A truly ‘conservative’ evangelical account of gender and church office
Being a Scottish Baptist, I’ve not had much to say about the debate over whether the Church of England was prepared to allow women as well as men to be bishops (albeit slightly second-class ones); I confess to sadness at the result; I have Anglican friends on both sides of the debate, and knew that someone was going to get hurt, but there was great, perhaps too much, effort made in the measure to protect the integrity of those who would have found a female bishop theologically difficult, whereas the defeat of the measure offers no equivalent care for gifted and called women who feel their humanity being denigrated, or for women and men who find existence in a denomination so resistant to this particular change increasingly difficult. Further, it is so evident that the vast majority of the Church wanted the measure to pass that its being voted down by a small minority in one house looks like a basic failure of process, which has plunged the church into crisis and serious damaged its mission – and the mission of every other Christian church in the UK, given how widely this has been reported.
The press line has been that the measure was voted down by ‘conservative evangelicals,’ who are opposed on Biblical grounds concerning authority to the elevation of women to the episcopate; this is already an over-simplification: it has nothing to say about Anglo-Catholic groups such as Forward in Faith, or indeed to the possibility, heavily trailed in the run-up to the synod, that some supporters of opening the episcopate to women voted against on the grounds that the concessions granted were far too generous. (I have seen no indication of the likely relative strength of these three groups on Synod; I’d be interested if somebody could point me to a credible source.)
I want here to take issue with the term ‘conservative evangelical’. I am aware, of course, that it is the chosen self-denomination of a certain strand of British evangelicalism which is, or has been, variously defined by: opposition to charismatic renewal; a heavy emphasis on the importance of expository preaching; a Calvinistic account of the doctrines of grace; a commitment to a penal substitutionary account of the atonement; a stress on the importance of doctrine in the Christian life – and also a particular view of gender roles in church (and possibly in family – not, unlike the USA, in society). (On this list, I count 67% conservative – enough even to get past the General Synod’s voting bars, just).
The term invites interrogation, however: what does ‘conservative’ mean when qualifying ‘evangelical’? Other than political and technical usages, the meanings in the OED cluster around an aversion to change, and a desire to preserve long-standing/traditional values. Now, we should distinguish between values intrinsic to (British) evangelicalism and values incidental to it; one might have conservative taste in cuisine or clothing, for instance, and also be committed to an evangelical expression of Christianity; a ‘conservative evangelical’ might just be an evangelical who tends to lag behind the times on cultural matters that are largely irrelevant to evangelical faith.
Of my list above, perhaps only ‘opposition to charismatic renewal’ has any chance of being ‘conservative’ in this, ‘incidental,’ sense; the others are all dealing with matters that have been at or near the heart of what it has been to be evangelical, although in most cases in complex ways. Evangelicalism was not initially, and never has been, a monolithically Calvinist movement; evangelicals assumed penal substitution when everyone else did (eighteenth century), and began to question it when everyone else did (c.1810) as well – although our questioning did not lead to the near-universal abandonment of the doctrine that was evident elsewhere…
…the issue on the table, though, is gender, particularly as it applies to fitness for certain ecclesial offices. What does ‘conserving’ an evangelical tradition look like in this area?
I have blogged about evangelical re-orientations of gender before now, but not specifically, I think, about the nineteenth-century evangelical embracing of the ordained ministry of women. The story is a fascinating one: the eighteenth-century revival saw female leaders (obvious e.g., the Countess of Huntingdon) and preachers (e.g., Mary Fletcher, whose call was affirmed by John Wesley), and the early nineteenth century saw some of the new evangelical denominations opening their ministry to women and men indifferently – the Primitive Methodists, for instance. It was the nineteenth-century holiness movement, however, that saw the most significant breakthrough. Whilst holiness teaching can easily be seen as essentially a revival of Wesley’s distinctive teaching on Christian perfection, as an organised movement, it begins in the astonishing ministry of Phoebe Palmer. Palmer was forced to defend her ministry as a highly visible preacher, leader, and evangelist (although when one reads of what God did through her ministry – something like 25 000 converts under her preaching, before we begin to list the works of social transformation, the leadership activities, the theological contribution, … – the idea that her ministry stood in need of ‘defence’ should seem merely incredible). She wrote a book, The Promise of the Father (1859), which reprised an older series of Biblical arguments for the ministry of women, first advanced (to the best of my knowledge) by the remarkable Quaker theologian Margaret Fell in Women’s Speaking Justified (1666). (I don’t know of any evidence that Palmer had read Fell, but the arguments are similar enough that some level of direct or indirect influence seems likely to me).
