Two weeks ago, the Church of England made news with its announcement that a motion to accept women bishops had been defeated by a joint congress of clergy and laity. The Church leadership (which already includes women priests) recommended the change and urged members to accept it. Somewhat to everyone’s surprise, I gather, they didn’t. The predictable lectures about “getting with the programme,” from authorities as lofty as the British prime minister, fell on deaf ears—at least for now.
N.T. Wright, former Anglican bishop and a current professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, has no patience with “keeping up with the times.” Christianity has never been in sync with the times, he contends, and that’s its great virtue. He refers to Prince Caspian, in Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for a perfect put-down to arguments for progress and development: “I have seen them both, in an egg. We call it ‘going bad’ in Narnia.” Wright’s column is eloquent and timely (excuse the pun), but the writer tips his hand in the tagline: “Exhorting the CoE to ‘get with the programme’ dilutes the [biblical] argument for women bishops.”
So, after effectively demolishing the progressivism as a justification for women bishops, Wright presents a biblical argument for the same, first by dismissing 1 Timothy 2: “[S]erious scholars disagree on the actual meaning, as the key Greek words appear nowhere else.” Then Exhibits A and B, the “apostle” Junia (Romans 16:7—the Greek isn’t clear there either) and the “deacon” Phoebe. Most to the point, the picture of Mary Magdalene and other women as first to proclaim Jesus’ resurrection indicates a societal earthquake. The new creation project transformed gender roles and vocations: “from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual (think of Pentecost), and from male-only leadership to male and female together.”
That seems a large leap, but even granting the plausibility of Wright’s argument, he leaves a number of stones and Scripture passages unturned. While appealing to C.S. Lewis, he might have acknowledged a 1948 essay called “Priestesses in the Church?” which addresses an issue just then raising its querulous head. Lewis, a classical scholar and admirer of tradition, had no truck with “keeping up with the times.” Like Wright, he was interested in underlying principles. And God’s apparent preference for male leadership in the church might indicate a principle that’s timeless.
Just as traditional marriage represents Christ and His church, the priest or pastor, administering sacraments and preaching the Word, represents God to the congregation. Lewis freely admits that men are inadequate for this exalted role—but women are inappropriate: “[I]t is an old saying in the army that you salute the uniform not the wearer. Only one wearing the masculine uniform can … represent the Lord to the Church: for we are all, corporately and individually, feminine to Him.”
A woman who’s convinced that she was called by God to a leadership role will sigh in exasperation at this—isn’t it just symbolism? Yes it is: as communion, baptism, and marriage are symbolic. God-ordained symbols are the earthly vessels of heavenly reality. The Anglican Church laity may sense that here is something we shouldn’t tamper with. With women filling priestly roles, it’s probably only a matter of time (that word again) before the bar to the bishopric comes down. But the hesitation is somehow reassuring.