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Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Slapping the Bishop

(No, that's not what we meant.  Get your mind out of the gutter.)

The Church of England's General Synod voted yesterday against the proposed ordination of women to the episcopate.  (Good article here.) This was a slap in the face to both the present Archbishop of Canterbury and his chosen successor, the present Bishop of Durham.  Both men are on record as supporting, strongly, the ministry of women as bishops.  It may also be a slap at the government, of which the Church is after all an arm; PM David Cameron has said that the CofE needs to "get with the program."  And of course it is certainly a slap at the women already serving as priests, who are given to understand that their priesthood is somehow ontologically different from that of men.  You could even see it as a slap at the Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith, who is herself a woman.

So who did the slapping, and what are we to make of it?  The Times summarizes the vote:
More than 70 percent of the 446 synod votes on Tuesday were in favor of opening the church’s episcopacy to women. But the synod’s voting procedures require a two-thirds majority in each of its three “houses”: bishops, clergy and laity. The bishops approved the change by 44 to 3, and the clergy by 148 to 45. The vote among the laity, though, was 132 to 74, six votes less than the two-thirds needed.
Ah.  It was laypeople who blocked the move -- specifically, a minority of the lay voters.  We expect that some conservative commentators will mutter, "You see?  It is the laypeople who are the real theologians, steadfastly resisting the trendiness and political calculation of the clergy."  And we expect that some liberals will murmur about a cabal of evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, natural enemies united only by their refusal to face the future.

Perhaps the most churlish analysis we have yet read comes in the Telegraph, from a former-Baptist-turned-Papist named Tim Stanley.  He claims that "in its search for 'relevance,' the Anglican church is losing relevance," and that the CofE has 'supinely" refused to take a position and stick to it, instead continuing to discuss  and vote on difficult topics. This attitude betrays a vast failure to understand what Anglicanism is, and always has been. Stanley has moved from one authoritarian church to another; he says clearly that he wants, and believes most other churchgoers want, authoritative answers.  But, except on a few central matters, the Church of England has never been about authoritative answers.  We Lutherans and Roman Catholics, with our stern dogmatic traditions, may tease -- we do tease -- but Anglicanism has done pretty well by embracing different, even warring, perspectives within a single tradition of worship and hierarchy.

Of course, the hierarchy is just what is in question here, and a church defined by its bishops does need to speak clearly about who they are.  Are female bishops truly "the future"?  They don't need to  be, of course.  A church that has gone on for many centuries without them may well be able to continue just the same. If the culture doesn't like it, well, culture be damned.

But it does seem almost inevitable that women will be bishops in England eventually.  The convictions of the theological leadership already support it; the expectations of the broader society support it; the likelihood that the resistant minority will dwindle seems strong indeed.  A priest of the American Province and friend of the Egg counts something like 32 women serving as bishops in churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion.  One of them is the recently-elected Ellinah Wamukoyah, of the Anglican Church of Southern Africa, who will soon be the first female Anglican bishop on the African continent.

If female bishops are inevitable, then it is a sign of the times that they have arrived in Africa before England.

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