Why women should be Bishops….

first african female bishop

There has been a great deal of fury over the decision of the General Synod of the Church of England to not ratify legislation to appoint women as bishops.

There is much around the web on the theology of women as bishops and leaders but I suspect that many aren’t aware of some of the key reasons why the Church of England has, over many years, come to believe that women should be bishops. So, this post is aimed at doing a couple of things. I want to look at a biblical case for the ordination of women as Bishops.

One of the main problems for much of the Church has been that the debate has centred on justice for women or that this is the 21st century and that it is natural for women to be leaders. Or its about “progress”. This in one sense is understandable in a world that is for all intents and purposes biblically illiterate. Tom Wright writing in the Times points out the problem with this:

We, of all people, ought to know better. “Progress” gave us modern medicine, liberal democracy, the internet. It also gave us the guillotine, the Gulag and the gas chambers. Western intelligentsia assumed in the 1920s that “history” was moving away from the muddle and mess of democracy towards the brave new world of Russian communism. Many in 1930s Germany regarded Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his friends as on the wrong side of history. The strong point of postmodernity is that the big stories have let us down. And the biggest of all was the modernist myth of “progress”.

The case for this must rest on a better base than mere “progress”. The core for a Christian is the Biblical case for this. The Biblical case is so much stronger than many of its critics will allow for.

Firstly, there needs to be a recognition that the life and resurrection of Jesus trump society and its mores. Jesus was born into a patriarchal age where women were considered as lesser than men. Jesus never treats women in this way. Indeed the people he treats worst of all and has conflict with are the religious. Jesus treats them as equals. He tells Martha that Mary has chosen the better way because she sat at his feet as a disciple (Luke 10:38-42). Who is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus and told to spread the news of Jesus? It is Mary Magdalene. Tom Wright again points out:

All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of 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.

If we were left to the Gospels things might feel a bit clearer but we seem to have some awkward bits of Paul’s letters to deal with. However, the apparent misogyny of Paul has been kept going, I believe, by our own patriarchal society and through the Constantine settlement that saw the political state mitigate the radicalness of the Church.

So, we see in Romans 16 the introduction of Phoebe – a deaconess in the church (though the NIV with a conservative mindset translates the greek word diakanos as a servant). An obvious leader – and the person Paul sends his letter with and who would have read out the letter to the congregation.

Or we see Junia in Romans 16:7 described by Paul as an apostle.

Or Paul’s glorious claim in Galatians 3:28

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

So lets take one of the more problematic passages that is often seen. That of 1 Timothy 4:8-15. The NIV has the translation:

I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.
I also want women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve. And Adam was not the one deceived; it was the woman who was deceived and became a sinner. But women will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith, love and holiness with propriety.
At first sight a direct hit against Paul being inclusive of women’s ministry. Paul seems to be saying that women can’t look beautiful, they should be silent and they should follow their Lord and Master their husband. What on earth could be more clear proof. But when you really start to do some background research you find many things that make you think again.
Now I won’t keep your attention going through all of it but lets hit some of the major parts.
It is believed that Paul was writing to Timothy in Ephesus – the source of the Diana cult which was ruled over by women. Paul is therefore keen to give advice to a fledgling church in one of the great cities of the Roman Empire.
So in this passage he starts by telling both men and women not to live to a stereotype – both are called to live lives that are worthy of faith in Jesus. The “good deeds” is a standard greek word to mean to look after those who are in need – to help people with time and money.
The key is in the following paragraph. “A woman should learn in quietness and full submission”. First of all the injunction is to learn – unlike Jewish and Roman society – Christian women are to learn. Remember that most Christians were not rich or powerful (indeed one of the criticisms of early Christianity was that it valued women and slaves and children!). Secondly, quietness doesn’t have the sense of silence but rather that of “quietening down” (it is the same word which is translated quiet life in 1 Tim 2:2). Thirdly, submission here is much more likely to be to God.
In other words the injunction here is for women to be encouraged to learn and not muck about – learning what it means to be a disciple of Christ.
Paul goes on to make a cultural point in regard to Ephesus. The Message gets the idea better when it translates the next bit:
I don’t let women take over and tell the men what to do. They should study to be quiet and obedient along with everyone else.

The issue here was that he didn’t want either men or women to dominate and control and in Ephesus in religious terms it was easy for the women to take over – just as today men have! So, as we might say today “I don’t let men take over and tell women what to do”!
Ian Paul makes the point:

This explanation suggests a corrective both to myths about Artemis, who was created first and only subsequently took a male consort, and possible misunderstandings of Paul’s own teaching. In Rom 5.14 and 1 Cor 15.22, Adam is said to be the origin of sin; misreading this as Adam the first male (rather than Adam the first human being) might suggest that women had no part in sin, which Paul corrects here by noting that ‘the woman’ was deceived. Elsewhere (2 Cor 11.2), Eve’s deception becomes an example of what is possible for both men and women; the point here is not that women are more sinful than men, but that they are just as sinful as men.

