A bluffer’s guide to the opponents of female bishops and a proposed solution

One of the peculiar aspects of the opposition within the Church of England (CofE) to women becoming bishops is that it comes from two distinct groups with almost nothing in common. In the red corner, there are the conservative evangelicals. They believe (more or less) that the Bible says women shouldn’t have authority over men. In the blue corner, there are the anglo-catholics. Their objection, by contrast, is that women can’t perform the functions of a bishop.

In terms of winning them over and ensuring that these groups won’t scupper any legislation making women bishops, the evangelicals are mostly quite easy to deal with. Give them some sort of alternative line of command that doesn’t include any women, and they’ll be pretty content. It’s an awkward compromise, but it would smooth the path until they came to terms with reality, or at least caught up with the 20th century, never mind the 21st.

The anglo-catholics are harder to please. Their main concern isn’t authority or teaching, but ontology. They set great store by the Apostolic Succession, a pious fiction that there’s been an unbroken line from Jesus through his apostles to the present day episcopate, and they believe that something changes when bishops are consecrated. They also believe that this change depends on possession of a Y chromosome, and that it affects everything you do.

What that means is that you can’t just offer them a man as an alternative bishop – it could only be men who were properly ordained and consecrated by men, who were properly ordained/consecrated by men, and so on, and so on. It’s a theology of taint, based on a version of the “one drop” rule, and it means that entirely parallel structures would be needed to satisfy them in the event of women being ordained bishops.

That would be a strange and self-defeating sort of equality, so I’ve got an alternative suggestion. They can have everything their own way if (and only if) they can correctly identify in a blinded test whether clergy have been validly ordained by a proper male bishop. They can use any means they like, subject to the sort of conditions you’d expect from Randi’s Million Dollar Challenge, but they must be able to tell the difference, which will also verify that they can reliably tell whether the line has previously been broken.

Of course, they won’t be able to do any such thing. There’s no actual difference based on how or by whom people are ordained. You can’t tell the difference between bread and wine that were consecrated by a man or a woman (or not at all, for that matter). They don’t even have any reason to believe that the Apostolic Succession they’re so desperate to preserve wasn’t ended centuries ago in just one irregular ritual.

It’s one thing to play these semantic games and believe entirely unprovable (and frankly bizarre) things because you think they’re appropriate – I’d disagree, but people believe stranger things. It’s an entirely different matter when you put this hypothesis, conjecture and plain invention ahead of real people. They’re perpetuating inequality and threatening to tear the church apart over something they might as well have made up yesterday.

If they want special consideration for their discriminatory beliefs, the very least they should do is to provide some sort of evidence that those beliefs are actually true. If they can’t do that, I struggle to have much sympathy for them, and I suggest it’s a good reason not to waste time trying to satisfy their requirements.

Photos by Northfielder and jakeliefer, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0

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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

2 responses to “A bluffer’s guide to the opponents of female bishops and a proposed solution”

  1. jonnyscaramanga says :

    But… but… if you start checking for evidence of whether your beliefs are true, you’re on a slippery slope indeed. Whatever next? Forensic analysis of the vomit of someone who’s recently taken part in Holy Mass, looking for evidence of human flesh? Actually taking notice of the results of the blinded prayer studies that have already happened? Checking the historical accuracy of the Gospels against contemporary historic and archaeological evidence?


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