Rowan Williams on women bishops

Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams on the theological anomaly of refusing to ordain women bishops in the Anglican Communion:

As Anglicans we believe that there is one priesthood and one only in the Church, and that is the priesthood of Jesus Christ – his eternal offering of himself, crucified, risen and ascended, to the Father to secure everlasting “covenanted” peace between heaven and earth. To live as “very members incorporate in his Body” on earth is to be alive with his Spirit and so to be taken up in his action of praise and self-offering so that we may reflect something of it in our lives and relationships. To recall the Church to its true character in this connection, God calls individuals to gather the community, animate its worship and preside at its sacramental acts, where we learn afresh who we are. The priestly calling of all who are in Christ is thus focused in particular lives lived in service to the community and its well-being, integrity and holiness – lives that express in visible and symbolic terms the calling of a “priestly people.”

The commitment of most Anglicans to the ordained ministry of women rests on the conviction that what I have just summarised makes it inconsistent to exclude in principle any baptised person from the possibility of ordained ministry. And to take the further step of advocating the ordination or consecration of women as bishops is to recognise that the public role of embodying the priestly vocation of the Church can’t be subdivided into self-contained jobs, but is in some sense organically unified, in time and space. Ordained ministry is one connected reality, realised in diverse ways. The earliest Christian generations reserved the Latin and Greek words for “priest” to refer to bishops, because they saw bishops as the human source and focus for this ministry of reminding the Church of what it is. The idea that there is a class of presbyters (or indeed deacons) who cannot be bishops is an odd one in this context, and one that is hard to rationalise exclusively on biblical or patristic grounds.

If that is correct, a Church that ordains women as priests but not as bishops is stuck with a real anomaly, one which introduces an unclarity into what we are saying about baptism and about the absorption of the Church in the priestly self-giving of Jesus Christ. Wanting to move beyond this anomaly is not a sign of giving in to secular egalitarianism – though we must be honest and admit that without secular feminism we might never have seen the urgency of this or the inconsistency of our previous position.

Rectifying the anomaly is, we believe, good news in a range of ways. It is good news for women, who are at last assured in more than words alone that their baptismal relationship with Jesus Christ is not different from or inferior to that of men as regards their fitness for public ministry exercised in Christ’s name and power. It is good news for men, who may now receive more freely the spiritual gifts God gives to women because women are recognised among those who can at every level animate and inspire the Church in their presidency at worship – and so it is good news for the whole Church, in the liberating of fresh gifts for all. It is good news for the world we live in, which needs the unequivocal affirmation of a dignity given equally to all by God in creation and redemption – and can now, we hope, see more clearly that the Church is not speaking a language completely remote from its own most generous and just instincts.

“A priestly people: Women bishops and the unity of the Church” (ABC Religion & Ethics)

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