In advance of Monday’s vote in Church of England on women in the episcopacy, Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch writes in The Guardian:
For those arguing at the general synod about women bishops, it is probably too late to include much theology in their deliberations, but one prominent strand in the debates has been a theological jargon phrase, calculated as always to baffle outsiders to churchy stuff: the “apostolic succession”. This is the idea that bishops stand in a continuous line of church leaders right back to the apostles chosen by Jesus.
Very often those who oppose opening up the episcopate to another 50% of the human race treat “apostolic succession” as a knockdown argument on their side. All Jesus’s 12 apostles were men, they point out helpfully, therefore all bishops should be men, always, everywhere.
There’s a problem with this argument. Strictly speaking, the 12 apostles were not the 12 apostles: they were the 12, who happened to be apostles. Their chief purpose was to be 12, not apostles – because they were a sign that Jesus was instituting a New Israel with its 12 tribes, as the world drew to its end.
I don’t think that the promoters of an all-male episcopate would wish to say that 21st-century bishops should spend their time proclaiming the imminent end of the world. Apostle simply means messenger and there was and is quite a lot else to say about Jesus than announcing the end of the world. There were other apostles who were not in the 12, some of them chosen directly by Jesus, some not. In the latter category was a man who nevertheless spent a lot of time emphasising that he was an apostle of Jesus, and indeed went on to make something of a splash in Christian history: Paul of Tarsus.
MILESTONES IN CHURCH
February 1987: The Church of England’s general synod passes a motion allowing women to become deacons, but they remain barred from consecrating communion bread and wine.
November 1992 By a margin of only two, the church votes to allow women to become priests.
March 1994 The first 32 women priests are ordained at Bristol Cathedral.
July 2000 Archdeacon Judith Rose puts forward a motion to the synod proposing a theological study of women bishops.
July 2005 The general synod says ‘the process for removing the legal obstacles to the ordination of women to the episcopate should now be set in train’.
July 2012 All but two dioceses have voted in favour of women bishops, but the motion to the synod on Monday faces stiff opposition. In order to pass, it needs two-thirds majorities in each of the synod’s three houses – bishops, clergy and laymen.