The fact that this debate has been going on in some form or other since at least 1988 when the first woman was elected a bishop in America and no one burst into flames then is neither here nor there. Legislation after legislation has been drafted, some which catered to those vocal Christians who find the idea of a woman bishop repugnant. However it was agreed anything that created a two-tier episcopate should be avoided. So far, so Jesus.
It is often believed women get rather a raw deal in religion (unless you’re a Kahloist, I suppose, then you get a bitchin’ deal but you are yet to be counted amongst World Religions). With rules about appropriate dress, hair and menstruation, places where they can and can’t sit, who they can talk to and even who they can touch or pass things to it is a wonder women across the world don’t collectively yell: ‘to heck with it, the men can go to Heaven, more earth for us lady-heathens’. The raw deal thing must simply not be true.
Most of it comes from indecision over the status of women. Are they clean or dirty? Mother or temptress? Tender hearted or sly? Stupid or incapacitated? Even though religious teachers seem happy for men to straddle personality divides such as warmongering and sensitive, passionate and pacifist, adulterous and faithful, it really would be preferable if women could just pick a side and stay there. Provided it’s not the pulpit.
Dr Rowan Williams' words apparently in support of women were telling in themselves: "We need the 'humanising' presence of women in the House of Bishops". That could be interpreted to be saying women's compassion would be invaluable to the House of Bishops, or a woman's touch with the flower arrangements would be nice. But to me it seems to imply women and their many flaws might make our Christ-like male bishops more approachable. The bishop equivalent of a politician adopting glottal stops.
The most categorical religious teachings I could find regarding women and ordination came from Buddhist texts (I invite you to correct me if I'm mistaken). Buddha refused to ordain women. He believed allowing women into the sangha would cause his teachings to be forgotten in a very specific 500 years. It was his cousin Ananda who forced Buddha to admit women could realise enlightenment and enter Nirvana.
There are several contradictory teachings in Buddhism (a habit of religious texts), concerning gender. To enter Nirvana a woman must be reborn as a man, but another teaching suggests gender is not real and therefore is not important. However, even now a Buddhist nun is inferior to even the youngest Buddhist monk.
Within Christianity and the Bible although there are many stories of women, there is nothing that expressly forbids the ordination of women. The Old Testament holds various verses that can be interpreted in favour of equality. In Numbers: 27 Moses brings the case of Zelophehad, who had died in the desert leaving only daughters who demanded their inheritance before the Lord; the Lord said: “What Zelophehad’s daughters are saying is right. You must certainly give them property as an inheritance among their father’s relatives and give their father’s inheritance over to them.”
If you want a less grabby Old Testament lady for your woman bishop justification you could skip over to Judges:4 and read about Deborah the prophetess. Deborah instructed Barak to lead an army to Mount Tabor, he insisted she accompany him and Deborah rather marvellously replied Judges 4:9-10 “I will go with you. But because of the way you are going about this, the honour will not be yours, for the Lord will hand Sisera [a Canaan commander] over to a woman.” Sisera was handed over to a woman, Jael, who drove a tent peg into his temple. Rah.
If you don’t like your prophetesses so active for the female bishop argument, how about Huldah? In 2 Kings:14 on finding the Book of the Law in the temple it is the prophetess Huldah who is sought to explain the text to Josiah’s high priest.
Looking for New Testament women? In a single letter in Romans Paul mentions 10 (on my count – I might be a bit iffy on the names) women, praising them all for their dedication to Christ. Most interestingly Paul writes: “I commend to you our sister Phoebe, a servant of the church of Cenchrea. I ask you to receive her in the Lord in a way worthy of the saints and to give her any help she may need from you, for she has been a great help to many people, including me.” (Romans 16:1-2) Indicating Phoebe has been sent to preach.
Also mentioned in the same letter is Junia, who is casually name-dropped by Paul as an apostle. Junia has frequently suffered sex changes throughout the years at the hands of popes and other church leaders, being listed as the much more convenient Junias every now and again.
Another woman preacher in the bible is Priscilla, who Paul says risked her life for him. In Acts:18 a Jew called Apollos, who is described as having thorough knowledge of the scriptures, accepts teaching from Priscilla and her husband Aquila about Christ. Oh it's all very Vicar of Dibley. This suggests women preachers were not particularly unusual or upsetting to anybody during this period.
In fact in Matthew 28:10 Jesus instructs Mary Magdalene and ‘the other Mary’ (that is how she is honestly described in Matthew 28:1 in the NIV version, not how Jesus addressed her) to “Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.”
According to the New Testament it is a former prostitute and a superfluous Mary who the risen Jesus chooses meet first. Not the all male disciples, who are commanded by the women to go to Galilee. Which kind of makes women the first evangelists. Which rather makes them good candidates for bishops, no?
To take the argument based on the disciples’ maleness being an explicit endorsement by Jesus of an exclusively male priesthood means that you should also take on the argument that all priests must be born Jewish, as were the disciples. To counter maybe you would like to quote Galatians 3:28 [In Christ] “there is neither Jew nor Greek”. However, rather uncomfortably that’s not quite the end of the verse: “slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
Which I can’t help but feel rather scuppers the argument against female bishops...