Sarah Coakley on Women Bishops

Sarah Coakley, the Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity at Cambridge, has written an insightful theological critique of the measure that went down to defeat this week. She contends that the vote against women bishops was a vote for theological incoherency. She made the argument to the House of Bishops earlier this year. It consisted of three main points:

  • we cannot compromise on the historic theology of the bishop as locus of unity;
  • we must return afresh to our distinctively Anglican notions of reason and tradition to solve this crisis, not lapse into rational incoherence; and
  • we must resist in the Church the supervenience of bureaucratic thinking (with all its busy political pragmatism) over theological and spiritual seriousness.

So what we have created in the past twenty years is a theological anomaly which has insidiously been made to seem normal: a whole cadre of priests – a third of our priesthood now – who are supposedly intrinsically disabled from exercising the charisms of spiritual unity and authority historically associated with the episcopate. It is here that the main theological scandal still lies: the implicit creation and normalization of second-class priesthood. The terrible danger is that this may now be extended into second-class episcopacy.

She appeals to Hooker:

First, the status and place of reason in the Anglican hierarchy of theological criteria acts, or should act, as a point of resistance to any forms of theological compromise which are actually contradictory: p and not-p simply cannot co-exist in such a framework. Thus, one cannot simultaneously hold what might be seen as a Donatist theology of taint in relation to women priests or bishops, and an Augustinian theology of objectively valid sacramental orders, and hope to maintain a coherent theology of the church. When provisions are made for those who disagree within the Church, then, it cannot be on the basis of such an actual internal contradiction – or else our beloved Church of England will indeed have finally lost her reason.

On the other hand, and secondly, however, Hooker’s perspective does indeed allow for novelties in the rational reception of Bible and tradition: the plastic nature of Hooker’s conception of reason, and its deep understanding of historical embeddedness, does allow for creative development in response to the primacy of Scriptural authority and the deposit of tradition, without the danger of a merely historical or moral relativism. There is nothing in Hooker, then, that would give credence to the slogan that “nothing new is ever true.” But there is everything to suggest the possibility of hopes for future creativity and renewal.

Her points about “theological incoherence” and the “supervenience of bureaucratic thinking over theological and spiritual seriousness” should be considered by the Episcopal Church as we deal with divisive issues as well. Where have we allowed compromise to get in the way of serious and difficult theological work.

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