Will there be Female Bishops in Heaven?

Two new suffragan bishops have been appointed in the Diocese of Chichester, one of the partner Dioceses of St Augustine’s College of Theology. Ruth Bushyager will be Bishop of Horsham and Will Hazlewood will be Bishop of Lewes. I look forward to meeting and working with them.

The press release of The Society under the patronage of Saint Wilfrid and Saint Hilda, describes Will as a ‘traditional Catholic priest’, by which I assume is meant one who has theological objections to the ordination of women to the priesthood or episcopate. The Chairman of The Society commented, ‘It is wonderful to see the Church of England’s Five Guiding Principles being lived out in this way.’

The ‘Five Guiding Principles’ are those established following the Act of Synod allowing ordination of women to the episcopate in 2014. They include the superficially contradictory principles that:

  • The Church of England is fully and unequivocally committed to all orders of ministry being open to all.
  • Provisions for [those … who, on grounds of theological conviction, are unable to receive the ministry of women bishops or priests] … will be made without specifying a limit of time and in a way that … contributes to mutual flourishing.

It doesn’t take too much deep thought to problematize this juxtaposition, as the study document produced by the Faith and Order Commission (linked above) makes clear. That document is an excellent resource for understanding and responding to the principles. (And for reading them in full; I have abbreviated in order to focus on the elements that feed my discussion below.)

The concept of ‘mutual flourishing’ has not, I think it is fair to say, really taken off in the five years or so since it was established. This was most evident in the reaction to the appointment of Philip North to the see of Sheffield, and his subsequent withdrawal. Following those events, the Archbishops established an ‘Implementation and Dialogue Group’ to review the understanding, implementation and reception of the Five Guiding Principles across the Church of England.

That Group hosted a Colloquium last summer, at which theological educators from a variety of traditions, disciplines and institutions were invited to explore together the theological resources and obstacles to ‘mutual flourishing’. I was amongst their number and had a most enriching and stimulating 24 hours.

Our conversations were wide ranging. We all took the FaOC study document linked above as our starting point. But the directions that we then went in were diverse: we each had a quite distinct approach to the issue. I will mention just a few brief highlights before focusing on one topic in particular.

We talked about the meaning of ‘mutual flourishing’ in the sense of ‘not diminishing others’. This helped to give a bit more grist to the concept. Such a negative definition was matched by the positive model of social Trinity, that is a primary concern for the other. So mutual flourishing is never something to be grasped or demanded, but to be offered, freely, perhaps even at personal cost.

We talked about the practical reality of sharing in the life of the church with those we love and respect and yet with whom we have significant theological differences. Is it really possible to dissociate a pragmatic and genuine loving concern for each other, from latent theological convictions that undermine our identities? At the hard edge of it, does not the breaking of communion at the Eucharist give the lie to the five guiding principles?

The sense of contradiction and quandary was evocatively expressed by one participant who painted the picture of an imaginary person, Tom, who held the opposite view from them on this issue. They commented, ‘I love Tom, after my fashion. But …’ It is when we get down to the specific reality of a real person to whom we relate on a regular basis, that the principles become a locus for serious wrestling.

A key theological theme that emerged from more than angle was that of eschatology. Where will this all end? If we know what it is that we are aiming / waiting for, then it should give us some sense of what is befitting in the interim. This was expressed in my title question as: ‘Will there be female bishops in heaven?’  (Yes, I know there are no ‘female bishops’, only bishops. It was just a whimsical aphorism that we shared at the time.)

Note that ‘in heaven’ here is shorthand for whatever eschatological vision we hold for the end of the age / return of Christ / renewal of creation. It does not imply any particular form of that vision. But it is vital that our understanding of ethics, of ecclesiology (being the church), and of church order, are rooted in that vision for the future. So what avenues does this question open up?

We could start with Matthew 22:23-33 and Jesus’ teaching about resurrection life in which sexual difference might seem to be eliminated. ‘For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven.’ (v.30).  That might lead us to suppose that in the age of redemption, sexual difference is less significant than before (as might Gal. 3:28 ‘no longer male and female’), but the context of Jesus’ response suggests that his comment concerns reproduction (no longer necessary in eternity) rather than human identity. The created identity of humans – male and female, in the image of God (Gen. 1:27) – remains.

What of the church – how is it to be shaped in the light of the future? In the renewal of all things, there will be no distinction between those who are clearly identified with Jesus and anyone else. And the picture of the intimate presence of God with humanity painted in Rev. 21 implies there will be no need for intermediaries or ministers. So will there be a ‘church’ or ‘ministers’ ‘in heaven’? I think the answer is no. That is why NT texts give a fairly fluid picture of church order. Living in an in-between time – the now-and-not-yet of the Kingdom of God – the church is interim and provisional. At its best, it could aspire to point towards what is to come. But may only do so indirectly by any specific detail of its ordering, since it will not exist when that time comes.

So what will remain in Kingdom come? What are the points of continuity? In 1Cor. 13, the Apostle Paul’s exposition of love (traditionally ‘charity’), concludes thus: ‘And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.’ We might note that faith and hope are virtues for the interim, for the now-and-not-yet. Faith will be no more when it is taken over by what is seen. Hope will be fulfilled when what is hoped for arrives. Yet love, the greatest virtue, will endure.

The exposition of love in 1Cor. 13 is well known and is evident in the principles mentioned above of ‘not diminishing others’ and of prioritising the well-being of the other. But as one of my colleagues pointed out, this is no sentimental ideal. Supporting the flourishing of others might involve confronting wrong thinking or harmful behaviour. How this is done is an intractable question, and one that can be well informed by holding before us the vision of where we are headed.

So I don’t think the ‘Will there be female bishops in heaven?’ question provides any easy solutions to the challenges thrown up by a desire for ‘mutual flourishing’. But it does provide a theologically important and helpful framework for thinking those issues through. At the very least, it reminds us of the provisionality of the present age, which might take the heat out of the matter somewhat.

After all the discussion we shared at the Colloquium, and my subsequent reflections, I cannot help thinking that the Five Guiding Principles contain an irreconcilable contradiction. However, I don’t think that makes them ‘wrong’ or unhelpful.  Rather they force us to confront the reality of the situation that we are in. The ongoing negotiation of that reality is what merits our attention, not the quest for a ‘solution’ to the contradiction. And that ongoing negotiation will be well shaped by holding before ourselves constantly the vision of where we are heading, not least in simply reminding us that all that is present is provisional.

From that point of view, the one change to the Principles that I would like to see is this: the phrase ‘without specifying a limit of time’ be changed to ‘until Christ returns’. Let’s keep in mind what it is that we really hope for.

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