Divine Headship Meets Woman Bishop

by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral

David ison 2

I’ll be taking part later this week in the ceremony at which Bishop Sarah Mullally will become the first woman Bishop of London, 24 years on from the first ordinations of women as priests. Most of us in London are looking forward to working with her in living and sharing the Christian Gospel in this city.

And there’s an opportunity and a challenge here; how to hold together as a diocese in a Church which affirms that women can truly be bishops, and that its members can believe that they can’t.

Anglo-Catholics who don’t accept women as priests or bishops do this because much of the rest of the Church of God  (in particular the Roman Catholic Church) does not: if that church did, however, most of them would. But there’s a particular problem for conservative evangelicals: thus the organisation Reform believes in ‘The unique value of women’s ministry in the local congregation but also the divine order of male headship, which makes the headship of women as priests in charge, incumbents, dignitaries and bishops inappropriate.

I grew up as a Christian in a lively conservative evangelical church on the edge of London, whose vicar is a lovely fellow-member of General Synod for whom I have great respect, who is a long-term member of Reform, which was started in 1993 following the passing of legislation allowing women to be ordained priests. He’s written an article about Reform in this month’s edition of New Directions magazine, on the occasion of Reform’s 25th anniversary.

He and I would (I think) agree on the core message of the Christian gospel, and disagree on some of the ways in which that works out in practice. We would agree on the authority of Scripture, but not on all the ways in which Scripture is interpreted and used. Both of us would regard ourselves as working at being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ our Saviour, and have questions about how the other is doing that. And I want to pose a particular question which this raises, as we move to having a woman bishop in London as a practical reality rather than a theoretical possibility.

In the Reform statement above, it looks like the word inappropriate really means ‘just plain wrong, but we don’t want to make it a resigning matter’.  After all, most clergy can avoid working under the authority of women – until they become their archdeacons or bishops, of course, and in London this will now be a reality for all clergy in the diocese, whether they choose to admit it or not. How they will respond with integrity will be an important test of the Five Principles by which the Church of England has agreed to order its divided life on this issue.

But the phrase that really needs to be questioned here is the divine order of male headship. The use of that adjective divine seems as inappropriate as in the phrase ‘the divine right of kings’.  Referring to a divine order of male headship claims that God has ordained that men will hold authority, headship, over other men and all women, and that this is therefore not a human choice but a divine command.

Remember that people went to their deaths or left the Church of England over the biblically sanctioned doctrine of the Christian monarch being anointed by God as His representative on earth. The Book of Common Prayer still prays for the personal government of the king – or queen, which is curious if divine order requires male headship. But in an age of universal education, when autocratic force has been replaced by democratic government, who now believes in ‘the divine right of kings’? We have to be very cautious about appropriating God inappropriately, to give sanction to human rather than divine will.

Unlike ‘the divine right of kings’, parts of the Church uphold the assertion of the divine order of male headship, leading in some instances to inappropriate conduct in relation to women incumbents and other women clergy, and to the necessity for institutionalised discrimination against them in the name of safeguarding the conscience of others. Women still bear the cost of men insisting that only they should be in authority. And Bishop Sarah in London will have to work with those who will not accept her spiritual authority, on the grounds of divine order, simply because she is a woman.

Those who argue for male headship do so on the grounds of particular scriptures. But note the conclusion of Dr Ian Paul in his 2011 Grove Booklet Women in Authority: The Key Biblical Texts. After looking at the most commonly used verses, he concludes that they do not support the divine order of male headship, but rather that they emphasise the interdependence of men and women in church leadership. He says:  ‘On a personal note, engaging again with these texts has been a challenging and transforming experience for me…. I have been struck afresh by the radically egalitarian and counter-cultural nature of what Scripture says about gender, and the challenge to the church to be constantly reformed and reshaped by Scripture’s perspective, even if that means letting go of cherished traditions of interpretation.’

Reading one booklet doesn’t usually change people’s minds, when their view is supported by a whole tradition of church teaching and practice, though writing the booklet caused Dr Paul to change his. But to call male headship a ‘divine order’ when Scripture is not clear that it is, and when we believe in God who is neither male nor female, is to overstate the case – and is itself inappropriate.   As is disassociating ourselves from our Christian sisters and brothers with whom we disagree.

Dr Paul clearly states that in scripture the issue of headship is different from that of same-sex relationships. But the issue remains of how with regard to that issue, as with headship and in other areas of Christian disagreement, Christians with different views are going to be open to welcome and challenge and transformation of ourselves and each other, unless we engage in depth with one another and refrain from referring to what we currently believe as divine.

There’s a spectrum even of evangelical thinking on these issues, not because some are ‘revisionists’ or ‘liberals’, but because like Dr Paul they have been challenged by Scripture and the Holy Spirit to be re-formed in their thinking, in all sincerity: and understanding that those with different views are still committed disciples of Jesus Christ will help us to listen more closely to what God is saying – to each of us.

All of this is part of the richness and diversity of the Church, where we need each other’s perspectives to be continually semper reformanda, as the New Directions article notes, always reforming, always being renewed by God; as we also need the Catholic emphasis on sacraments and depth of prayer, and the Anglican application of reason.

We need different perspectives because all of us have a view which we think is the right one: a view which is built, not only (and not necessarily) on encounter with God in Scripture and the Spirit, but which is also derived and maintained from a whole range of other sources; from what our parents and friends and teachers thought and think, to our life experience and our cultural context, including our own psychological make-up.

From metrosexual London to rural Africa, all of us need challenging by the understanding and experience of God which our fellow-Christians have to share, and to be enriched by it. But in order to have both challenge and growth, we need to listen to one another, and not live, as we tend, to in separate worlds where people with different views in a diocese or in General Synod don’t have dialogue in depth with each other about what we have in common and why we disagree.

Let’s see if in the Diocese of London it can be different.

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8 Responses to Divine Headship Meets Woman Bishop

  1. Philip Almond says:

    Ian Paul is right about many things but wrong about the ordination of women

    See post Phil Almond August 28, 2014 at 3:42 pm #at:


    and recent disagreement on his website under Gender

    Phil Almond


  2. Stephen says:

    The Five Guiding Principles ensure that ministry based theologically on ‘the divine order of male headship’ is not only tolerated but also flourishes. I’m sure Bishop Sarah will make sure this is the case.


    • David Shepherd says:

      You mean the same five guiding principles which were tossed aside to placate and capitulate to the campaign of harassment that prevented Philip North’s preferment.

      If the intention of those principles was flourishing, then they’re really not worth the paper that they’re written on.


  3. Pingback: Dean of St.Paul’s – ‘Divine Headship’? | Kiwianglo's Blog

  4. David, I think this is very well said, and reasserts the very biblical principle that love, not particular doctrines, is the sign of true discipleship.


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