The triumph of the radicals: Women bishops and the Church of England
Bruce KayeABC RELIGION AND ETHICS27 NOV 2012
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The recent decision by the Church of England General Synod not to proceed to the ordination of women as bishops has raised anxiety, provoked questions and caused deep disturbances throughout the Anglican Communion. Aspects of the decision should be of concern, not only to Anglicans in Australia, but to the wider community because of the points of view which prevailed in this triumph of the radicals in the Church of England.
At the end of the recent debate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams said that the Church of England had “a lot of explaining to do” to the wider community. He made it clear that it is not the role of the church to conform to prevailing cultural values. On the contrary, the church is called to act out the values of the Christian tradition itself. Nonetheless, in the kind of open society in which it finds itself, the church does have an obligation to explain the values prevailing within the church and how the church related to the wider community. This is, of course, particularly important in England where the Church of England is the established Church of the nation.
The decision of the General Synod was the result of an unlikely alliance of radicals. On the one hand, there are the radical Anglo-Catholics (often referred to as “Traditional Catholics”) who voted against women bishops on the basis of a particular reading of the historic tradition of male priests and bishops and an understanding of the sacraments as connected to that tradition. Admittedly, not all Anglo-Catholics took that view – only by those radicals within that group.
The radical Anglo-Catholics found common cause with a similarly radical group from among the evangelicals on General Synod. These radical evangelicals, led by the groupReform and its chairman Angus McLeay, took the view that the Bible teaches male headship in all social relationships, and especially the church. This view, of course, hangs on a particular reading of certain texts in the New Testament.
Two principles undergird the Reform position:
- The Bible is accorded such a prominent place of authority for these Christians that, for all practical purposes, it stands alone as the single point of reference. In its operation, it is hard to distinguish from a doctrine of sola scriptura. This doctrine of Scripture is, of course, well known in Christianity, but it does not in any sense represent the generality of Anglican opinion. In itself, that is inconsequential: plenty of Anglicans hold interesting and different opinions. The problem is that, for the purposes of shaping the polity of the church, this doctrine finds no expression in any of the Anglican formularies or constitutions. The best that can be said for it that is that it is a private opinion that might be fitted within a general plurality.
- It is believed that the Bible teaches male “headship.” In his speech to the General Synod, Angus McLeay referred to two such texts: 1 Timothy 2, from which he drew the conclusion that any “authoritative teaching role should be fulfilled by a man,” and that this was part of God’s “ordering of creation”; and 1 Corinthians 11, from which he concluded that the headship of males is embedded in the very character of God. Even within evangelical circles, such an understanding of male headship is hotly contested, and is held unequivocally only by a small section of Anglicans.
I could say similar things of the radical Anglo-Catholic approach to this issue. So the question becomes: Can such radical views be accommodated within a broader church framework? These two minority radical views prevented an adequate majority in the House of Laity in the Church of England, thus preventing the Church of England moving to appoint women bishops. In that context, the code of conduct to protect minorities, which was part of the proposed change, was not regarded as adequate. Furthermore, it was claimed that the undertakings given by the General Synod much earlier in relation to women priests had not been kept.
The decision making in the Church of England Synod was shaped, not only by in principle opposition from a combination of these two radical groups, but also by a no compromise approach on the part of those who are thoroughgoing supporters of women bishops but were not prepared to accept the qualifications embedded in the new rule. A similar scenario was played out in the General Synod of the Anglican Church of Australia at its General Synod in 2001. If the purists – on that occasion led by several bishops – had supported the bill, it very well might have passed in the Synod. It did not, just as it did not in England in a very similar political process.
It is important to bear in mind the character of the decision-making process in the Church of England General Synod. The Synod is made up of three houses – bishops, clergy and laity. The bishops are there as part of their employment arrangements. The clergy are there as elected within their dioceses and as part of their ministerial responsibilities. The laity are present as a result of elections within the dioceses. The system is not that dissimilar from what prevails in Anglican dioceses in Australia. Elections of both clergy and laity in both places are subject to lobbying and manoeuvring by different parties within the church.
It has been suggested in England that the laity who are able to attend General Synod meetings tend to be of a conservative disposition, and even some suggest a little older. In the Church of England, the General Synod meets at least twice a year for four days each in February and July, and potentially for another four days in November. The Synod which voted on women bishops was a November meeting, which meant that the Synod in England this year had met for twelve days.
For many lay people, twelve days is more than half of their annual holiday leave allowance. Hence, for lay people to come to such meetings requires a sacrifice much greater than is the case for clergy and bishops. However, not a few of the lay people present are employed by church bodies and agencies, and so attend General Synod as part of their employment. The upshot of this is that the number of people attending the Synod who are not employed by the church somewhat less than the total number of the members of the House of Laity.