Palmer did not raise the question of ordination, but her arguments made it inevitable. Catherine Booth was deeply influenced by Palmer, writing a defence of Palmer’s ministry, Female Ministry: Or, A Woman’s Right to Preach the Gospel (1859/1870), that echoed many arguments from The Promise of the Father. Well before Palmer’s death, the question of women’s ordination was raised regularly, and generally supported, in holiness circles. Most of the new holiness denominations founded in the late nineteenth century accepted women and men indifferently into all levels of ecclesiastical office. (As a side note, Palmer began to emphasise the baptism of the Holy Spirit more and more as her ministry went on; I don’t know the history well enough to be sure, but it seems plausible that the general lack of concern about ministers’ gender in the Pentecostal denominations might owe something to her influence.)
As any student of evangelical history knows, the holiness movement was a significant influence for many decades in British evangelicalism. The Keswick Convention was founded (in 1875) to promote Scriptural holiness; conferences on the theme, such as the 1875 Brighton Convention, drew many thousands of clergy (the big draw at Brighton, incidentally, was the preaching of Hannah Whitall Smith). A measure of how lasting this influence was can be seen in the fact that a young Anglican priest criticising holiness teaching (and suggesting a return to Puritan traditions instead) in the pages of the Evangelical Quarterly as late as the 1950s found himself the centre of controversy as a result – his name, incidentally, was J.I. Packer. I think it would be reasonable to suggest that, for several decades around 1900, British evangelicalism was decisively shaped by the holiness movement – a movement that was almost universally, and unreflectively, ‘egalitarian’ in its approach to ordained ministry.
Now, this history should neither be overplayed or underplayed. On the one hand, the evangelical Anglican clergy who flocked to hear Hannah Whitall Smith or other female preachers at Keswick and elsewhere were not generally agitating for the ordination of women in their own denomination; I do not know the history here, and it would be interesting to trace their reasoning, but the fact of the lack of any significant public pressure is fairly clear. Evangelicals in the established church were happy to learn from, and promote the ministry of, women who were ordained, but not to press their own denomination to ordain women. On the other hand, outside of the established church, things did change: both the Baptist Union of Great Britain and the Congregationalist Federation ordained and accredited female ministers in the early 1920s. The history has traditionally been presented as slightly puzzling: there was, apparently, little significant debate in either case. I have heard this explained on the basis of a broad liberalism in the two denominations, such that they unreflectively opened their ministry to women as the professions – law; medicine – were being opened to women after the First World War. This is implausible: there is no doubt that there were liberalising traditions at work, but both denominations had a strong evangelical tradition, and there was no visible dissension to ordaining women from that quarter. The dominance of holiness spirituality, with its tradition of gender equality in ministry, might be – I don’t know any evidence, but it seems a plausible hypothesis to offer – the explanation for this.
Regardless of the rightness of this particular supposition, the fact remains: the dominant tradition of British spirituality from (at least) 1870-1930 was a tradition that was aggressively and counter-culturally positive about the full ministry of women, and about female ordination. This is well established and straightforward historical fact.
In recent – very recent; I suspect the crucial turning point comes in the 1980s – years, there has been a strand of British evangelicalism that has been particularly unhappy with women teaching or exercising authority in the church, and that has tried to elevate that unhappiness into a defining point for the tradition; I do not doubt the sincerity of such people, but I do think honesty should compel them to acknowledge that their position is not ‘conservative’ but profoundly revisionist: it is a direct reversal of a settled and lasting evangelical tradition.
To be a ‘conservative Anglican’ might involve a desire to resist the elevation of women to the episcopate; a ‘conservative evangelical’ however, if words retain any meaning, should necessarily be actively committed to promoting the equal ministry of women and men at every level of church office.