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Consecrating female bishops in the Church of England

Liberal and conservative viewpoints. Timeline.

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Positions of liberals and conservatives within the Church differ:

  • When compared to religious conservatives, religious liberals tend to emphasize personal experience and the findings of science while de-emphasizing a literal interpretation of biblical tests and church tradition. To liberals, consecrating female bishops would drastically reduce the level of sexism within the Church. They feel that discrimination against women is immoral and is an embarrassment within the larger culture that has greatly reduced privileged treatment of men. They typically base their viewpoint on:

    • The biblical theme of justice which permeates the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures (Old and New Testaments).

    • Jesus' treatment of women as equals.

    • Paul's statement about sexual equality in Galatians 3:28:
      "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus."
    • They also note that of the 40 names that Paul mentions in his letters, 16 were women. As Helmut Koestler wrote: "That's a considerable proportion of women involved in the Pauline missionary effort." 1

  • When compared to religious liberals, religious conservatives tend to emphasize church tradition and a literal interpretation of biblical texts while de-emphasizing personal experience and the findings of science.

    To many conservative groups within the church, both Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, denial of consecration of female priests to the episcopate is a major concern. They view men and women as being spliritually equal but complementary. They feel that the two sexes should be confined to specific roles within the family, in the church, and in the rest of society, irregardless of an individual women's talent, ability, education, training, skills, and interests. Positions of power are to be given primarily or exclusively to males. Most would wish to deny female ordination as priests, because that assigns them a role where they are considered equal to men in authority. Their opposition to the consecration of female bishops is even greater, because it would place some women in a supervisory role over some male priests.

    They base their opposition on specific passages in the New Testament, including:

    • 1 Timothy 2:11-15 in which the author did "not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent."

    • 1 Timothy 3:2 specifies that overseers and deacons must be men.

    • 1 Corinthians 14:34b-35 states that women must be silent and in submission when in church.

Many theologians doubt the validity of these three passages. They have come to the conclusion that:

  • The entire pastoral epistle of 1 Timothy was not written by Paul. It was written by an anonymous author who pretended to be Paul, during the first half of the second century CE -- over 3.5 to 8.5 decades after Paul was executed. Some feel that it represents the second century Christian movement's beliefs that had deviated in major ways from Jesus' teaching and from Paul's interpretation of that teaching.

  • The short passage embedded as 1 Corinthians 1:33b-36 was written by an unknown counterfeiter and inserted into the middle of Paul's text. Bible scholar, Hans Conzelmann, commented on these three and a half verses: "Moreover, there are peculiarities of linguistic usage, and of thought. [within them]." 2 If they are removed, then Verse 33a merges well with Verse 37 in a seamless transition.
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Statement by one conservative group, with possible rebuttals:

"Forward in Faith" is a conservative group which is actively opposed to female priests and bishops. They state:

"Forward in Faith is a worldwide association of Anglicans who are unable in conscience to accept the ordination of women as priests or as bishops.

Forward in Faith is opposed to the ordination of women to the priesthood and the episcopate for three simple reasons.

  • First, it is a practice contrary to the scriptures as they have been consistently interpreted by the two thousand year tradition of the churches of both East and West.

  • Second, we hold that the ordination of women by individual provinces of the Anglican Communion, without inter-provincial agreement or consensus, is a schismatic act, impairing communion between provinces by subverting the interchangeability and mutual recognition of orders between them.

  • Third, mindful of the unity for which Our Lord prayed on the night before he died, we are bound to repudiate an action which has willfully placed a new and serious obstacle in the way of reconciliation and full visible unity between Anglicans and the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

In rebuttal, liberal Anglicans might suggest:

  • First: The Hebrew and Christian scriptures accept and regulate human slavery. Christianity historically accepted the ownership of people as property for almost two millennia until part way into the 19th century. Today, with few exceptions, Christian faith groups have repudiated human slavery and regarded the institution as profoundly immoral.

  • Second: Most of the 36 provinces within the Anglican Communion now allow the ordination of women. Thus, the norm for the Communion is to ordain all qualified, faithful, competent, and dedicated persons regardless of gender. If there is any schismatic act in existence it is among the minority of provinces that continue to discriminate against women. Lack of interchangeability does not seem to be a problem; those provinces that continue their discrimination on the basis of gender simply refuse to recognize female priests from other provinces as validly ordained.

  • Third: The Anglican Communion, Roman Catholic Church, and Orthodox Churches have been evolving along different paths for generations. No significant progress has been made towards unity in spite of significant efforts over the past few decades. There are tens of thousands of Christian faith groups in existence worldwide. There is no real possibility of achieving unity -- unless, of course, if God decides to tell humanity which, if any, is the true religion and which, if any, is the true denomination within that religion.
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Timeline of major steps:

Steps towards eliminating sexism within the Church of England:

  • 1920 to 1992: Efforts concentrated on allowing female candidates to be ordained as priests.

  • 1994: The first women priest was ordained.

  • 2000: In the first move towards female bishops, Judith Rose, the Archdeacon of Tonbridge, introduced a motion to the General Synod to debate the consecration of female bishops.

  • 2005: After two positive working party reports, General Synod agreed to "set in train the process for removing the legal obstacles" blocking consecration.

  • 2006: The General Synod passed a motion stating:

    "That this Synod welcome and affirm the view of the majority of the House of Bishops that admitting women to the episcopate in the Church of England is consonant with the faith of the Church as the Church of England has received it and would be a proper development in proclaiming afresh in this generation the grace and truth of Christ."

  • 2006: A legislative drafting group started working under the the leadership of Right Rev Nigel McCulloch.

  • 2008: The group published its report. General Synod passes a resolution confirming its 2006 decision in favor of the principle of female consecration.

  • 2009: The Synod debated the draft legislation and sent it on to a revision committee. By the end of that year, the revision committee had issued its interim statements.

  • 2010: The proposed legislation was published. It was debated by the Synod and left largely unamended. It was referred to the dioceses for debate and vote. 4

  • 2012-MAY: By this time, 42 dioceses out of the Province's 44 dioceses had approved the legislation by a majority vote. Only the dioceses of Chichester and London voted against the legislation. The Synod's House of Bishops debated the draft legislation, passed two amendments, and rejected two others. The bishops voted in favor of an amended motion. 5

  • 2012-NOV-10: A final vote was taken by the Synod. A majority in all three houses -- the House of Bishops, House of Clergy, and House of Laity -- voted in favor of the consecration of women as Bishops. However, the House of Laity's vote did not reach the required two-thirds majority. It lacked only six votes. Thus, the motion was killed. More details.

  • 2014-JUL: A second, successful, vote was taken. The first female priest is expected to be consecrated to the episcopate in mid-2015.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Dr. Helmut Koester, "The role of women in the Christian churches of Paul's day." This is a series of excerpts from his speech titled "St. Paul: His Mission to the Greek Cities & His Competitors," given to the Foundation for Biblical Research, Charlestown, NH, on 1997-SEP-13. It is available at: http://www.bibletexts.com/
  2. "1 Corinthians 14:33," at: http://www.bibletexts.com/
  3. "Forward in Faith" has a web site at: http://www.forwardinfaith.com/
  4. "Women Bishops," The Church of England, undated, at: http://www.churchofengland.org/
  5. "House of Bishops approves Women Bishops legislation," The Church of England, 2012-MAY-21, at: http://www.churchofengland.org/
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Copyright 2000 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2014-JUL-18
Author: Bruce A. Robinson
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