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22 November 2012

Women bishops, disagreement and division

Personally, I think women should be able to hold all forms of leadership within the Church. It's a view I came to a number of years ago through reflection, debate and biblical study.

And contrary to what reports in the press might have you think, the majority of evangelicals believe this too. In 2010, we surveyed more than 17,000 evangelical Christians and found that 71 per cent thought that women should be eligible for all roles within the Church. So do the most senior evangelicals within the Church of England – the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and the next Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

They are leaders of a Church who hold a view about women in leadership, but are committed to bringing the whole Church together, as it seeks to take its next steps after this week's vote at General Synod stopped women becoming bishops. I don't envy their responsibility in the coming months and years. They have a tough job and they need our prayer and support.

The Evangelical Alliance also includes many churches that hold the opposite view to my own. They, too, have come to this opinion by studying the Bible. They believe that men and women are equal, but it doesn't mean they are the same, and one of the differences is that they have different roles within the Church.

So what does this mean for me, as leader of the Evangelical Alliance? What does it mean for Justin Welby, as the next Archbishop of Canterbury?

There are plenty of calls for the Church of England to just get on with it. The Prime Minister said he wanted to give them a prod and told them to 'get with the programme'.

Columnists are shouting for the Church to let the parts objecting to women bishops go, let the Anglo-Catholics head to Rome and let those dubbed 'conservative evangelicals' go off on their own.

And maybe that would make life easier, it would let a decision be taken without this pesky little problem of difference. But that would be letting go of unity.

Since I started in this role nearly four years ago, one passage of the Bible has continued to ring loud in my ears. It's from John 17 when Christ prays for all believers: "I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me."

When Justin Welby takes over in the New Year, his task isn't to make the Church more appealing to the PR professionals calling for a rebrand, or the politicians calling for him to 'get with the programme'. This is not the X Factor. The role he has accepted is to bring the Church together to focus on its mission: making Christ known to the world.

I think God grieves when he sees his Church divided, but difference isn't the same as division. Unity doesn't mean papering over the cracks or pretending that we all agree when we don't – but it does mean loving each other and respecting each other in our differences.

As evangelicals we love the Bible, and we know it is the word God sent us. We are committed to working together and standing alongside each other even when we might disagree over what it says and means. I am committed to standing alongside those who disagree with me over the role of women in the Church. Our mission is too important. And we love each other.

In his final remarks to the General Synod this week, Rowan Williams cited St John of the Cross: "Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love." I couldn't have put it any better myself.

Steve Clifford, general director, Evangelical Alliance