Women Bishops in the Church of England ‘Rochester Report’

Discussion Paper by Ven Judith Rose

In July 2000 as a member of General Synod, I presented a Private Members Motion asking for a theological report from the House of Bishops outlining the issues to be addressed in preparation for the debate of women in the episcopate. (The current debate is about the Church of England not the Anglican Communion). This report, produced under the chairmanship of the Bishop of Rochester is the result and in my opinion they have done what was requested. My concern was that when the substantive issue comes before General Synod and is discussed in the church, the arguments would be set out clearly, so that the synod and the church could make an informed decision. The church will also need to be fully aware of the implications of its decision, be that to retain the status quo or to legislate for women bishops. The working party was not asked to make recommendations about whether or not the Church of England should have women Bishops. That decision still has to be taken by the church.

A person perspective

In preparing this discussion paper it should be noted that I am expressing my personal views, which do not necessarily represent any official line held by Fulcrum. My own views on women in leadership have been shaped by the evangelical wing of the church and by my stipendiary ministry in the Church of England for 36 years. Most of that time I was single and then for a few years married to a supportive Christian layman. It was as I studied the scriptures back in the 1970's that I changed my views from being opposed to women in leadership, to believing that, in order to be true to the whole of scripture, I had to support the notion that women, who were so gifted and called by God should exercise responsible leadership in both society and the church. (I shall resist the terminology of 'headship' in this article. The term is never used in the New Testament for church leadership. Christ alone is spoken of as the head of the church).

The Rochester report sets out both sides of the arguments held by evangelicals as well as those of anglo-catholics and other traditions. Although the report goes to great lengths to be fair to both sides, the impression is that the greatest emotion is coming from those seeking to maintain the status quo, whereas one might expect it to come from those wanting change. The report acknowledges that the majority of our church members and those in the communities we serve would welcome women in the House of Bishops but there is a real question about whether the majority is right.

How does the church discern the will of God?

A fundamental question raised and addressed in the report is about how we decide whether this is the right development for our church at this time. Would women bishops be in line with the guidance of the Holy Spirit or a denial of God's intention? The report suggests we discern the will of God by giving attention primarily to scripture with the help of tradition and reason. The report then makes clear that both opponents and supporters of women bishops claim to have scripture, tradition and reason on their side. So we are left with the need to evaluate the strength of the arguments. So how does the church decide the will of God in this or any other matter? David Banting (para.5.2.31) says 'We do not believe that doctrinal questions can be decided by majority voting'. We may agree with him in principle and recognise that the councils of the church can and sometimes do get it wrong. However Banting does not suggest a better method to decide these matters. I guess he would say that we must obey scripture. Again most of us agree but in practice we are not agreed on what scripture is saying on this matter. The Church of England's way, is to seek discernment from the whole church. Significant issues are discussed and prayed about at all levels of the church and throughout our synodical structures. Representatives of the whole church finally make a decision at General Synod, which then needs endorsement by parliament. It may not be a perfect system, no human structures will be perfect, but it does allow for checks and balances and extensive debate and prayer as the church seeks to discern the mind of God.

Functional subordination

Fundamental to the arguments of the conservative evangelicals is their belief in the 'functional subordination' of women to men. This is described as a creation ordinance. Yet I have never understood why those who hold this view only apply it to 'relationships within marriage and the church' (Carrie Sandom Para 5.2.35). I have never heard criticism of capable and experienced Christian lay women who find themselves in positions of responsibility over male colleagues in situations outside the church. Neither have I seen advice given to mature single Christian women as to how this 'creation ordinance' should be applied in their lives. It seems that only when such women believe they are called by the Spirit of God to exercise leadership in the church that their gifts and experience are of limited use.

