Page last updated at 07:53 GMT, Friday, 26 February 2010

Opponents 'wrestle with the Bible' over women bishops

By Trevor Timpson
BBC News

The Rev Paul Dawson
"Some people would rather just see us leave," Rev Paul Dawson fears

This month's Church of England General Synod saw conservative evangelicals issue a challenge over plans for women bishops.

Appointing female bishops would be a "mistake", said a letter signed by 50 prominent evangelical clergy and distributed by their campaign group, Reform.

They might have to encourage young men to undertake training for the priesthood outside the CofE, the signatories warned.

Perhaps they might undertake independent ministries themselves rather than swear obedience to a female bishop - and divert funds which they now contribute to the Church.

Their concerns have been overshadowed recently by the objections to the plans by the Church's Anglo-Catholics, and speculation on how many of these would take up the Pope's invitation to join the Roman Catholic Church.

Yet evangelicals - who place great stress on the authority of the Bible, and are notable for their spirited preaching and lively services with modern music and state-of-the-art electronics - include some of the biggest, most enthusiastic and generous congregations.

Leadership of men

Reform members are convinced the Bible teaches that male headship is what God wills, both in individual families, and in the family of the Church. They point to passages such as 1 Corinthians 11:13 - "The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God."

"For us in Reform we see the Bible teaching so clearly the leadership of men - in a loving way," says the Rev Paul Dawson, the group's media officer.

"We have to say OK, we can live with working alongside women leading local churches though we think it's not ideal. But once you have women in a very public leadership role within the Church then we have to say 'That's gone beyond the line.'"

Conservative evangelicals, like other opponents of women bishops, hoped that "supplementary bishops" looking after parishes which did not accept women bishops would have their own autonomous powers.

But the committee drafting the law on women bishops could not agree on what these powers would be.

So when the Synod meets again in July, the proposal before it will be for any powers to be conferred on the supplementary bishop by the local diocesan bishop.

It's down to an individual's wrestling with the Bible and, in conscience, saying 'Can I live with this?'
Rev Paul Dawson

And one day, the diocesan bishop could be a woman.

All of which leaves Paul Dawson disappointed. He fears that inability to accept women's ordination will no longer be seen as an "integrity" within the Church, with those of that opinion not recognised as loyal Anglicans, as they have been up to now.

There is a growing feeling that "there are some people who would actually rather just see us leave than finding a solution which says 'You are a valuable part of this family'," he says.

Nevertheless, he does not foresee a "mass walkout" by conservative evangelicals, but a series of situations in which evangelical clergy and congregations face the questions which the future will pose for them.

"Different people draw lines on this issue in different places," says Mr Dawson. "There are other evangelicals who say 'No, [women's ordination] is entirely fine.' And we work together... and agree to differ on what for many are secondary issues."

For instance, Reform thinks opponents of women bishops who want to be ordained may have to attend Anglican Bible colleges abroad - or colleges in England, but sent privately by the parish. And they may have to be ordained, for instance, by a visiting Anglican bishop from overseas.

Swearing obedience

But "if a man is convinced from his own reading of the scriptures that there's no problem" Mr Dawson would encourage him to take the usual route to priesthood. "It's down to an individual's wrestling with the Bible and, in conscience, saying 'Can I live with this?'"

As for swearing obedience to a woman bishop, this will also affect different clergy differently, and at different times, he feels. In some dioceses, he is sure, a way will be found for opponents of women bishops to have a male bishop to look after them.

But he adds: "It would be very different in different parts of the country... For others it may be a real difficulty."

Meanwhile, some evangelicals in the Church do not have to wrestle with the scriptures to find justification for women bishops. They say the Bible manifestly confirms the case for them.

The Rev Stephen Kuhrt is an official of Fulcrum, an evangelical group which supports women bishops.

The Rev Stephen Kuhrt
The Bible confirms the blessings of women's ministry, says Rev Stephen Kuhrt

He points to passages such as the beginning of Romans 16, where Paul praises several women as being active in the early Church.

"People experience women's preaching or women's pastoral ministry and they see the enormous blessings that come through that," says Mr Kuhrt.

"They then go back to the scripture and they then discover all sorts of things that surprise them. But they've always been there!"

But though he feels women's ministry is bringing great benefits to the Church, he does not think the existence of a woman bishop need make much difference to many, traditionally independent-minded, evangelical parishes.

"It's not as though bishops have the right to say 'Come to your church next Sunday and I'm going to preach' - they don't do that. They come by permission of the incumbent.

"It's not going to change anything at that sort of church except that the vicar is going to have an uncomfortable hour having his annual review with a woman!

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