. In other words, the best-case scenario, from an evangelical egalitarian perspective, is that complementarians be pushed out and fail to set up anything worthwhile. That is, he’s hoping that complementarians are left with nothing, or at least nothing that anyone else might seriously want. And so his advice to the Church of England regarding the letter from Reform is blunt:
But a better response is no response at all … In this way there is a future ahead for the Church of England in which, in retrospect, it has lost a few troublesome extremists and gained new strength and unity as well as the benefits of women as well as men in its top leadership.
Let the troublesome extremists go, and embrace the unity that comes from losing them, and the strength that comes from having women in its top leadership. It’s win-win for the evangelical egalitarians if the evangelical complementarians leave.
In other words, when women bishops are about to be introduced egalitarian evangelicals who strongly support women’s ordination shed no tears at the thought of their complementarian fellow-evangelicals leaving (either voluntarily as an expression of their disagreement, or being forced out because they won’t submit to a woman’s authority). For egalitarians, as I suggested in the previous post, and we will discuss in more detail in the future, women’s ordination is a ‘gospel issue’—and so implementing it fully is more important than keeping on side people who believe in justification by grace through faith but oppose women having authority over men. When push comes to shove they will generally conclude that the church is better off without evangelicals who practice a kind of gender-based apartheid. Justification by faith is less central to the egalitarian gospel than eliminating oppression.
Does that assessment seem too over-the-top? Then consider the other example from this year. As the key vote came up in the Church of England synod to pass legislation enabling women bishops, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York took a fairly unprecedented step and personally proposed an amendment to the legislation that would give some protection for the consciences of complementarians. Among the usual suspects of voices that publicly opposed the Archbishops’ proposal was the most well known egalitarian evangelical body, Fulcrum. It was a surprising move by Fulcrum, perhaps the only time that it has, even by inference, criticized Rowan Williams; far more commonly it defends his actions (or lack of actions) against evangelical critiques. Yet, so important was introducing women bishops with no provisions for protecting the consciences of fellow evangelicals, that Fulcrum did something almost unprecedented—it publicly broke ranks with Rowan Williams, senior bishop of the Church of England.
As it turned out, the amendment failed to win sufficient support—by just a handful of votes in the house of clergy. It is worth considering whether support by Fulcrum for the amendments might have moved a couple of votes and so preserved a place for fellow evangelicals to work with them in the institution in the cause of the gospel. But it is also worth recognizing that this is not some anomaly. By Australian standards, English Christians bend over backwards to work together despite deep disagreements. If even English egalitarian evangelicals find it tough to swallow compromise, one needs to realize that, however nice that egalitarian you personally know is, the movement as a whole will find it hard to be any more charitable with their opposition than the English have been (and I really mean that—after three years here, the English Christians are charitable to a fault). If even the Church of England can’t find a way not to force out complementarians, we should expect separation to take place whenever egalitarianism is endorsed by an institution. It won’t happen in absolutely every instance—some Christians will prefer compromise to forcing the issue—but we should recognize that that will be the exception, not the rule, at least over the long term. Compromises of this nature involves the winning group to allow what they consider to be genuine wrong to be practiced within the institution, and that is always difficult (as it should be) among Christians.