It is a curious thing to consider that the Rt Rev’d Libby Lane is not only the first woman to receive a bishop’s crosier in five centuries of the Church of England; she is also the first women to be consecrated bishop in the 1000-year history of York Minister. The new Bishop of Stockport said:
“My consecration service is not really about me. With echoes of practice which has been in place for hundreds of years in the church, it is a reminder that what I am about to embark on is shared by the bishops around me, by those who have gone before me and those who will come after. It places the ministry of a bishop in the context of the ministry of all God’s people. And most importantly it retells the good news of Jesus, the faithful one, who calls each of us to follow him.”
Thousands rejoiced and gave thanks for this innovation. As the Bishop of Chester the Rt Revd Dr Peter Forster said, it is “a natural and normal development” in a church that changes “in a progressive but properly patient way”.
But there was one jarring note of dissonance. When the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu asked the assembled congregation if it was their will that Libby Lane should be consecrated bishop, a man came forward and declared that it was “not in the Bible”. He then muttered something about there being an “absolute impediment” before scuttling off toward the nearest transept.
There are undoubtedly clear ethical and ecclesial complexities in how best to apply millennia-old biblical teachings to modern society, and the Church of England has never shied away from doctrinal adaptation and liturgical adoption in order to forge a via media, even when such adaptation has brought it to the point of schism, and such adoption generated scorn and contempt from those who contend that the Church of England is counterfeit, and that Anglicanism a shallow corruption of true ecclesiology.
In The Community of Christian Character, Stanley Hauerwas articulates the traditional ‘high-church’ Anglo-Catholic belief that textual meaning is knowable only to those who participate in community, because only the Church “is capable of hearing the story of God we find in the scripture and living in a manner that is faithful to the story”. Thus readings of Scripture outside the context of the Church will merely underwrite the ideology of a politics concerned with individualism or self-indulgence.
But the ‘low-church’ wing of the Church of England tends toward the traditional Protestant idea that Scripture may challenge tradition, and individuals may seek scriptural enlightenment through discipleship and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. On the issue of women bishops – as in so many other matters – the Church of England has been torn between, on the one hand, rendering the biblical teaching irrelevant by emphasising the change in and uniqueness of contemporary society, and on the other, insisting that the Old or New Testament speaks to every circumstance, ignoring or refusing to acknowledge societal change.
The man who interrupted the consecration of the Church of England’s first woman bishop did so on the basis that women bishops are “not in the Bible”. One wonders if he is remotely aware of how so very much more Anglican ecclesiology is “not in the Bible”. Richard Hays, in his book The Moral Vision of the New Testament, observes: “No matter how seriously the church may take the authority of the Bible, the slogan of sola scriptura is both conceptually and practically untenable.” And this must be true, for it is simply not possible to read and interpret Scripture apart from one’s own psyche, upbringing, education or the contemporary social context: we bring to each verse our own baggage of intellectual limitations, historical ignorance and emotional or spiritual deficiencies. And since we already have male bishops who prefer to scoff at those who disagree with them and lord it over their flocks rather than serve with humility; and since we have long had male bishops who preach heresy and cynically foment rebellion and division, the gender of the bishop might appear to be a secondary if not utterly peripheral issue.
Is it not preferable to be led by a God-fearing and faithful woman than a sneering, self-obsessed and heretically-inclined man? And that is not to say that a woman may be any less inclined to faithlessness or heresy, but time and again in Scripture the Lord raises up women to lead where the men have failed. Might He not audaciously do so again?
This is not so much about creating greater equality between the sexes in the Church of England, though today’s consecration certainly moves toward that end. It is about sensitivity to tradition in a world of constant change. By consecrating women as bishops while allowing space for those parishes that wish to continue under the authority of a male bishop to do so, we arrive at one of those gloriously Anglican viae mediae. The principal dissenters now are those who zealously insist that the legislation does not grant a female bishop full authority in her own diocese, and so there is no gender parity to speak of and so no true equality at all.
But such people tend to be more obsessed with their own opinion than with the gospel of Christ and the salvation of souls. Women bishops are indeed a natural and normal development, and – whether or not you agree – Bishop Libby has been consecrated in accordance with Church of England’s Canon Law, by the will of the General Synod and with the assent of The Supreme Governor. She needs our prayers; not contempt, censure or scorn.