My bishop, +Victoria Matthews is in England as I write, roundabout now contributing to a 'fringe' event at the C of E's General Synod which will make a significant decision about the future of women bishops in that church, as well as what polity surrounds women bishops in relation to those not accepting their leadership. The signs augur very well for an overwhelming decision in favour of women bishops with ten dioceses so far voting in their synods for women bishops.
Naturally arguments continue for and against women bishops so that recently Ian Paul has written in favour and in the last day or so, David Ould has responded with a contrary fisking of Ian Paul's argument.
Without running through all the details of their debate, I generally accept David Ould's point that Ian Paul's argument has weaknesses if not a central weakness inasmuch as it is based on a subjective interpretation of what the Spirit is saying to the church at this time. While many Christians may think such an interpretation is a strong point in favour of any mooted change, evangelicals are typically resistant to such arguments on the positive ground that we want to see the text of Scripture which favours the change and on the negative ground that we see church history as littered with disasters when the Spirit has been followed at the expense of the Word.
Thus this latest outbreak of this debate prompts me to put down a few ideas of my own about this running argument within Anglican evangelicalism, an argument which is a lively part of the reason for the recently announced AMiE. These ideas of mine could support the strikingly consistent enthusiasm of the English synods for women bishops would be rightly taken up by General Synod.
But also in my mind is a meeting I went to two nights ago in which a young woman gave a Bible study to a mixed gender group which was simply one of the best ever Bible talks I have ever heard in my life. I cannot not ask, I will keep on asking, does the Bible provide clear and definitive evidence that this young woman should not have done what she did, that the organisers of the meeting were in error, and that I should not have received the teaching she gave.
Here are some ideas I think are best avoided
There is evidence for women being presbyters and bishops in the New Testament. If it is there it is hard to find and even harder to get people to agree that it is there.
Jesus only chose men to be the Twelve. True, they were men, but is it straightforward to then conclude that women were not apostles? (Junia in Romans 16:16 constitutes evidence that women may have been apostles.) Further, the Twelve is clearly associated with the sense that Jesus came to renew Israel as the kingdom of God, thus the patriarchs were replicated in the men Jesus chose. But forming that group says nothing about the roles the Miriams, Deborahs, Esthers, and Huldahs of the kingdom of God will take up.
Jesus set up an unchangeable tradition of leadership. There have been changes to the tradition. His primary leadership group of Twelve were Jewish men who were with him and were witnesses to the resurrection. Jewish gave way to Gentilic; 'with him' gave way to those who 'believed in him'; 'witnesses to the resurrection' somewhat naturally died out as the years rolled by; even 'men', noting Junia, may not have been strictly followed. We might also note with specific reference to Roman Catholic invoking of tradition that the tradition changed when celibacy was required of its bishops and priests.
For nearly 1900 years the church misread Scripture. That kind of idea opens up a hornet's nest about the reliability of the Spirit at work within us, about a God who seems uncaring about how long we live in error, and so on.
Here are some ideas I think are worth exploring
Two conjoined questions: Whether the New Testament lays down a fixed schema of church leadership or offers a history of the development of apostleship, episcopacy, presbyterial and diaconal ministry in which flexibility and adaptation of leadership occurred according to changing circumstances? and Whether the New Testament sets out a freedom in Christ for the church to make decisions as it sees fit providing these decisions are not repugnant to Scritpure?
The situation of women in many parts of the world has changed in such a way as to open up the possibility that we should re-read Scripture to ask whether it provides for the possibility of a reformed understanding of Christian leadership in a new age. When women go out to work away from the family hearth and home, when women take up opportunities to learn theology to doctoral level (which is not, of course, the only measure of theological learning), when women are supported by the church in being leaders in business, politics (cf. support for Margaret Thatcher, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann), the arts, education, medicine, welfare and other areas of society, and when women are not constrained to child-rearing duties for most of their lives as they once were when routinely they were mothers to a dozen or more children and life-expectancy was shorter: we are in a new age. When we re-read Scripture with the questions of a new age about the roles of women in respect of church and home, does Scripture prohibit women leading and teaching men in every context and every age?
The situation we face is not one in which the Spirit is contradicting the Word but one in which the Spirit is bringing forth new light from the Word.
To the extent that the concept of 'roles' is invoked in some circles so that men and women are equal but different - equal in status but different in roles, how strongly and clearly does Scripture teach that roles for men and women are fixed for all time?
In respect of ministry, is ministry essentially Christ's ministry? If so, then in a very important sense we are all, men and women, helpers or assistants to Christ in his ministry. It is Christ's priesthood (hiereus), not ours: our presbyteral or 'priestly' (Anglicans/Roman Catholics might say) ministry (presbuteros) is always an assistant's role to the Head of the Church.
There is plenty more to say, of course! But these are a few ideas to consider avoiding and a few ideas to explore further.