A further challenge to this principle comes from the fact that there is another model of Christian marriage in the New Testament, that of mutual submission of husband and wife. Although not specifically relevant to the question of women as bishops these other issues that arise from the concept of 'functional subordination' are important if the principle is to have credibility and therefore to be taken seriously in the current debate. The report does not touch on these related matters, although paras. 5.3.17 - 5.3.23 deal with "The problems with the argument from 'headship'" and "An alternative interpretation of 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy"


One of the issues raised in the report is the concept of reception. This is explored in detail in chapter 3. It implies provisionality about a decision made by one part of the church until the whole church recognises the rightness of that decision. The argument used by many of those opposed, is that women as priests/presbyters is still in the process of reception and until that process is completed the Church of England should not proceed to consecrate women as bishops. Readers of the report can evaluate the strength of this argument. As I read this section I wondered why the principle of reception was not being applied to another innovation that was introduced with the 1993 Act of Synod. That Act of Synod introduced the uncommon, if not entirely original, theology of Alternative Episcopal Oversight (flying bishops). This concept was described in the first Eames report as 'a…strictly extraordinary anomaly' (para 7.3.42). It means in effect that the diocesan bishop does not necessarily have full authority within his own diocese. A bishop who has ordained women or supported such ordinations is expected to allow a parish that disagrees with him on this issue, to receive the pastoral and sacramental ministry of the bishop from another diocese. The principle of the diocesan bishop as the 'focus of unity' in his diocese, which has long been held to be important, is thus compromised. Should this innovation into Church of England theology not be regarded as provisional, needing the process of reception? Only when such a principle is fully accepted by the whole church should it be applied in the case of women bishops. This aspect of reception is not explored in the Rochester report.

Unity among Bishops

The whole question of the unity of the church is a major strand running through this report with much emphasis, as is obvious from my previous paragraph, on the Bishop as the focus of unity, as well as unity among the college of Bishops, if women were to be included. This is a concern primarily for the Anglo-catholic opponents, although I notice that representatives from the Reform position have also shown concern. I can understand the position of those who for conscientious reasons could not recognise the authority of a woman bishop but I find it very difficult to understand the theological reason why such opponents would be unable to recognise or be in communion with male bishops who are in 'full visible unity' with women bishops (para7.3.15). No theological justification if given for such extreme views. On what other issue are we justified in falling-out of communion with someone who mixes with those of differing views?

It is around the threat of non-communion with those who support women bishops as well as with bishops who are women, that it seems to me, that the third province arguments are incomprehensible. How could bishops of a third province be part of the Church of England if they could not in conscience be in communion with bishops of the other two provinces?

Women Bishops?

The report sets out the options for the church. We can either so nothing or agree that we should have women bishops. If the church makes the latter decision then the questions arise as to whether

  1. There should be limitations upon which Episcopal offices are open to women
  2. There should be legal provision made for those who wish to remain in the Church of England and yet disagree with the decision; and/or financial compensation for those who feel they must leave.

I was interested to read in Appendix 1 that in addition to the 3 countries in the Anglican Communion that already have women bishops (Canada has a conscience clause and USA has an informal arrangement to protect the consciences of an individual bishop), there are a further 11 members of the Communion who have agreed in principle to women bishops although none have yet been appointed. The notes to the appendix suggest that of these 11 only in the case of South Africa is provision made for conscientious objectors.

In my view, it seems likely that the Church of England will decide for women bishops in the not too distant future, without restriction to any Episcopal office. Most debate is likely to centre on whether, and if so what, provision should be made for those who believe this to be the wrong decision. We will need to think clearly, theologically and prayerfully as we work through this aspect of the debate for it will have long term implications. Holding to what we believe to be true and concern for those who believe differently will need great wisdom and grace.

I commend the report for study and for further debate. Readers must discern for themselves the weight of the arguments laid out therein. In my last speech to synod before my retirement in 2002, I urged evangelicals to continue to listen to one another and in particular to respect the position of those with whom they disagree. The fact is that there are biblical theologians and sincere Christian people in the evangelical wing of the church who come to differing interpretation of the scriptures with regard to the role of leadership by women. It is not clear to all those who take the authority of scripture seriously, that women should not exercise leadership over men. Does this indicate that it is a less important issue than the current debate suggests? If it were a question of the divinity of Christ or the reality of the Resurrection or belief in the Trinity then the heart of our faith would be under threat. Is it not possible to respect the role of a leader in the church even if we don't agree with every aspect of their understanding of the faith? We have been doing his within the Church of England since the reformation. Paul urges us to, 'Respect those over you in the Lord' (1 Thess.5:12). Of course the truth is important, as is unity in fellowship. Whether the Church of England should have women bishops is a significant issue that will not go away but how we handle it may be the mark of how far we are indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, our Lord Saviour and head of the church.

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