Rejection of women bishops is not terminal
ANDREW MCGOWAN NOVEMBER 25, 2012
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.
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.
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