A Melbourne View on Anglican Women Bishops

Rejection of women bishops is not terminal


'Women Bishops' by Chris Johnston

There have been two remarkable, historic events in recent weeks in the Anglican Communion’s struggle with the question of women’s ordination as bishops.

Last Saturday the Rev. Ellinah Wamukoya was ordained as bishop of Swaziland in southern Africa.

On the continent where most Anglicans now live, women have taken a major step towards full participation in ecclesial leadership. Although African Church leaders have played on the conservative side of serious intra-Anglican arguments in recent years, women’s ordination has rarely been central to these. In this case, African Christianity is paying little regard to theological battle-lines drawn by westerners.

On the other hand, most eyes in Australia and around the English-speaking world have been on another story, of the Church of England’s General Synod stumbling at the threshold of a change supported by all its leading bishops, and by overwhelming majorities of its clergy and lay members.

This damaging but temporary impasse may ultimately prove to be the less significant story. The growing list of Anglican provinces that have left their staid mother Church standing flat-footed on women’s ministry is a clear reminder of what missiologists have been saying for decades, that the European hegemony of the Church is over.

The Church of England faces what the whole western Church faces — a still-emerging secularist dominance of culture and society, within which the Church will be a distinct minority. This was the real, if veiled, subject of the fruitless argument in England last week, and won’t go away even when a different result is eventually obtained.

The Church of England’s particular gift and burden is its historic comprehensiveness, which has often left it trying to accommodate parts whose diversity challenges the attempt of the whole to manifest a clear identity, let alone to take bold action. These latest events reflect that difficulty.

This was not a decision to reject women as bishops, but a failure to make a decision at all. And the vote was not even about whether to ordain women as bishops, but on how to construct a parallel universe for dissenters, who could opt out of accepting the ministry of women if their parishes determined this was unacceptable to them.

More than anything, it was the rules governing the Synod’s decision-making that caused the measure’s failure: only six lay votes among more than 200 would have had to change to achieve the requisite two thirds majority.

While the movement to have women bishops has seemed a juggernaut, supported both by the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and his more evangelical successor Justin Welby, it is by no means certain that a repeated vote on the same proposal would be very different in five years.

The General Synod is composed of bishops, priests and lay persons. Perhaps surprisingly, the further one travels away from the clerical hierarchy in this structure, the more likely one is to encounter conservatism. This is partly because the processes whereby lay members are elected allow more representation from larger conservative evangelical parishes, where the most significant opposition to women’s leadership now lies.

As time goes on, the voices and arguments from that minority might actually become louder.

These failed proposals were generous to conservatives. Some of the solutions to the impasse may however be less conciliatory to the dissenters, taking different routes that would bypass the Synod structure and its daunting voting hurdles. These might involve accepting that the almost impossible theological sprawl of the Church of England has its limits, and that fundamentalist forms of evangelicalism in particular are testing them.

To describe the failed vote as suicidal is an overstatement. These events may lose the Church members in the short term, but the possibility of ecclesial death stems from wider issues, and the slide towards secular indifference to the Church is not likely to have been halted merely by the advent of women bishops.

In England as in Australia, there are liberals and conservatives of various traditions who offer glib solutions to the wider malaise of the Church, claiming that the unfolding disaster stems either from failure to change or from excessive change; an issue like this then becomes a locus for dispute between these inadequate alternatives.

Both pay scant attention to history, or even theology — the first reminds us that the Church has struggled for survival before, the second that its heroes have ultimately been measured by faith, not success.

It is the faith of women like Wamukoyah and her sisters in episcopal ministry, not prognostications about the success or failure of a Church with or without them, that continues to commend their ministry and leadership.

Andrew McGowan headshotAndrew McGowan is Warden of Trinity College, The University of Melbourne, and Professor in the MCD University of Divinity. He blogs atAndrew’s Version and RoyalParade Diary


Having personal knowledge of the background of Professor Andrew McGowan (from the time of his school-days in Darwin, where his father was Dean of the Cathedral) I happen to be an acknowledged follower of his distinguished career in the disciple of theology.

