February 6, 2013

Unity vs. Justice

I have watched with great interest the attempt in the Church of England to remove the present bar to female bishops. Last November, the General Synod turned back legislation that would have allowed for women bishops while making it possible for those opposed to women bishop (or women clergy generally) to isolate themselves from bishops who have had any truck with women clergy. (See my earlier posts “Thoughts on the Struggle to Allow Women Bishops in England,” “Church of England Rejects Women Bishops Legislation,” and “Further Thoughts on the Church of England’s Failure to Authorize Women Bishops.”)

I had mixed feelings about the legislation offered in November. Although it provided for women to enter the episcopate, it would have made women second-class bishops, possibly forever. Women in the Church of England were, predictably, torn between getting half a loaf now or, at least for the present, getting no loaf at all. The proper thing to do, I think now and thought then, is to adopt a so-called single clause measure that simply states that both men and women are eligible to be made bishops.

As I write this, discussions are taking place that are intended to lead to a proposal for new legislation providing for women bishops. It is unclear what will come of this, but a single clause measure might be proposed.

Women in the Church (WATCH) has published an insightful essay on the women bishops question on its Web site. It is by the Rev. Canon Jane Charman, and I recommend reading the whole piece. What Canon Charman has to say has implications for the way churches conduct their business generally. She writes
Within the Church of England defending the rights of some individuals and groups to discriminate against women currently has a high priority and is connected in many minds with upholding freedom and diversity. By contrast witnessing to the equal dignity and worth of women in society has a low priority. It is not a moral imperative for us. Opponents of women’s ministry have worked hard to alter our perceptions in this way, to present gender discrimination as a respectable alternative position within the life of the Church and themselves as victims of intolerance. This reversal of values seems perverse and incomprehensible, even morally repugnant, to those outside the Church.
Charman admits that she voted in favor of the measure before the General Synod last year but now regrets that vote. Only a single clause measure, she declares, is acceptable. She concludes
Standing out against gender discrimination is not a task for another day, it is a task for today, and it is urgent. It is far and away more important than giving a few women the opportunity to become bishops, vital though that is for the Church and greatly though we long for it to happen. The challenge for the Church of England is not ‘to find a formula by which discrimination can be tolerated so that the Church can have women bishops’. It is to ‘find a way of modelling in our common life the values we proclaim’. If we cannot grasp this nettle we will sacrifice our privileged position as the spiritual guardian of our national life and fatally undermine our ability to preach the gospel in our generation.
These are strong but inspiring words. Like the Church of England, The Episcopal Church often seems to value unity (or peace) above truth and justice. We have seen this in our painfully slow steps toward a general adoption of same-sex blessings and in our failure to reject definitively the Anglican Covenant.

It is to be hoped that the Church of England may yet surprise and inspire us all by simply declaring that women can be bishops and leaving it to opponents of the change to choose their own personal response thereto.


  1. A social and political comment, rather than a theological reflection. But perhaps interesting in this context.


    Bruce Robison

    1. Bruce,

      The explanation is interesting, but I think the train has already left the station regarding marriage’s not being primarily for procreation. Yes, society has an interest in having children raised in stable families. But society also has an interest not so much in the love between people but in the mutual support they can offer one another. That mutual support strengthens society. Moreover, many gay couples do a fine job of raising children, often adopted children who would not have a family otherwise. One has to ask in our overcrowded 2013 world whether we should be encouraging procreation at all.


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