Wednesday, 15 February 2012

WOMEN BISHOPS, THE CHURCH OF ENGLAND AND METHODISM


Since the Church of England seems to be side-stepping again the opportunity to give women equality by allowing those who object to women Bishops to avoid such episcopal oversight there is a need for the Methodist Church, with its Arminian heritage, to consider its position in its Covenant relationship with the C of E. It is my belief that Methodism should, at the least, state that it can move no further in its relationship with the C of E until the C of E takes away all bars against women being able to have access to all offices and roles within the church that are open to men and, significantly, there should be no loop hole to accommodate those who object to such equality.
This statement requires some clarification.
We need to remember that it is the Church of England, and not the whole Anglican communion, that currently does not allow women to hold episcopal office.
The Methodist Church for many years has allowed women to exercise what the C of E would regard as a priestly ministry and, because of the nature of Methodist governance, an episcopal ministry. Any truly Covenantal relationship is dependent on a mutual recognition of ministries. When the Covenant was signed it was clear that this was not possible at that time. Some Methodists spoke and voted against the Covenant, not in an anti-ecumenical spirit, but in recognition of the equality of all people before God. Some voted in favour of the Covenant in good faith that the Church of England was at least moving towards such recognition. This has now proved, for the time being at least, not to be the case.
Some will want to argue male priority based on the authority of scripture and the maleness of Jesus. The fact that not all theologians or denominations reach this conclusion underlines the understanding that doctrine is a human construct based on human interpretation rather than God given law. For those who want, at the extreme, to see the presence of women in ministry as heretical, it is worth remembering that, from a Jewish perspective, Christianity was (and is) a heresy. Within the young church the acceptance of Gentiles as Christians was equally heretical. I need not rehearse the fact that we are all selective in scripture that we choose to be normative (food laws, laws against mixed fabrics, stoning of adulterers and so on seem not to be widely advocated). If all of this is accepted then the exclusion of women from the episcopacy has to be seen as a human construct. If black people were similarly excluded that would be deemed to be racist. Yet we do not need a long memories to know that in South Africa in my life time similar arguments to those being exercised to exclude women were being used to justify Apartheid, a heresy of which, ultimately, the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa repented.
The Methodist Church should defend the place of women in its own ministry and make it clear to the C of E that the Covenant relationship, into which it entered in good faith, is no longer tenable, and neither will it be until the C of E recognises the equality of women without any reserve. In the meantime it should be shown that Methodists are not anti-ecumenical by strengthening relationships with those denominations which demonstrate similar or greater inclusivity.

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