Eight years ago, John Kerry ran for president against then-incumbent George W. Bush. The campaign was seen by many as a referendum on President Bush’s foreign policy, particularly the misguided war in Iraq.
There was just one problem, and it wound up costing Kerry the election.
Kerry, like most Senate Democrats, voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. At the time, President Bush still enjoyed post-9/11 meteoric approval ratings. Democrats were keen not to be labeled “weak” on foreign policy or “soft” on terror. So when the call to arms was sounded, the opposition marched obligingly in step.
By 2004, the public was souring on the ongoing occupation of Iraq, which put candidate Kerry in the awkward position of opposing a war he had once voted to authorize. To many, Kerry’s shifting position on Iraq looked more like political posturing than a principled stand. And for good reason.
Kerry’s ill-fated presidential campaign offers a cautionary tale on to those who would wait to do the right thing until it becomes the socially acceptable thing to do.
It seems the Church of England will have to learn this lesson the hard way. Having narrowly failed to approve women serving as bishops, the CofE found itself the subject of scorn, derision, and intense pressure from all corners. Last week even saw Britain’s conservative prime minister telling the Church to “get with the programme.”
So now, having failed to do the right thing for the right reason, the CofE faces the unenviable prospect of being pressured to do the right thing for all the wrong reasons.
The problem, summarized by N.T. Wright, is that progress isn’t always progress. The Church of England shouldn’t assent to women bishops because David Cameron tells it to or because it’s the sort of thing that social progress demands. It shouldn’t do so in order to salvage its last vestiges of cultural relevance.
The Church should embrace women bishops because Jesus accepted women as fully participating members of his kingdom — long before it was popular or politically correct to do so. Initially, the Church led on matters of equality; it’s only in recent history that it’s been leapfrogged by much of the rest of the world.
In the New Testament, women were the first to announce the resurrection of Jesus — the first to proclaim central message of the kingdom of God. Women were numbered among the apostles and deacons of the early church. To quote N.T. Wright:
All Christian ministry begins with the announcement that Jesus has been raised from the dead. And Jesus entrusted that task, first of all, not to Peter, James, or John, but to Mary Magdalene. Part of the point of the new creation launched at Easter was the transformation of roles and vocations: from Jews-only to worldwide, from monoglot to multilingual, and from male-only leadership to male and female together.
Within a few decades, Paul was sending greetings to friends including an “apostle” called Junia (Romans 16:7). He entrusted that letter to a “deacon” called Phoebe whose work was taking her to Rome. The letter-bearer would normally be the one to read it out to the recipients and explain its contents. The first expositor of Paul’s greatest letter was an ordained travelling businesswoman.
The kingdom of God carries a promise that all the old barriers which divide us will be swept away by the new creation — a new kingdom where all are welcome.
Sometimes it’s taken a while for the Church to give full expression to this ideal. (It took 1,800 years for the abolition of slavery to come about, for example.) Sometimes we’ve lost our way. When that happens, it’s the resurrection we should turn to, so we can be pointed in the right direction again.
Today, the main reason the Church of England should reconsider women bishops isn’t to appease an offended culture but so it may return to the values which Jesus instilled in his Church from the beginning — values which likely helped pave the way for the broader cultural embrace of gender equality.