Why Evangelical History Supports Women Bishops

The first in a series on Women Bishops, exploring why women bishops are part of the health of the Church

Why Evangelical History Supports Women Bishops

by John Watson

Most people would nod approvingly to that well known phrase "if you forget your history you are doomed to repeat it" but this is not the case for Conservative Evangelical’s who have forgotten the history of women in church leadership at their peril. O had they remembered it, we would not have been doomed to the perspectives revealed in the General Synod speeches on the 21st November 2012 arguing not just against the details of the measure, but also the very nature and place of female leaders, the most spurious resting on a misreading of biblical revelation.

The three important strands to faith as expressed in the Anglican Church: Scripture, Reason and Tradition, all lend to an evangelical acceptance of Women in leadership, most ultimately expressed (at least today) in the episcopacy. Tradition in particular, in the examples of a variety of women leaders, prominent ones at that, who of course were not Bishops, but who were key leaders of their day. The evangelical tradition of our past was much more accepting of the leadership given by women than by some more modern proponents today and certainly by the hierarchies of the established Church.This was despite opportunities for women to be involved in leadership being rare due to many social factors including education and social movement.

Evangelicals have always tried to resist being shaped by the mores and fashions of the society in which they find themselves within (at least intentionally!). This was the case in 1800s of evangelicals leadership of women being celebrated in many ways at a time when women in society were very much marginalised. It was here that the churches, particularly the evangelical ones (often seen in non-conformist denominations), were on the forefront of challenging stereotypes and norms of the majority around them.

Steve Holmes’ article on the history of evangelical women in leadership provides some courageous examples of women used by God in the UK and US in significant ways. He writes particularly that:

“British evangelicalism was decisively shaped by the holiness movement – a movement that was almost universally, and unreflectively, ‘egalitarian’ in its approach to ordained ministry.”

It is quite clear that evangelicals (outside the Anglican church in general) were pushing the boundaries of male dominance in church leadership - as they have historically sat light to church structures, even before the 1800s.

George Fox (1624-91), the famous dissenter and founder of the Quaker movement in the UK wrote a reflection on 1 Tim 2 entitled “The Woman Learning in Silence” saying

"If Christ be in the Female as well as in the Male, is not he the same? And may not the Spirit of Christ speak in the Female as well as in the Male? Is he there to be limited? Who is it that dare limit the Holy one of Israel? For the Light is the same in the Male, and in the Female, which cometh from Christ."

This was then exemplified in the teaching positions that women held even in the early days of the Movement and in the ministry of life of Margaret Fell who wrote a pamphlet from her prison cell on the authority and ministry of women preaching and leading. Her main arguments in the pamphlet were:

  1. Men and women were equal in status before the Fall in Genesis and were restored to that equality by Jesus.
  2. Paul's instructions prohibiting women from speaking were directed to specific problem churches that had not yet received the fullness of God's grace.
  3. God himself anointed many women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, to be witnesses and proclaimers of the Word.

The great evangelical revival of the 1700s and 1800s that swept across England and then overseas became a tour de force in challenging the established church and awakening the desire to see God move in the nation; where complacency had set in and the trappings of establishment held sway over the Anglican Church, the evangelical challenge served, both outside and within it, to see change in both ministry and structure.

Evangelical women then were on the forefront of social movements for change (Phoebe Palmer and Frances Willard in emancipation rights and anti-slavery) both from within the church and outside its formal structures. Missionaries and preachers (Hannah Whittall Smith, Catherine Boothe and Katherine Bushnall) saw thousands receive new life in Jesus. They preached Christ crucified and his resurrection - qualities at least in biblical terms of apostleship. In fact the Salvation Army in 1934 was the first denomination in Protestant history to appoint a women as its head and leader.

It is a mystery then why after such a tradition of engagement and challenge - there should be such resistance from some within, who are the very inheritors of a lively, piercing, on-the-edge faith. Where the evangelical movement in its history, has served to remind the Church of the experience of God’s love; his offer of new life in his Son; his call to mission in proclaiming a radical new rule of living in God; why then has it become for a few, a way of preserving existing structures and cementing the status-quo? Why has it become so narrow in its reading of God’s Word and restrictive in its practice?

Maybe the adage is true “The most radical revolutionary will become a conservative the day after the revolution.” If we can but return to our call to be people committed to scripture, where we are read by it just as much as we read it, then maybe we can shout loudly with words that speak of another kingdom, a new humanity, a new identity, capturing imaginations and hearts. Perhaps our nation will hear that voice and ‘taste and see how good God is’.


Revd John Watson is Vicar of St Paul's Tupsley and St Andrew's Hampton Bishop, in Hereford Diocese. He is also currently studying towards a Doctorate in Theology and Ministry and is on the Fulcrum leadership team as assistant editor.

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