The revenge of the liberal laity
On 20th November, the muddled legislation by which women would have been able to become bishops was narrowly defeated by the House of Laity. It was not a decisive vote against women, as much of the media reported (and many Anglicans perceive), but a rejection of the particular fudge proposed, which gave cause for doubt in the minds of both liberals and conservatives. As the Bishop of Durham and the next Archbishop of Canterbury said: “The Church has voted overwhelmingly in favour of the principle. It is a question of finding a way that…is the right way forward.”
For some of the traditionalists, the motion failed to offer adequate protection for their consciences; for the progressives, it sustained a distinct male-female disparity in the episcopacy, rendering women bishops inferior in authority to their male counterparts. But as a result of the Synod vote, a plot is afoot to oust the Chairman of the House of Laity Dr Philip Giddings. There is an unprecedented motion of ‘no confidence’ to be debated next week, and Mr Gavin Oldham sets out his reasons for supporting the move:
Dear friends in Christ,It is curious that one member of the House of Laity should accuse its Chairman of shallow theologising and appeals to proof texts with, err.. shallow theologising and appeals to proof texts. There is a loving veneer and a gloss of generous reason presented in this letter, but an utterly wicked undercurrent which seeks to equate support for a male episcopacy with Nazism (along with advocates of slavery, apartheid and ethnic cleansing). If those who oppose women bishops are the new Nazis, adhering to a ‘destructive ideology of male headship’, His Grace feels fully vindicated in his proposal to remove the laity from the Synod altogether, and for national spiritual and legal authority to be exercised by the clergy and bishops alone, with democracy introduced at a local level under the principle of subsidiarity.
On 18 January the House will be debating a ‘No Confidence’ motion in its Chair, a motion which has arisen directly from the General Synod debate on women bishops in November. I have given my support to the motion being debated, and it is my intention to support the motion on the day unless by the grace of God there is clear evidence of change.
I owe it to my friends in the House who voted against the women bishops’ legislation to explain why I have given my support, and how my views have changed since that day in November. Let me first explain that I have been a member of the General Synod since 1995 representing Oxford diocese: as does Philip Giddings, who I have been fortunate to regard as a friend over these last 17 years. I am also a member of EGGS, as he is and, although I have been a consistent supporter of women bishops, I regard myself very much as an Evangelical, albeit one who places a high importance on the place of reason alongside scripture and tradition.
This is not in any respect a personal issue.
Over the past years my position on women bishops has been to support the maximum provision for those who have found it difficult to accept the change, consistent with the solution being convergent for the Church as opposed to divergent. I explained this position in July 2012 at the meeting of the House which took place before General Synod. I have never been prepared to contemplate a solution which could evolve into a schism.
However my position has hardened considerably since the November debate, as I have come to realise that it is the destructive ideology of male headship which lies at the root of our problems.
Our deadlock over women bishops has, of course, resulted from a combination of Anglo-Catholic and conservative Evangelical opposition. The Anglo-Catholics naturally look to Rome for a lead, and while Rome might prefer to see a clear resolution of the matter within the Church of England, it is not about to give that lead.
However it is the concept of male headship, espoused by many of my Evangelical friends as theology, which presents the major problem: as was clear from speech after speech during our debate. For while valid questions may have been asked about the representative quality of the House of Laity in the General Synod, the Church should – and does – acknowledge the vibrancy and growth of Evangelical churches which have so much to offer. This vibrancy is not dependent on the adoption of male headship ideology by conservative Evangelicals, but on the working of the Holy Spirit through people of faith.
I have come to realise since the November debate that male headship is to be seen alongside a number of similar major historical issues where prejudice and discrimination have been justified by selected biblical references. These include slavery, national socialism, apartheid and ethnic cleansing. Male headship has its roots in the same soil of prejudice and discrimination. It is another elitist creed which, in my view, has no place in the Church of England, nor indeed in the Christian faith.
It may be helpful to consider these selected biblical references through the filter of the two great commandments from which hang all the law and the prophets. For example, how can a man who is a male headship advocate claim to ‘love his neighbour as himself’ if he is not prepared to accept that she can carry the same roles within the church? Obviously it can’t be ‘as himself’, or perhaps he is denying that women are his neighbours by virtue of their gender? I don’t think Jesus was making that distinction.
The Bishop of Liverpool spoke clearly in the debate setting out how he had come to understand St. Paul’s teaching, and why it should not be used as a prop for male headship ideology. The bishops are the seat of theology within the Church, and I do feel that conservative Evangelicals should listen carefully to, and be prepared to accept, what they say.
The ideology of male headship has come to have assumed the status of doctrine, but even doctrine is shown as capable of change from a biblical perspective. St Peter was clearly of the doctrinal view that the Gospel was meant only for the Jews, and yet his vision at Cornelius’ house (Acts 10) made clear that he must change. And thank God that he did, because otherwise we would not have the opportunity to receive Christ’s salvation today.
So I have come to realise that male headship ideology must be confronted and not appeased, just in the same way that St. Peter confronted his erstwhile interpretation that the Christian faith was reserved for the Jews. Male headship is simply the latest in a long line of elitist creeds, and it is time to consign it to history, as with the others.
Finally, let me say again that the 18 January debate is not personal: it is about the integrity of the House of Laity. Nobody will be more delighted than me to see Philip being prepared to encourage Evangelicals to pursue their zeal for Christ unencumbered with elitist ideology. With best wishes
It is a shame and cause of great sorrow that someone purporting to represent the progressive liberal wing of the debate on women bishops should seek to smear a traditionalist (who voted in favour of women priests) with the same spirit of extremism which leads to torture, mass murder and war. Biblical literacy is not enhanced by hyperbole: Gavin Oldham is manifestly declaring that those who place obedience to Scripture and Church tradition above progressive reason are influenced by the same evil which leads to human atrocities and appalling maltreatment. What must his view be of the Roman Catholic Church itself if Anglo-Catholics and many Evangelicals are unable to discern such evil?
Mr Oldham desires that the laity should have more influence in the church. In fact, he makes the case for less. His support for the motion against Dr Giddings is based upon nothing more than his desire to lap up everything the heterodox bishops command. The orthodox view is thereby further marginalised, and great swathes of the Anglican family alienated. If this motion succeeds, it will establish beyond doubt that the General Synod is not fit for purpose.
By all credible and meaningful accounts, he is manifestly worthy of the office he holds. The ‘no confidence’ motion is apparently nothing but a crude and cruel vengeance; an act of retribution for ‘thwarting’ the combined wills of the House of Bishops and the House of Clergy, as though those members of the laity who rejected the motion were incapable of discerning for themselves and, like children, were led astray by Dr Giddings' charismatic (but evil) 'ideology'.
It is not Philip Giddings who is damaging the credibility of the Church of England, but aggressive reformists who seek to fill old wineskins with Coca Cola, and those progressive extremists who view orthodox Christian teaching as a breath away from Nazism or apartheid. To scapegoat Dr Giddings over this matter would be a grave injustice, for he represents the conscience of many millions of traditionalist Anglicans, and the Church of England would be impoverished without his contribution to national life.
If he is forced out next week, the precedent set would be quite an extraordinary one – that if any believer should dare even sympathise with those who seek to uphold the historic orthodox catholic teachings of the Church, they are showing themselves ineligible, unsuitable or, in the final analysis, too extremist to hold office within the Church of England. The via media thereby ends, and schism swiftly follows. We must find a prayerful, honourable and holy way forward, in the love, peace and unity of Christ.