A Nonconformist’s View image

A Nonconformist’s View

Despite being a friendly observer of the Church of England, and admiring many of its members (living and dead) I have never felt any particular attraction to it. A significant part of the reason for this is the episcopal structure of church government, so the furor over women bishops puzzles me somewhat – as I see it, having bishops, period, is the primary problem, not what sex they are.

Of course, the episcopal system of church government is well established. In the first century Ignatius elevated the role of bishop (episkopos) over elders (presbyters), with deacons under them. Ignatius was a disciple of the apostle John, so he was as close to the origins of Christianity as it was possible to be. The issues that Ignatius wrestled with were how to maintain unity and guard against heresy in the nascent church. His solution was bishops, and thus episcopal church structures were born. Ignatius’ intentions were laudable, but he set in motion what I would contend was an unbiblical pattern. Rather than local churches led by elders and following apostolic direction, unity with the bishop became the test of orthodoxy, so that by the third century Cyprian could write, “The bishop is in the church and the church is in the bishop; and if anyone is not with the bishop, that he is not in the church.”

Under this system the role of bishop and elders became associated with OT priests, with deacons operating as “Levites” who served the bishop. By the 4th century the hierarchical system of bishop, elder, deacon and deaconess was well established, along with five patriarchies, in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.

Ignatius’ aims were noble but, I would contest, misguided. The non-conformist movements that arose out of the Reformation (both Presbyterian and Congregational) had greater claim to biblical warrant, and it is a great pity that the English Reformation was only a partial one, with the Anglican church in large measure retaining Roman Catholic leadership structures.

So I would start with getting rid of the bishops and the priests, and then we could start talking about the roles of men and women!

But what of the wider impact of the vote of the synod?

The general message coming from those in the CofE disappointed by the result is that, “We will never be taken seriously by society now.” On one level, this is probably a correct analysis. I’m sure most/all of my non-church attending friends would say that it is a nonsense women shouldn’t be bishops. This is a given because sexual equality is a given. However, I am not sure there is any evidence that the appointment of female bishops would lead to a reversal in the declining fortunes of the Anglican church. The appointment of women priests 20 years ago may have added a layer of pastoral depth to the church, but it certainly hasn’t arrested its numerical decline.

In fact, I’m pretty sure that those same non-church attending friends of mine who don’t understand why women shouldn’t be bishops because they assume sexual equality as a given, would be no more drawn to church by the presence of a female bishop. It might actually put them off. This is because for many – especially men – another assumption is similar to that of Celsus in the second century, that Christianity is only fit for women, slaves and children. Even when they assume sexual equality as a given, most men do not want to attend institutions they perceive as feminine. The evidence is clear: when men stop attending church, so do their children, and in the end so do their wives.

So it seems to me that the dear old CofE has got itself in a terrible muddle, being ripped apart over a disagreement about a church structure which is essentially misguided, and seeing its salvation in a change to that structure which in fact would probably only hasten its decline.
Ignatius has got a lot to answer for.

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