The final, to our ears, rather bizarre bit about being kept safe through childbirth is an exhortation not to get super-spiritual and see childbirth as something to be avoided in this current Messianic age. Childbearing is hard enough without seeing it as something that would put your salvation at risk!

Altogether then this passage is about mutuality – about the value of women as disciples and about the value of them learning. It is based on a life situation with the issues and problems that it faced. So, for women this meant not ruling the roost but it did not mean that they could not be leaders.

I believe that the time has come for the church to repent and welcome women in their rightful place and that includes them as bishops in God’s Church.

Another useful read is an article by Tom Wright

18 comments on “Why women should be Bishops….

  1. Ian Paul
    November 23, 2012 at 8:40 pm #

    This is a great overview, Will. I am sure readers will find it helpful

  2. Will Cookson
    November 23, 2012 at 9:08 pm #

    That’s very kind of you Ian. Ian has done a great Grove Booklet on this subject – well worth buying and reading if you want a more detailed overview. You can buy it here: http://www.grovebooks.co.uk/cart.php?target=product&product_id=17472&category_id=280

  3. Sue Cooke
    November 23, 2012 at 9:46 pm #

    Thanks Will, this is brilliant and gives me loads of material for a lesson I am preparing for a GCSE class for next week too.

  4. sammo
    November 24, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    Will, a good post, but a bit late for the vote (not picking on you) – one of the articles in the press is that there was a failure in church leadership, in that (in my opinion) we all thought that this would pass, so there was very little from the CofE in the way of positive reinforcement – articles such as this should have been at the forefront of that positive reinforcement.

    • Will Cookson
      November 24, 2012 at 1:26 pm #

      Chris, thanks for that. I do think that there was a failure but I think that it was a structural one that needs to be addressed.

      The theological justification for women was agreed in the ’70s! Women priests were introduced in 1992 with the expectation that bishops would follow. Indeed the church has already agreed to women bishops. The issue is how do we make room for those who disagree. This being the church we didn’t want those against women bishops to leave.

      All General Synod members have had a huge amount of doctrinal papers on all of this – far greater than my measly effort! I do think that more emphasis could have been put on the consequences of voting no but the bishops I think were dumbfounded. I think that they thought it would happen and that they had reached a messy compromise that satisfied no-one but could be lived with.

      Those against don’t believe that they have been given enough (but then many of those want a separate province with its own archbishop!). They attracted the sympathy of some (especially lay members) with their arguments. So the church has already voted FOR women bishops but haven’t agreed HOW.

      This then leads to the lay house of General Synod. Members are elected from those who attend deanery or diocesan synod. This means that the vast majority of ordinary members of the CofE don’t have a say (unlike clergy and bishops who all directly vote for their representatives). So, you get many of those on General synod who are retired (General Synod meets during the week) and who like committee work. Not a great combination.

      One bishop was complaining that in his diocese 80% of the diocesan synod voted for but when it came to General Synod 3 out of the 4 lay reps voted against!

      My suspicion is that in the next elections that there will be a cull of many lay members!

      In the meantime we need to make sure that we get good people into our synods who can bear the bureaucracy but understand that every few years they can make a real difference!

      • sammo
        November 24, 2012 at 9:53 pm #

        I do appreciate that the CofE is in a difficult position. In going to the nth degree to accommodate those who disagree, what about people like myself who feel that we have lost so much credibility that i would feel embarrassed to admit to be a member of the CofE….

        • Will Cookson
          November 25, 2012 at 8:33 am #

          It is a problem and one that is recognised. It was also why those in favour of women bishops didn’t want to give too much to opponents – they didn’t want no-go areas. That is why we need strength to continue to show grace!

          On a positive note where else do we find anywhere where we try and hold all people together to such a degree? We usually play a winner take all approach. I do think that the church will revisit this sooner rather than later and I hope and pray that a good solution is found.

  5. Sandykin
    November 25, 2012 at 6:42 pm #

    Just an observation: the head of the church of England is a woman…….. Nuffield said.

    • Simon
      November 26, 2012 at 12:35 pm #

      Is the head of the Church of England not Jesus Christ?

  6. Simon
    November 26, 2012 at 12:58 pm #

    Will, Thanks for the article. I hold the opposite view to you, and want to contribute here not so that I can ‘win’ but so that as followers of Jesus Christ we can work this through; I might be wrong.

    I agree wholeheartedly that we can’t make change in the name of ‘progress’, we take direction from Scripture alone. I also agree that Jesus, and more-so the entire NT has a very counter-cultural treatment of women, and their value in the eyes of God. In many places the cultural view of the worthlessness of women is clearly countered. And it is for this very reason that I think we must pay special attention when distinctions between the roles of male and female are called out explicitly. But we’re not going to bring that debate to a close in this forum.