Andrew’s take on this issue is projected from the eclectic  scenario of Anglicanism  as it is practised in the post-colonial country of Australia, where he now settled as Warden of Trinity College Melbourne, whose ethos is somewhat different from that of Moore College. Sydney. The MCD University of Divinity in Melbourne could be said to promote a somewhat broader theological viewpoint than that espoused, generally in, say, the Sydney Archdiocese.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand

About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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5 Responses to A Melbourne View on Anglican Women Bishops

  1. One healthy,healing response:-

    The Venerable David Meara
    Archdeacon of London &
    Rector of St Bride’s
    Sermon preached on Feast of Christ the King

    This week the Church of England did not cover itself in glory.
    Tuesday, as The Times leader said, was a sad and shameful day for the church, when after 12 years of painful deliberation the General Synod turned down the legislation that would happen allowed women to be consecrated as bishops by the narrowest of margins – 6 votes in the house of laity.
    I must have been a terrible blow to the many female priests in the church, who will find it hard not to take this decision personally. It suggests that the church thinks they are simply not good enough for senior office.
    But because we are the established church it also symbolically does a disservice to half the population, and certainly to the church and wider communities up and down the country who are largely sustained by women.
    The decision by General Synod makes the church look silly, unjust, and irrelevant, out of touch from where most people are in society today. Particularly in the eyes of a younger generation who really can’t see what the fuss is all about.
    The tragedy is that the majority of Synod was in favour of the legislation. 42 out of 44 dioceses were overwhelmingly in favour: so a small and unrepresentative minority have managed to block the will of the Church.
    I get the impression that the shock of that decision has taken people by surprise. Those of us within the institution always knew it was going to be a close call and thought we were mentally prepared for a “no” vote. When that came, however, it felt a real tipping-point, a crisis moment and a wake-up call. It really is only a question of time before the Church of England takes the step of consecrating female bishops. It will happen.
    The Church always lives with the tension between patience and reform: we remain true to the traditions we have received but we are also open to the Spirit of God renewing and changing the church in each new generation.
    We have to trust that God is speaking to us through what has happened this week and be patient.
    November 25th is the feast of Christ the King – a reminder that as Christ’s people we live in a Kingdom whose rules of life don’t simply mirror those of the world outside but have been set by our King.
    We have always to try to discern, amidst current trends and values of contemporary society, what is of God and what isn’t.
    So as the dust settles after the decision of this week, we need to hold our nerve; to remind ourselves and the world that we shall sort this out; and to remember that waiting is part of our Christian vocation.
    As we approach the season of Advent, we wait in hope, women and men, continuing to live out our ministry knowing that God’s call to each of us is no less today than it was yesterday or last week.
    We wait in hope, praying that we may be transformed by the renewal of our minds, as Paul says in Romans, and remembering that the bigger task – the transforming of society through the love of God – is as urgent as ever. “So we do not lose heart,” as Paul says.

    • kiwianglo says:

      Thanks for this, Rosie. the dear old Church of England really has to do much better – if it is not to be dis-established. Agape, Fr. Ron

      • Rosie Bates says:

        The dear The price has been paid over the centuries for her life. The cost of conscience is a price that is being weighed in the balance and found to be worthless so our Dear Lord just throws it back at those who need to pick up the tab and pay the account themselves. I looked after a lovely mentally ill man for years – he took his proper medication and recovered to a degree – he was very perceptive. During one sticky period Richard of blessed memory came down to breakfast and saw the strain on my face and remarked ‘:Oh, the incident room in the heavenlies is busy today!’ What a gift as he had no idea of my inner questionings. I am always thankful for the ‘incident room in the heavenlies’ it’s exactly where we can rely on stuff like this to be sorted.for there all holypleas are heard. Thanks be to God.

  2. Brian Ralph says:

    “Trinity College Melbourne, whose ethos is somewhat different from that of Moore College. Sydney”
    This has made me chuckle. While a parishioner at St James, King Street in Sydney I had the pleasure of attending several weekend courses led by Andrew and other lecturers from Trinity College followed by sermons on Sunday morning. It was like beams of light being shed into deepest darkest evangelical Sydney.

  3. kiwianglo says:

    Thanks, Brian, for that anecdotal evidence of the influence of Trinity’s theological outreach in the Sydney Diocese. My first meeting with Dr. Andrew was when he was a schoolboy in Darwin. His father, Brian McGowan was Dean of the Cathedral, and his mother, Kate, a teacher. Andrew has really moved up in the world of theology since those far-off days in the early 1970s. Thank God for the bright shafts of lights in the darkness emanating from St. James’ and Christchurch St.L.

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