In England, because the Church of England is established, a decision that is significantly out of step with contemporary social attitudes raises quite particular questions – as Prime Minister David Cameron has explicitly commented. It is possible for the British Parliament to pass a law insisting on women bishops in the Church of England. Any church rule passed by the General Synod of the church allowing women bishops would require parliamentary confirmation. Parliament itself could overrule the Synod. That would be an extraordinary event.
In Australia, the Anglican Church is not established, but that does not mean that it is not subject to the law of the land. For example, in a number of states religious bodies have exemption from certain aspects of the anti-discrimination laws. It would be possible for the state to legislate to remove that exemption, leaving the possibility open that someone would bring a case to the courts compelling the churches to provide employment opportunities for women as bishops. That, too, would be an extraordinary event, though less extraordinary than would be the case in England. It would certainly be justified if the church, or a part of it, used its current privileges in a way that was egregiously outside the general social norms and out of step with other Christian groups.
What the General Synod decision reveals is that the Church of England has been unable to find a way to tolerate higher levels of diversity within its membership to provide for women bishops. It has been held hostage by the radical fringe.
Angus McLeay made it clear that the issue of their membership of the Church of England was at stake on this issue. Their views, he said, have been systematically squeezed out of the details of the code designed to protect minority interests. “Headship” has become a litmus test. If it goes, McLeay argued, episcopal ministry will be re-defined and so will marriage, “opening it up to those who are equal and the same.” He declared that: “Things unravel when we pull out ‘headship’ from our Bibles.”
In other words, for both radical evangelicals and radical Anglo-Catholics, the ordination of women as bishops has become a test case for whether or one will be an Anglican.
This has certain resonances here. In Australia, one of the ways used to discern whether clergy can work in a particular diocese often include their attitude towards the ordination of women. Furthermore, women clergy ordained in some dioceses cannot function as clergy in other dioceses – including the largest one, the diocese of Sydney.
The very regional or diocesan structure of the Anglican Church of Australia may well turn out to be a better framework within which to sustain some national connection in an environment of changing diversity. Here the theological and policy differences often correspond with the diocesan borders. In England, the differences are much more indiscriminately spread across the dioceses and the church has a far more centralised structure than exists in Australia. As a consequence, coping with difference is more complicated in England than it is in Australia.
As in England, it is not true that the Anglican Church of Australia must simply reflect the values and attitudes of the wider society. Given the history and character of Christianity, that is quite simply inconceivable. But that does not mean that there is no obligation on the part of the church to explain why it takes a significantly different point of view from that of contemporary society.
The degree to which the principle of male headship is applied in Anglican churches in Australia varies greatly, but in the diocese of Sydney it is applied fairly consistently – no women priests at all. In increasing numbers of parishes, women are not permitted to have any role that implies any kind of authority over men. From the point of view of the wider community, these practices increasingly look odd and vaguely sectarian. They certainly look to be at odds with contemporary attitudes on opportunities for women in all aspects of social life.
Churches that maintain such counter-cultural practices need to take seriously their responsibility to explain the meaning, rationale and coherence of those practices. It is claimed both here and in England that male “headship” is based on a particular understanding of the authority of the Bible, and hence the basis for that understanding would also need to be explained. If it is to be explained in terms of Anglican formularies and Anglican canon law, it would certainly require a great deal of sophistication, not to mention ingenuity.
The Revd Dr Bruce Kaye was formerly the General Secretary of the Anglican Church of Australia. He is a theologian and the founding editor of the Journal of Anglican Studies. His most recent book is Conflict and the Practice of Christian Faith: The Anglican Experiment.
What Bruce Kay is careful to point out in his article, above, is the fact that the defeat of the widely-acclaimed Draft Motion for the ordination of Women Bishops in the Church of England can be attributed to the work of radicals at either end of the spectrum of conservative interests – namely, first; those few ultra-montane Anglo-Catholics who argue for the ontological impossibility of either Women Priest or Bishops, and secondly; the small number of anti-feminist Evangelicals who are firmly supportive of what they see as the ethos of biblical ‘male-Headship’.
Interestingly, the Sydney Archdiocese in Australia would mostly conform to the second characteristic of conservative Evangelical opposition to Women in ministry. Whereas the two Anglo-Catholic parishes in Sydney – St. James and Christchurch Saint Laurence, would not be part of the ultra-montane set – such as those in the Church of England – that want their own ‘male-only’ episcopal oversight.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand