Friday, November 23, 2012

N. T. Wright and Michael Bird on the Women Bishops Kerfuffle in the Church of England

The talking heads on both sides of the Atlantic are atwitter with concern over the fate of the venerable Church of England now that it voted on 20 November to continue disallowing women to serve as bishops in the national church. For such a change to have been allowed, the measure would have had to receive two-thirds support from each of three voting blocs: the House of Bishops, the House of Clergy, and the House of Laity. As it happens, the measure did receive 94% approval from the Bishops and 77% from the Clergy, but "only" 64% from the Laity, thus sending it down to defeat. In the aftermath of the vote, the hand-wringing began immediately and opprobrium was heaped on the supposedly "old," "traditionalist," and "out of touch" lay people who "disproportionately" voted against the measure.

The arguments used by the "shocked" supporters of the measure are quite telling in that they clearly manifest a church more interested in "keeping up with the times" than in faithfulness to Scripture and responsible hermeneutical application of the biblical text to today's world. Archdeacon of Norwich Jan McFarlane opined that “a church so out of step with the world around us becomes an irrelevance.” Labour MP Diana Johnson likewise warned direly, "The Church of England now stands to be left behind by the society it seeks to serve, looking outdated, irrelevant, and frankly eccentric by this decision." She then offered this assessment of the naysayers' character: "A broad church is being held to ransom by a few narrow minds." Using even more purple language, Tory MP Sir Tony Baldry likened the C of E to a "sect": "What has happened as a consequence of the decision by general synod is the Church of England no longer looks like a national church, it simply looks like a sect like any other sect." Most importantly, Sir Tony raised the key philosophical issue behind the kerfuffle: "If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation."

Australian theologian and New Testament scholar Michael Bird responded in classic, Birdian fashion:
I can understand people advocating the elevation of women to the episcopacy as a matter of scriptural principle and missional imperative, in fact I’m broadly sympathetic, but I’m hearing others advocate the position because there is a widespread belief that the church, as a state church no less, is morally obliged to mirror the values of society. To which I would reply, “Ahm, no it’s bloody not.” This is the Church of England, not Die Deutsche Reichskirche we are dealing with here. We are not beholden to the state to do its bidding in social policy.
Former Bishop of Durham N. T. Wright, in an editorial well worth reading and jointly published today in both The Times and the evangelical Anglican website Fulcrum, weighed in on the matter with devastating precision, correctly challenging the modernist pretension that "progress" must be the final arbiter of truth and praxis:
It won’t do to say, then, as David Cameron did, that the Church of England should “get with the programme” over women bishops. And Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for “liberals” in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say “we must obey God rather than human authorities” has forgotten what it means to be the Church. The spirit of the age is in any case notoriously fickle. You might as well, walking in the mist, take a compass bearing on a mountain goat.
What is most significant here is that Professor Wright has gone on record supporting women bishops. But he rightly notes that the issue is not one of cultural "relevancy," but one of faithfulness to the New Testament, applied seriously and with hermeneutical sophistication. "Traditionalists," of course  and by that term I, of all people, mean no disrespect  look to such passages as 1 Timothy 2 and conclude that women teachers and preachers (i.e., "pastors" or those who lead men), let alone bishops, are disallowed on the authority of Paul the Apostle. But a growing number of evangelicals have been having second thoughts (see, e.g., Scot McKnight's The Blue Parakeet and Junia Is Not Alone, not to mention my friend Bill Webb's hermeneutical exploration, Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals). The choice, in other words, is not between outdated, troglodytic "traditionalists" and "progressive" types who see the relevance of the church in terms of its adoption of "up-to-date" cultural ideas and mores. If the relevance, or indeed the future, of the church depends on the latter, one can seriously question Jesus' promise that "the gates of Hades [would] not prevail against it" (Matt 16:18).

What happens in and to the Church of England matters to me as one whose spiritual ancestry can be traced to the (Anglican) Church of Ireland, and as one who has benefited most from Anglican New Testament scholars from the days of B. F. Westcott and J. B. Lightfoot to Charlie Moule to Tom Wright. But those who fancy that the current vicissitudes of that church can be traced to"traditionalist"-inspired blocking of cultural "progress" demonstrate thereby a fatal inability to read the spiritual tea leaves. One suspects, and surely hopes, that the church realizes this, and that the recent selection of an evangelical, Justin Welby, to be the next Archbishop of Canterbury, is evidence that God isn't yet done with the unwieldy Church of England.

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