This will be a historic week for English women thanks to the Church of England’s General Synod (which will run from Monday 10 February to Wednesday 12 February). The most controversial item on the agenda for discussion is a fast-track scheme which could make it possible to begin appointing female bishops as early as November of this year. Quite a bit hangs on the outcome of this measure – both for the position of women in the Church, and that of the Church within British society. To put it simply: without women bishops, the Church will lose not only some of its most valuable leadership capacity – it will also lose credibility as a force for justice.
One of the mixed pleasures of reviewing the Synod’s agenda is the discovery of how prominently women feature. Most urgent is a discussion item considering how the Church can use its influence to contribute to the global campaign against gender based violence. Less profound – but deeply interesting to anyone who has noticed how often girls are made to serve as lightning-rods for the power politics of adults – is a discussion item for Wednesday considering whether the C of E should object to a change in policy by the Girl Guides organisation, which has revised its pledge from promising ‘to love my God’ – instead, Guides and Brownies now promise ‘to be true to myself and to develop my beliefs’. (Click here for a lovely account by the vicar Miranda Threlfall-Holmes of her first chance to hear girls actually use the new ‘inclusive’ pledge.)
But of course the ‘big ticket’ item is the women bishops. Prayer chains are forming from San Francisco to Swaziland (where Africa’s first female Anglican bishop, Ellinah Wamukoya, presides) to call on the Holy Spirit to move the Synod – to settle the matter once and for all.
As a historian of early Christianity, I have to say that I find the way these debates are conducted almost unrecognisable. So much of the discussion seems based on a stunning lack of literacy about the nature of Christian communities in the New Testament period – especially debates around the question of ‘whether women bishops are biblical’. (In a previous post I’ve offered a few of my own thoughts on this topic – The Case of the Missing She-Bishop.)
What commentators seem to miss, again and again, is the fact that bishops as we know them are a phenomenon not of the New Testament period but of the eleventh century. The early churches were part of a ‘viral’ movement – not institutions but share-chains and loyalty networks based on friendship, family, inspiration, and idealism. The household-based structures of earliest Christianity – in which women naturally played a central role – form a central theme of my recent book, Band of Angels: The Forgotten World of Early Christian Women.
From the second century, efforts were made to evolve accountability structures that could resolve tensions both within local communities and between leaders of different communities, and it is in this period that the role of the bishop begins a long and very slow journey toward becoming what we moderns would recognise as a role of institutional office. (The main developments took place in the fourth, ninth, eleventh and thirteenth centuries.)
So why does all of this history matter? For two reasons.
First, the fact that to be a ‘bishop’ has meant such very different things across recorded history is actually deeply reassuring. The Church has always been in flux, and always will be. Responding to ‘modern pressures’ is not a betrayal of the Christian tradition, it is the essence of the Christian tradition. If the Church is now being called to a greater witness for social justice, and as a result is moved to admit wise and experienced women to the ranks of its most revered leaders, this is by no means a betrayal of the legacy of the early Church.
Second, it means that we can permit ourselves to focus on the essentials. Once we understand that women’s leadership has always been part of the Christian ‘core’ we can begin a healing process. What can the distinctively feminine traditions of Christianity offer to a Church of England?
If you train your eye to look for what the women were doing, there is quite a bit in the history of Christianity to respond to our seemingly modern problems. There is a tradition of emphasis on peace and reconciliation work that goes back to the second century. At the same time, research by David Voas and others for the British Religion in Numbers Project suggests that the Church of England is in danger of failing altogether to capture the imagination of its youth – and in this context, it can only make sense to celebrate the important and inspiring contribution of women and children across the centuries.