Last November, the Church of England shocked many watching Christians by voting against allowing female bishops. Justin Welby, the newly named Archbishop of Canterbury, declared it a "very grim day," while Rowan Williams warned that the Church had "lost a measure of credibility," acting "willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society."
Christians across the theological spectrum threw in their opinions, which ranged from perplexed to near despair. Idaho pastor Douglas Wilson, a staunch complementarian, nonetheless confessed that he didn't understand the logic of "affirming the ordination of women priests and opposing them as bishops." Former dean of Duke Chapel Sam Wells, meanwhile, said that when he heard about the vote, he "sat down and wept. I hadn't allowed myself to imagine that this could happen."
The decision prompted much discussion outside the church as well. Most secular voices accused the church of sexism. British prime minister David Cameron said the church's leadership had to get with the times, "to be a modern church, in touch with society, as it is today, and this was a key step they needed to take." Viewing the matter as one of civil rights, some have questioned whether the church is denying these women theirs—namely, the right to assume positions of authority based on skill and not gender.
In the West, where civil liberty is a core value, it is indeed appropriate to consider whether women's ordination is a right. Appropriate, and complex. Whenever Christians draw on the language of rights, particularly as it pertains to the church body, we wade into murky territory.
On the one hand, Christians ...