This week’s debate: Should women in the church be ordained as priests and bishops?

St Helen Marr pulpit
St Helen Marr pulpit

Rev Sue Hammersley, St Mark’s Church, Broomhill

As the first female Vicar of a large and vibrant Church in Sheffield, my answer is a resounding yes.

I was ordained priest in Ecclesfield Parish Church in 2008 and I believe passionately that women and men should have equal opportunities to fulfil every role within the Church.

Rev Sue Hammersley

Rev Sue Hammersley

I have heard some say that if God had meant women to be priests then Jesus would have chosen women as disciples.

But when I read the Bible I see all kinds of women playing hugely significant roles, even among the disciples of Jesus.

One of the many Marys in the Gospels sat at Jesus’ feet to learn from him, an attitude adopted by the disciple of a rabbi.

Surely the women should have been preparing the food, as her sister Martha was quick to point out, but Jesus supports Mary, saying that she is doing the right thing.

Julian Mann, vicar of Oughtibridge

Julian Mann, vicar of Oughtibridge

It can be very hard for women to believe in themselves but Jesus valued women and men together.

Another Mary is described in the Bible as being so ill that she was rejected by society.

But Jesus challenged that and she accompanied him throughout his ministry.

She is named in all four Gospels as being the first witness to his resurrection - the risen Jesus trusts a woman to tell the men!

Keith Hebden

Keith Hebden

It’s worth noting that Jesus didn’t actually ordain anyone.

Nor did he make it clear how the Church was to go about this.

He called disciples to learn from him what it means to love God and love one another.

In so many ways women priests continue this vital ministry of serving others and gently changing the church from the inside.

Gill Newton

Gill Newton

Throughout history women have played an active part in the ministry of the Church, but it took the Church of England until 1994 to ordain women as priests, and another 20 years before they could become bishops.

Some might say that the church is institutionally sexist.

In which case ordained women in the Church of England are, by their very presence, subversive.

I couldn’t possibly comment!

‘Men are called with a particular gift to teach’

Rev Julian Mann, Parish Church of the Ascension, Oughtibridge

If God had intended women to be ordained, surely he would have ensured that Judas’s replacement as one of the 12 original Apostles (divinely sent messengers) of Jesus Christ was a female eyewitness of his resurrection, such as Mary Magdalene?

But the early Christian Church gathered in Jerusalem in the 1st Century AD, led by the Apostle Peter, put forward two male candidates to replace Judas, with St Matthias being chosen by lot. This is recorded in chapter 1 of the Acts of the Apostles.

Were these first Christians people of their time imprisoned in their cultural prejudices, or were they led by God’s Holy Spirit? I believe the latter and that this decision by the early Church formed the basis for the male preachers whom the Apostles subsequently ordained.

Does this mean that women are second class members of the Church? Certainly not. Christian women are equal with men as heirs of eternal salvation. The Apostle Paul made that crystal clear when he wrote in the New Testament that ‘there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you - Christian people - are all one in Christ Jesus.

Male and female Christians are saved on the same basis.

But within the Church men and women have complementary roles with God calling men with a particular gift to teach the Bible to congregational leadership. Witness Paul’s first New Testament letter to the man he ordained to oversee the churches in the Ephesus region, Timothy.

Such an idea may not be fashionable or politically correct. But isn’t the Church supposed to be counter-cultural when the Bible leads in a different direction from prevailing social norms?

‘No-one should be treated second-class’

Keith Hebden, director, Urban Theology Unit, Sheffield

If you ask my nine-year-old daughter, she will tell you: “The only thing boys can do that girls can’t do is pee standing up, and they aren’t even very good at that.”

She has since found out about the she-wee, a device that brings greater equality of the sexes. My daughter also knows that there’s still much to be done to smash the patriarchy but she’s on the right track.

There is no question, in the Church of England, whether ordination being a bishop should be open to both men and women.

That question was answered, in principle, in 1975 at General Synod.

In the last 41 years, the Church of England has tried to put into practice what it corporately believes and affirms without losing the ministry of those who disagree or even oppose.

A minority believe women should be bishops but, for the sake of unity, would like to wait until the Roman Catholic Church agrees.

Jesus is likely to return before that happens so the Church of England has decided that they’ve more than long enough to get back to the ancient practice of ordaining both men and women as bishops.

Last week I was chatting with an academic who has written up some research on the way women in ministry, in the Methodist Church and the Church of England, are treated.

Spoiler alert: it’s appalling.

The reality is that there are plenty of senior church leaders who champion women bishops but are no less the sexist bullies for it.

We have the she-wee and the pointy hat (you know, that bishops wear). Yet we still have a long way to go if we are all going to stand up for a world where no one is treated as second class on the basis of their sex.

The agreed position of the Church of England is that we are made in God’s image – all of us – and the full inclusion of women and intersex people in hold orders should express that in the church.

And if the Church doesn’t make it happen I know a nine-year-old who will.

‘There is no rule on who is able to lead’

Rev Gill Newton, Chair of Sheffield Methodist District

In a word, yes. When writing to the church in Galatia, Paul reminds us that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”

And on the day of Pentecost, the words of the prophet Joel were fulfilled; “I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams. Even on my servants, both men and women, I will pour out my spirit in those days and they will prophesy.”

So, in terms of who receives which gifts or who exercises which ministry, it seems there’s no distinction between men and women in scripture. Every leader is a unique mixture of gifts and skills, embodying a complex combination of masculine and feminine traits.

Recent research suggests that women in leadership often place emphasis on some of the following:

n Relationships, leading to greater collaboration and a desire to achieve consensus, so that decisions made are not harmful to others

n Pastoral sensitivity recognising the demands placed on individuals from every aspect of life

n A willingness to be vulnerable empowering others to be honest and share their stories

n Long term views encouraging team building, patience and the ability to endure when the going gets tough.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that such qualities are never found in male leaders, because we’re all a complex mix of masculine and feminine traits.

However, it does remind us that the nature of God is reflected in both male and female and that one of the ways in which the church can portray that nature and what it means to be fully human, is to allow men and women to be in leadership together, valuing the distinct gifts and qualities which each brings to the life of the church.