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Women Bishops, Sexuality, and When Theology Ignores People: by Andrew Bennison


Announcement and presentation of the new Diocesan Bishop to the Church of England, the Venerable Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester at Harnhill Farm, nr Cirencester.  News; Citizen: 26.03.15. Photos by Anna Lythgoe

Announcement and presentation of the new Diocesan Bishop to the Church of England, the Venerable Rachel Treweek, Bishop of Gloucester at Harnhill Farm, nr Cirencester.
News; Citizen: 26.03.15.
Photos by Anna Lythgoe

Today the first female diocesan bishop in the Church of England, Rachel Treweek, will be consecrated in a service in Canterbury Cathedral. As the most senior female bishop, and the first to sit in the House of Lords, Treweek’s appointment is a landmark moment – a shattering of the ‘stained-glass ceiling’ that has been welcomed with joy by so many women and men in the Church.


Listening to the news on BBC Radio 4 this morning, I found myself reflecting on why female bishops matter so much to me, as a Christian. A few months ago, just before her appointment was announced, I attended an event organised by the Diocese of London at which Rachel Treweek – then Archdeacon of Hackney – was a guest speaker. The theme for the evening was ‘hot topics’, and Rachel reflected generously and diplomatically on how we might approach issues of disagreement within the Church. One comment, above all, stood out for me: questioned on how she would engage with those who oppose women’s ordination, Rachel replied that she would push them, as an ordained woman, to follow through fully the logic of their arguments to their (arguably absurd) conclusions: ‘What you’re really saying is that I’ve not been called to be a priest. I’ve misheard God’. The weakness of an opponent’s argument is thus exposed not by force of counter-argument, or by superior theological understanding, but by forcing it to confront its lived-out, practical implications for ordinary people – a process which soon makes obvious its deficiencies. In other words, the argument is brought up short by its failure to account for lived reality.


Rachel Treweek’s comment reminded me, then, of a point which is too often neglected in our theological disagreements: however carefully and beautifully constructed our theology may be, unless it has purchase on lived reality it will ultimately be deficient. Nowhere is this clearer than in the current fractious debates in the Church over sexuality: even the most beautifully constructed and philosophically coherent conservative theologies – Pope John Paul II’s elegant ‘Theology of the Body’ is a case in point – ultimately fall short, as they fail to account for the complex lived experiences of human beings. A ‘traditional’ view on human sexuality is impossible to maintain when confronted with the powerful witness of gay Christians, whose lives demonstrate so clearly the fruits of a deep commitment to Jesus Christ. Doing theology in isolation from lived experience is thus ultimately a form of idolatry, in which the ‘neatness’ and ‘beauty’ of one’s philosophical or ethical schema is prized over love and attentiveness to human beings.


To make this claim is not of course to argue that theology should simply be the slave of human ‘experience’. Lived experience cannot be the sole basis of theological enquiry; it is always brought into dialogue with the rich witness of Scripture and Christian tradition. But it must have a place. The Cambridge theologian Sarah Coakley has been particularly helpful in drawing attention to this fact: her recent volume of systematic theology, God, Sexuality and the Self, boldly proposes a théologie totale – a methodology in which systematic statements about God emerge from a rich dialogue between Scripture, tradition, culture and human experience (understood through sociological enquiry as well as through prayer). Reading Coakley’s volume, I was struck by the realisation that this is nothing new: Christian theology has always been in dialogue with people’s lives. The doctrine of the Trinity emerged for instance not primarily from intellectual enquiry, but also through the lived experience of prayer and worship. Indeed, we frequently seem to forget that the truth of the New Testament itself is conveyed not principally through written rules and propositional statements, but though conversations and encounters: most obviously, the encounters of Jesus with specific individuals recorded in the gospels, and the encounters of St Paul with emerging Christian communities, made accessible through his letters. Theological thinking ignores lived experience at its peril!


So, as the most senior female bishop is consecrated in the Church of England, I am deeply thankful: thankful firstly for the extraordinary gift of our female priests and bishops. But I am also deeply thankful for the reminder that God’s reality is not abstract and distant, but incarnated in the witness of Rachel Treweek and countless other men and women, whose lives testify to the joyful, mysterious, captivating love of God in Jesus Christ.


Andrew has been generous enough to let us re-blog this post in its entirety from his Musings on Mystery. He describes himself as follows: “History teacher, Christian, identical twin, London-dweller and countryside-lover (among other things). This blog is my attempt to share my experience of the mystery of God, and to create a space for generous conversations.”

It seems particularly fitting, and welcome, to have this blog by a man on the day our first woman diocesan bishop is consecrated. Also being consecrated in Canterbury cathedral today is The Reverend Dame Sarah Mullally – to be consecrated as Bishop of Crediton.



1 comment on this post:

tgflux said...

‘What you’re really saying is that I’ve not been called to be a priest. I’ve misheard God’.

I’ve been saying this for years (and of course, it’s not that they’re saying that just the then-Rev Treweek has misheard God, they’re saying EVERY ORDAINED WOMAN has misheard God!). Good to see this kind of logic in high places. 😉

25 July 2015 05:33

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