Church of England: Mission impossible
No one much cares what the Church of England says about sex. That includes most churchgoers. But those who play a part in deciding its line on such things mind more than enough to make up for the rest. All the same, after a mere 20 years, sometime on Wednesday afternoon, the Church of England will almost certainly set in motion the process for appointing women bishops.
In less than a year in office, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has defused an existential crisis. It is a notable success, but it is unlikely that the conservative wing of the church will abandon its opposition to modernisation merely because it has been defeated. In their long defence of the last bastion, traditionalist groups have developed a political expertise that Bismarck would have admired. But they have also got too sharp for their own good. In defence of their version of doctrinal purity, this time last year they overplayed their hand. They narrowly defeated a tortuous compromise that would have left women as second-rank bishops with only limited authority, and thus provoked a crisis on such a scale that it seemed parliament might step in and force the church into submission. The proposals that synod will consider on Wednesday are the direct result of a really nasty shock to the system that no one is quite ready to risk again.
With becoming modesty, Dr Welby disclaims all credit. But the way out of the impasse bears the imprint of an experienced mediator. A committee representing both sides of the argument, as well as those who did not identify with either, managed in just a couple of months to hammer out a deal that does much more, more clearly and in many fewer words, than the one that was lost. A way has been devised, it is hoped, to speed the change through general synod so swiftly that the legislation could be approved within a year. The momentum of the shock and scorn of last year’s defeat could propel the first woman on to a bishop’s throne by 2015.
Dr Welby seems to be on the way to pulling off an unexpected coup. It is part of how he is making the Church of England feel relevant. Unblocking the stalled process of making women bishops matters. But it’s nothing like as important as the voice he has given the church in the lives of the most vulnerable. He has defended benefits – on which, he observed, he and his family depended before he was bishop of Durham. He has been in the forefront of the attack on payday lenders and is actively supporting credit unions. In his latest appeal, he asks Christmas shoppers to give a 10th of the cash they spend on presents as a donation to their local food bank. As a double act with Pope Francis, whose own conspicuous humility and willingness to challenge the established orthodoxy in the church of Rome is beginning to have a global impact, Dr Welby is leading organised religion in this country into the kind of revival that seemed unimaginable a year ago.
The deeper question is whether the Church of England wants to be in that place enough to put aside its obsession with sex. At the moment, it seems at least as likely that the church will simply turn to the next doctrinal dispute and resume the course of irrelevance.
The next last ditches that beckon are the celebration of gay marriageand the possibility of gay bishops. These are issues that those who are dedicated to upholding orthodoxy will find at least as absorbing as the last one. The Pilling report, an early attempt to find common ground on gay marriage, commissioned in 2011, will be published early next month. This is rumoured to propose a watered-down marriage liturgy, a suggestion already condemned in apocalyptic terms on traditionalist blogs. The worry is that, alienated by their prospective defeat over women bishops this week, there may be a gang of irreconcilables ready to die in the ditch over gay rights, even if it means taking Anglicanism with them. Persuading them that the church’s mission matters more may stretch even Dr Welby’s impressively effective mediation skills.
This ‘Guardian’ Editorial offers a fairly objective journalistic view of what will be at stake in the current sitting of General Synod, meeting at Church House, Westminster, at this crucial time in the history of the Church of England.
The issue of Women Bishops has been largely expedited because of the negativity of the House of Laity vote at July’s Meeting of the General Synod, which caused a tidal-wave of shock amongst both the ordinary membership of the Church and of the general public, and which necessitated a new approach to the problem of how best to meet the minority objections to women being ordained in the C. of E. – without compromising the authority of a female diocesan bishop.
The legislation now proposed – which features the use of an ‘ombudsman’ to negotiate the matter of any perceived grievance from the anti-women’s ministry constituency in a diocese where the ‘Ordinary’ (diocesan bishop) is a woman – in order to facilitate ministry from a male bishop, would endeavour to allow for this to happen, but with the agreement of the female diocesan bishop concerned.
Of further concern is the continuing attitude of the Church towards the vexed question of its treatment of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and trans-gender persons regarding the context of their relationship – whether they will be able to receive a Same Sex Blessing, or even the facilitation of Same-Sex Marriage in Church. There is also the outstanding matter of the ordination of such persons into the ministry of the Church of England. These are all questions that the Church will need to tackle very soon, in order to retain the credibility needed to satisfy the call of society for an enlightened view on issues of social justice.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand