November 26, 2012

Further Thoughts on the Church of England’s Failure to Authorize Women Bishops

Last Tuesday, the General Synod of the Church of England rejected a measure to allow women to become bishops. (See “Church of England Rejects Women Bishops Legislation.”) Since then, it has been hard to keep up with all the commentary on the General Synod’s  decision, a task complicated by my visiting my son and daughter-in-law for Thanksgiving.

Bishops and clergy approved the measure, but the lay vote fell short of the two-thirds majority required for passage. It is not yet clear why each of the negative lay votes was cast. One might imagine that some voted against the legislation because they
  •  Oppose making women bishops (or oppose the ordination of women generally);
  •  Believe that the legislation compromised the status of future women bishops by granting too much to those opposed to women bishops;
  • Believe that insufficient concessions were made to opponents of women bishops;
  • Were uncomfortable with the uncertainty about how the legislation would work in practice, given that the Code of Practice was not specified; or
  • Thought the legislation was otherwise defective.
How people voted is now available, though, as an Episcopalian, I have no idea what to make of this information.

The press has generally seen the General Synod vote as a debacle indicating that the Church of England is out of step with the people of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury has been blamed for inadequate leadership; the bishops of the church have been blamed for mucking with an apparently viable compromise measure; the structure of General Synod has been attacked for failing to produce the “right” result, and opponents of female ordination have been criticized for aggressively recruiting candidates for General Synod sympathetic to their position.

Linda Woodhead, writing on the Modern Church Web site, put her finger on not only the cause of most recent church disaster, but on the explanation for why Rowan Williams’ tenure as Archbishop of Canterbury has been that of one spectacular failure after another. Woodhead’s essay is “It’s believing in the common good that’s got the Church of England into this mess over women bishops.” The underlying problem, she asserts, is concern for the “common good,” the belief that unity must be achieved at any cost. The church has tried to keep everyone happy, and it has done so by making concessions to those who cry the loudest. She says
You can see the same principle at work it in the way Rowan has considered maintenance of the unity of the Anglican communion a greater good than support for the cause of women and gay people in the church. Even the slow death of the church in Europe is considered a price worth paying for the ever-receding goal of the common good.
Woodhead, a Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, criticizes the church’s aversion to conflict that puts undue power into the hands of vocal minorities. She questions whether “oneness” is Christian at all. In contrast to John 17:21’s “that they all may be one,” she offers this:
There’s rather a deal more in Jesus’ teaching about hating father and mothers, and setting brother against brother. ‘Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I came to bring not peace but a sword.’
She concludes with this:
Clinging to an impossible ideal of unity discounts justice, and paints honest disagreement as dishonourable troublemaking. You can see the fruits of this state of mind in where the Church of England has ended up in its treatment of women.
I find it hard to argue with anything Woodhead has to say. It is helpful, however, to look more deeply into what unity can, in practice, be achieved.

An essential feature of Anglicanism derives from the Elizabethan Settlement—members of the church agree to worship in a uniform fashion, but they are not required to hold the same underlying theological views or to have a common understanding of their common worship. Whether one believes in transubstantiation, say, has essentially no bearing on one’s position in or relationship to the church. Such Anglican diversity allows the church to pursue mission in the world without the constant distraction of theological battles that have plagued so many Christian traditions. (In practice, we have seen a weakening of common worship, but, so far, this has not led to a crisis.)

Within the Anglican tradition, as within other traditions, certain conflicts die out over time. Episcopalians once argued over slavery and over whether it was proper to have candles on the altar. One would be hard pressed to find a contemporary proponent of slavery or a rabid opponent of candles. People have left, the arguments have lost their energy, and people have died.

One can easily imagine an Anglican resolution—one allowing forward movement at any rate—to such difficult matters as same-sex blessings: Let those who want to perform them do so, but require no one to do so. This is almost what The Episcopal Church has done, though it let bishops decide for their dioceses, rather than a more democratic (and Anglican?) scheme in which individual parishes could make that decision. Under such a regime, if I attend a parish that does not bless same-sex unions, how am I harmed by the existence of other parishes that do?  I may think the rector and parishioners of the blessing-friendly church mistaken in their theological views, but I already tolerate all sorts of presumed theological error among friends and enemies alike. Besides, I could be wrong.

The ordination of women, however, is another matter. To begin with, it makes no sense to allow for women priests but not for women bishops. In fact, some people go so far as to argue that, if we are not going to ordain women, we should stop baptizing them. Not everyone subscribes to such Christian equality before the Lord, but women priests are a reality, even in the Church of England and despite the indignity of their status inflicted by the existence of flying bishops.

Some, of course, argue that sacraments performed by women are not valid, and allowing women to be bishops will, in time, contaminate the whole body of English clergy. It is difficult to take this argument seriously, as Article XXVI of the Thirty-nine Articles explicitly rejects such a Donatist argument. In the end, opposition to women bishops comes down either to the belief that it is improper for women to have authority over men or that men simply don’t want to give up authority.

For the sake of argument, assume that there is a defensible argument against women bishops. The vote in General Synod indicates that very few hold such a view. Should the view of those few be not only respected (i.e., tolerated), but should special accommodation also be made for it? I think not—not for any theological reason, but for an organization one. It is simply impractical to forever maintain a two-tier clergy distinguished by who has or has not been involved in the ordination of women. The two groups will necessarily intact in synods, in conferences, on committees, etc. How can one group not be “tainted” by the other? Will they wear either black or white armbands to distinguish the two groups? How can priests preach unity to parishioners while keeping many colleagues at arm’s length?

Additionally, distinguishing clergy, as the defeated measure would have done, would only perpetuate the disagreement and make it difficult ever to unify the clergy. (It is always easier to split than it is to come back together.) Opponents of women bishops actually want to assure that their views will always be represented in the church, but this would not actually be good for the church. Sometimes, the church simply has to make a decision and live with it.

Views of small minorities die out slowly. It took about thirty years after women were allowed to be ordained in The Episcopal Church for them to be ordained in every diocese. It will take time for women to be considered seriously for episcopal appointments in the Church of England. The church needs to get on with making that happen, and it should do so with no concessions to those opposed to having women bishops.

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