    I wanted to pick up on a couple of things you said. Firstly I think the word “misogyny” is a bit strong for Paul. I think in many places he sets out gender roles that clearly challenge the cultural norm. (Galatians 3:28 as you quote for example)

    You also say “Paul seems to be saying that women can’t look beautiful” – I know you qualify that statement with ‘the word seems’ but it is a gross fallacy to believe that a woman who is dressed decently, morally, in cheap clothes, without fancy hair or jewellery can’t be beautiful. It just read like a cheap shot to me. Someone who adorns themselves with good deeds is always going to be more beautiful than someone whose beauty is only skin-deep.

    Finally, I think we (as a church) need to be extremely careful when changing something that been accepted by a radical movement for 2000 years. I do not mean we shouldn’t consider it, as it is certainly possible that we’ve gotten it wrong, but I think we need to be extremely careful in accepting a doctrine that has been held nowhere in the first 2000 years of the church.

    In Christ, and for His glory alone.

    • Ian Paul
      November 26, 2012 at 2:12 pm #

      Simon, I wonder if I can pick up two things here?

      Firstly, this proposal is not ‘changing something that has been accepted for 2000 years.’ Evangelicals have been advocating–and practising–the acceptance of women in leadership on and off for a very long time. For just one example of this, do read Steve Holmes here http://steverholmes.org.uk/blog/?p=6755

      Secondly, I am baffled by the argument that gender equality means the elimination of gender difference. Is the only way men and women are to be different to do with ‘who’s in charge?’ This is a regular accusation by Opponents to what they call ‘egalitarian’ arguments. Just because I believe that men and women are of equal status, I do not believe their roles to be interchangeable. There are good biological arguments to suggest that women are better at nurturing than men–and ironically, given some of Paul’s metaphors (eg Gal 4.19) this suggests women would be better bishops!

      • Simon
        November 26, 2012 at 3:20 pm #

        Ian, Thanks for your comments, I have had a skim over the article you posted, and will read it properly when I get some time. Perhaps I misread or misunderstand your second point, but I think I agree with it 🙂

  7. Will Cookson
    November 26, 2012 at 1:28 pm #

    Thank you for posting. You are very welcome and it is always great to get another side to a debate.

    I must thank you for pointing out the misogyny quote. I was obviously writing too quickly. I meant to put “apparent” prior to the word misogyny. I do not believe that he was a misogynist and the wording is entirely my fault. I’ll make the change above but show that it is an update.

    I’m sorry that you feel that about the “seems to be saying” bit but I think that part has done some damage to women in the church over the years and I agree that character etc are vital to an understanding of this and we can go too far the other way. However, there are many women in the church who have suffered from this teaching (often by men) and then found themselves cut off from others in society.

    Your final point is a very valid one and I think that it would be very easy to simply conform to society around us which is why I believe that 2/3 majority in each house is a sufficiently high bar to cross. In terms of getting things wrong then I think that there are enough examples (such as slavery) to where we would admit that we got this wrong in the past and Christians were at the forefront of changing things. I think that the early church was far more prepared to have women leaders than after the Constantine settlement and so I don’t think that we would be overturning all of the 2,000 years of history.

    • Simon
      November 26, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

      Will, I agree many women have suffered as part of a one sided tyrannical view of this (and similar) passages. Men have been over dominant and overbearing in some churches for many years. In my opinion this was a self-perpetuating mistake, and one of which we must humbly repent, but I still clearly see gender roles as being important. However, as with any mistake I think there is a danger of over-correcting, and abolishing gender criteria on roles is a step too far. As I said, we’re probably not going to agree on that in these posts, but I find them helpful in testing the ground on which I stand.

      I would like to disagree a bit on the women/slavery issue. From my limited reading, I understand that there were prominent Christians from the first few centuries on record as opposing slavery, and of course the abolition of slavery in the British empire was founded on Christian convictions. However, I don’t read of the same evidence for the ordination of women throughout the ages.

      • Will Cookson
        November 26, 2012 at 4:02 pm #


        Very happy to be a testing ground for your ideas. I think these sorts of discussions may settle little but it does allow us all a chance to respectfully engage with one another about ideas and views.

        There were indeed early church fathers (and I would suggest Paul himself) who did not like slavery and I would argue that the New Testament is essentially a timebomb that could not but lead to that conclusion (even if it did take centuries to go ff properly!). In terms of ordination I think that the post that Ian links to above is very useful in a historical evangelical context. You might also be able to get hold of Kenneth Bailey’s “Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes” which has a good section on just how revolutionary Jesus was in regard to women including having them as disciples (though not part of the 12).

        • Simon
          November 26, 2012 at 4:05 pm #

          Thanks Will.


  1. Women bishops in the C of E | The Evangelical Liberal - November 27, 2012

    […] Why women should be bishops – nice overview from Rev Will Cookson ( = my vicar) […]

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