We have been considering some of the reasons why there may be some moves out of the egalitarian ‘camp’ in the foreseeable future—say, over the next twenty years or so. In this post we’ll consider the problems that arise when champions of women’s ordination cease to campaign for their cause, but have to rule on the basis of it, and conclude in the next by considering how complementarians can respond to these opportunities.
The pressures on egalitarians we have discussed will be reinforced as egalitarians have to increasingly move from being champions of conscience to wielders of institutional authority. Many egalitarians have enjoyed holding the ‘nice’ position in the debate—they aren’t saying ‘no’ to anybody or championing restrictions. They are asking for freedom—freedom to practice according to their conscience and not be restricted by others who believe differently. They were fighting against tradition and for greater freedom for conscience and for a whole gender. And while church structures didn’t permit women’s ordination they could argue for the freedom to practice their conscience. They could both champion their position and champion the right of conscience simultaneously.
But now that dioceses and denominations are looking at women bishops (or their equivalents), egalitarians have to decide whether conscience or equality is the ultimate good. They either have to connive at second-class women bishops to uphold freedom of conscience for objectors, or they have to support requirements to not ordain candidates who could not in conscience submit to a woman bishop.
Either way, a tension arises for those egalitarian evangelicals who believed that their cause was both about freedom of conscience, and about basic justice for women. Once their ‘side’ has the reigns of power, one of those two poles has to give way. They either have to offer freedom of conscience to complementarians—which means that they don’t really believe that women’s ordination is about basic justice like slavery or apartheid (because no-one would offer freedom of conscience on such serious moral topics). Or they don’t offer freedom of conscience, in which case, they deny to others what they demanded for themselves—freedom of conscience in this matter to act on their convictions.
If, as has been rumoured, some of those Dioceses moving towards electing a woman bishop have been running an unwritten policy of not ordaining candidates who cannot submit to a women bishop, then at least some egalitarians will be unsettled by the fact that their ‘side’ is less tolerant of dissent than the other side was in power—for egalitarianism can only get a foothold when a pre-existing institution does not make holding to complementarianism a condition for ordination. So egalitarianism is only ever a possibility due to the willingness of complementarians to create space for egalitarians in the first place in institutional life. Not even deepest darkest Sydney Diocese, a place that everyone knows is synonymous with intolerance (yes, that was irony, in case your senses need some tweaking), requires ordination candidates to believe in complementarianism.
At least some egalitarians will draw back from an intolerant tolerance, or will decide that women having access to all forms of public ministry is not an issue of basic justice. And in that decision they will begin the first step of what could be a long journey out of egalitarianism altogether. For if it is not a ‘gospel issue’, why keep dividing the church over it, especially in those contexts where evangelicalism needs every hand on deck?