Page last updated at 02:11 GMT, Saturday, 7 March 2009

Women 'to change CofE for ever'

By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

The Rev Stephen Kuhrt
Women bishops will need prayer and support, says the Rev Stephen Kuhrt

The proposal to appoint women bishops in the Church of England is entering a long process of review and amendment after last month's discussion at the General Synod.

Opponents are often grouped by the media into two traditions - Anglo-Catholics who revere the sacraments and traditions of the universal Church and Evangelicals who look to the Bible to rule their actions.

What is reported less often, is that many Anglicans in both traditions support the appointment of female bishops.

Some of these believe the proposal is completely in line with their Evangelical or Anglo-Catholic beliefs, and that the ministry of women priests has already brought great blessings on the Church.

"Women bishops will change the Church for ever - it'll be like opening a window in a room full of smoke. Those stuffy House of Bishops meetings will not be the same again... it's going to be fantastic. It's going to turn everything upside down," says the Reverend Stephen Kuhrt.

"We're packing this church out," he says proudly of Christ Church, New Malden. In the suburbs of south-west London, it has few architectural glories on the outside.

Inside, it is the epitome of Evangelicalism in the electronic age, with cameras and a big screen as aids to preaching, and the sermons are available as internet downloads.

'Radical' text

Mr Kuhrt is an official of Fulcrum, an Evangelical grouping founded, he says, "because a lot of us were very fed up with the only Evangelical voice heard being that of the conservatives.

"Far more Evangelicals are pro women's ministry than aren't," he insists.

"Open" Evangelicals such as himself, he says, will put a much greater priority on the "broad sweep of scripture" than their more conservative colleagues - and texts held up as opposing women's ministry can be interpreted quite differently.

I Timothy 2, for instance, says women must not teach or "domineer" over men - but it also says "Let women learn", and that was a "massively radical thing" in the first century AD, says Stephen Kuhrt.

Two women preparing for ordination in his church he describes as "brilliant preachers - one's a health visitor, one's a lawyer and they're both exceptionally imaginative, dynamic, humorous, orthodox in their theology but very, very, in tune with the culture and we're privileged here that people have seen them work."

St Mary's, Stoke Newington. The Rev Jonathan Clark (inset)
It's absolutely essential that women should be admitted to the episcopate
The Rev Jonathan Clark, St Mary's, Stoke Newington

On the opposite side of London is the enormous spire that stands above the grand Victorian parish church of St Mary's, Stoke Newington.

Its rector, the Reverend Jonathan Clark, is chair of Affirming Catholicism, a group "working to make the Catholic element within Anglicanism a positive force for the Gospel" - and a member of the General Synod.

He says he is very confident that there is a majority within the Anglo-Catholic tradition who see women bishops as "a perfectly legitimate development of the Catholic tradition and therefore something that should be welcomed".

From an Anglo-Catholic point of view, he believes, "it's absolutely essential that women should be admitted to the episcopate" and illogical to have female priests without women bishops.

"The ministry of the priest derives from the ministry of the bishop; the bishop is the first order of ministry, so if you're going to change the nature of ministry you change the one from whom all the other ministries spring."

Of women's ministry in his parish, he says: "I think it's been a really important gift." One woman from the parish is now a university chaplain and returns to lead worship on occasions; there have also been two female curates in succession.

"Women are good priests and there are many of them who would by now in the normal course of things be in episcopal roles or being considered for them," Mr Clark insists.

But many conservative Anglo-Catholics say they cannot accept the ministry of women. A lot left the Church to become Roman Catholics when women priests were first approved in the 1990s.

Jonathan Clark says those who stayed in the C of E at that time might be reluctant to leave over women bishops, but he adds: "I fear that some will because they will feel they have no alternative."

He explains: "To the Anglo-Catholic way of thinking, if being in communion with your bishop is one of the defining ways of knowing what your role and place is within the Church - then to have a bishop about whose orders you have doubts is a very uncomfortable position to be in."

Allowed to flourish

The challenge is to see that opponents of women bishops are "not just marginalised and tolerated but allowed to flourish" - but crucially "within a context in which women are accepted as being fully competent within the different orders of ministry," he says.

Stephen Kuhrt thinks that many Evangelical opponents of women bishops, with their less hierarchical outlook, will feel less uncomfortable.

"I think they'll make a fuss... They will try and throw their weight around financially - they're large churches generally with quite a lot of money but mostly, I think they'll probably just ignore bishops in the way they always have."

He warns: "I think it'll be very difficult for the first women bishops because I think there'll be all sorts of subtle ways in which some churches will try to undermine their authority.

"I think the first draft of women bishops is going to want lots of prayer and support.

"What I hope will happen is that people will see the blessings that come from women's ministry and they will say, 'Yes - that's what God intended - how did it take us so long to wake up to it?'"

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