In the fall of 2005, I was an exchange student from Yale Divinity School to Westcott House, a member of the Cambridge Theological Federation in Cambridge, England. It was quite an awakening for this Lutheran. Despite knowledge of some of the rifts in the Episcopal Church (USA), I had very little awareness or comprehension of the major theological divides in the Church of England. In the wake of the recent decision (11/20/12) by the General Synod of the Church of England not to ordain women as bishops, I have been remembering a specific even of that semester and wondering about the future of that national church body.
During my time in Cambridge, I went to an event sponsored by Women and the Church (WATCH) to hear speakers arguing for the ordination of women bishops. One speaker, whose name is lost to my memory, gave a carefully constructed and passionate speech about baptism and vocation within the church. She noted that if we do not believe women are qualified and gifted by God for leadership at any and all levels, why do we bother to baptize them? I have never forgotten that sentence, which was so stunning that the room was silent for several seconds afterwards.
Even with disparate understandings and beliefs about baptism, most Christians agree that the washing rite reveals God’s claim on an individual and, simultaneously, a welcome of that individual into the corporate work of the church on earth. What happens to that second part when we baptize someone, but tell her that because of her sex organs- the Church will interpret how God is using her? What does it mean to pour the water, make the sign of the cross, and say, “But because of your sex, you’re only fit to carry the cross of Christ this far, in this way, and with these provisions?”
Furthermore, when the Church places provisos for leadership based on sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, race, or other biological circumstance, we presume a kind of certainty and zeal in speaking for God that should make us pause. Throughout history, people have been quick to use the name of God as the seal of approval on whatever preferred course of action needed pursuing. This often occurred through the same kind of biblical gymnastics that still occur today- a little limbo under the inconvenient verses, a vault over the stories that are contradictory, a lovely ribbon-dancing floorshow with the few verses that, out of context, support exactly the argument one is trying to make.
If the Church of England was honest about its history, its theology, and its current struggle to remain relevant in today’s society, perhaps the voting would have gone differently. Perhaps if the space were made for lament over the rifts in the modern church and, in the next breath, prayers for the future were offered, maybe the voting would have gone differently. Maybe if we could point out that shortly after Peter and Andrew left their nets, they were joined by Mary of Magdala, Joanna, and Susanna in following Jesus- we might be able to have the conversation that nothing about the image of ministry or mission in the Bible at all resembles the way most churches and denominations are structured today.
The main conversation that must happen, though, is the one around God’s ability to equip, regardless of biology. Either we believe that the Holy Spirit blows where she wills or we don’t. Either we believe that God is more powerful that human weakness (present in all) or we don’t. Either we believe that Jesus broke down social and gender barriers in community and communion or we don’t. Either we accept our human limitations in comprehending the expansive nature of God’s mercy, call, and creative purposes or we get used to our efforts failing as God says, “Oh, no, you don’t.”
The failure of the General Synod to pass, by just six votes, a measure allowing for the ordination of women as bishops is not a sign of failure on the part of either side. It is a sign that there is a gap between the understanding of the gift of baptism and the Church’s willingness to allow all people to live into that gift. That space creates an unholy chasm into which many gifts will fall and go unused because of the pain in this construction: “You are a child of God, but here’s exactly what that looks like.” When a significant church body, like the Church of England, says to women, “Your skills are useful this far and no further,”- what most women and girls hear is this: “God loves you as you are, but would love you more if you were a man.” If that is the case, why, and into what, are we baptizing women? As they say on the London tube (subway), “Mind the gap, please.”
Julia Seymour is an ordained pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, currently serving a small congregation in Anchorage, Alaska. She lives with her husband of six years, their toddler son, and their middle-aged Labrador retriever. They are expecting another child in January.