Bishops (female) in the Church of England: II.

by Elias Blum

The ‘Church of England’ decided earlier this year to allow the appointment of women as bishops. Effect has now been given to this decision through the appointment of Elizabeth Lane to the Suffragan See of Stockport.

As far as it goes, this is a mildly encouraging development. It shows that the two conservative wings of the church – a motley alliance of fundamentalist evangelicals and conservative Anglo-Catholics* – have had to give way (if only a bit, only on grounds of pragmatism, and only under political pressure) to the moderately liberalish ‘More Tea Vicar?’ centre-ground.

Yet, although I heartily welcome and embrace the idea that Christian leadership does not require the possession of a penis, this decision bothers me. In as much as Scotland remains (for the time being and for the foreseeable future) a part of the United Kingdom, what bothers me is not whether or not there are female bishops, but the very notion of having a Church of England as an established church in our non-constitutional monarchic state, with reserved seats in the Westminster Parliament and a privileged  role in education and public life.

Yes, the Church of England’s decision to admit female bishops is a good thing, but it does not make up for the sorry fact that there are male bishops, and a so-called ‘Church of England’, in the first place.

For me, this is a matter of both religious as well as democratic principle.

Jesus subverted both kingship and priesthood: we are all our own and each other’s priests; and there is no king on earth equal to the royal prince of love that reigns in our hearts.  In spite of this, the mitred ones have impressed themselves on the timid consciences of their fellow men, for the advancement of their own wealth pride, power and position. This is a betrayal of the egalitarian, democratic and voluntaristic principles of the Jesus-movement.

In objecting to bishops, I mean also to object to all those  cunning conjurors who pretend to special spiritual authority or priestly powers. Every trace of simony and priestcraft must be thrown down – whether the culprit lives in an Archbishop’s palace or a televangelist’s Californian mansion.

Instead, let those people who have  freely chosen to follow the Way of Jesus, by the promptings of the Holy Spirit, which is the enlightened conscience, peaceably gather together where they will. These local gatherings are the only church, and, while each is part of the universal church – which consists of all who choose and resolve to follow the Way of Jesus – each is entire and complete in itself. Let each local church freely elect from amongst its members such as are learned, wise and virtuous – regardless of their gender – and let them be elders, preachers, pastors and counsellors. These officers are not to rule or dominate, but to guide and to reflect; they must not claim sole or predominant voice, but should encourage everyone to use their gifts and follow their callings.

Neither should church-officers they be paid, as if piety were a trade, and religion a rent-charge upon the people. A paid clergy is the root of all corruption and dishonesty in religion: once it is admitted, there will be no end to inquisitions, lies, tithes, heretic-burnings and crusades. A paid clergy gives a class of men (and women), who must live by their religious functions, a stake in hiding, rather than in striving to discover and reveal, the truths of God and Nature. It encourages them to confuse, rather than to enlighten, the minds of their fellows (for it is only by creating imaginary notions, fears, and doctrines, hells and punishments, and then by selling imaginary relief, that these people can maintain their trade).

Finally, while church officers can have authority over all matters of practice and organisation in the local church (subject always to the consent and approval of the whole congregation, deliberating freely and deciding), authority over all matters of faith, and all speculative matters of belief, must be left to the conscience of each individual – for no one can believe or accept anything which is not agreeable to their own reason and understanding.

When this is done, and when the whole vain and corrupt hierarchy is swept away in the great levelling work of Christ’s Spirit – when the last shall be first and the first shall be last – then all the nit-picking arguments about female bishops will cease.

* In normal circumstances, of course, these two groups wouldn’t even speak:  the evangelicals would look askance at the vain ceremonies, mumblings, cringings and kneelings of the Anglo-Catholics, while the Anglo-Catholics would dismiss the evangelicals as boorish puritans who wouldn’t know what to do with a thurible if it hit them in the face. But they can both be condescending to the women and hate on the gays, so that gives them something in common.