December 2, 2014 (The New Yorker magazine)
Thank God for Female Bishops, By Jane Kramer
If you’re a believer, thank God. If you’re not, thank Her anyway, because it’s now official that Henry VIII’s Church of England will be getting its first female bishop. The news came after an overwhelming show of hands at the church’s General Synod, in November, and provided the one bright spot in an otherwise dismal month for women’s rights—a month in which American feminists, still reeling from the strong likelihood of a fresh assault on Roe v. Wade, in January, when the Senate changes hands, read about revelations involving a noxious culture of campus rapes, including an alleged fraternity gang rape at the University of Virginia, that for years had gone unpunished by college administrators and were never reported to the police. (And let’s not forget the feminists in Turkey, where President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan took the podium at a women’s conference last week to declare that “women are not equal to men” and that to pretend otherwise was “against nature.”)
Americans, of course, are used to the presence of female bishops. Women in the Episcopal priesthood—the Episcopal Church being Anglicanism’s American branch—won their fight for elevation in 1989, five years before English women were even admitted to the priesthood. Since then, some twenty American women have been elected to the episcopate. One of them—Katharine Jefferts Schori—has been the Presiding Bishop (or Primate) for nearly nine years. But the vote in England may be a lot more significant than it first appears. England’s church is an “established” church, a church of state—its clergy are accountable to the state. Twenty-six of its bishops sit in the House of Lords. Its historic assets, now supplemented by diocesan assessments and pension contributions, are overseen by thirty-three commissioners, among them six ministers of state, including (ex officio) the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor, and five members nominated or appointed directly by the present Queen.
Because of this, and quite apart from the many sound theological arguments in favor of female bishops—among them, that there is nothing in the Gospels that precludes women from apostolic service; the concept of an all-male apostolic succession comes not from Jesus but from Paul, who converted years after the death of Christ—there is now a legal imperative to ordain female bishops. In 2010, Parliament passed a blanket Equality Act, which meant that the Church of England was no longer automatically protected by a religious exemption when it came to women at any level of the clergy. (Neither, if you follow the letter of the law, were Britain’s Roman Catholics.) That act was symbolically reinforced last year, three months before the birth of Prince George, by a further act of Parliament that guaranteed the right of royal succession to the eldest child of a reigning monarch or heir to the throne, regardless of the child’s sex. In England, this amounted to historic news—call it the crown jewel of an equal-rights revision. And bear in mind that there is still no American equal-rights amendment, let alone revision—no constitutional umbrella over our scattershot anti-discrimination laws, with their disclaimers and their creaky procedures for compliance. The last attempt to achieve a state-by-state plurality for an amendment lasted ten years, and expired in 1982.
But most impressive, perhaps, was the example set by the Church of England—mother church to Anglican community of about eighty million people, the third largest Christian community in the world—in making a clear and simple moral statement: this is who we, as Christians of the social gospel, are now. About twenty-seven million people belong to the C of E, according to its baptismal records. That’s not a lot. Taken together, there are as many Anglicans in Nigeria and Uganda as there are in England, and if you add the rest of Africa, millions more. The church in southern Africa remains progressive—thanks in large part to the benign but fiercely egalitarian example of Desmond Tutu, the retired South African archbishop—but for years the Anglicans of Nigeria and Uganda have been under the thumb of reactionary archbishops, and their churches were already in open schism with the Church of England. Africa isn’t alone in this. In 2008, two hundred bishops from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, along with a handful of disgruntled “traditionalists” (their term) from England, America, and Australia, boycotted the last decennial conference of Anglican bishops, a gathering of the apostolic tribe convened each decade by the Archbishop of Canterbury, their spiritual leader but, as it happens, a leader with no disciplinary authority beyond his own Canterbury diocese and with little theological authority beyond his own influence as England’s Primate. Their absence wasn’t surprising, given that those dissenting bishops had already held their own conference less than a month earlier, in Jerusalem, where they formed a kind of counter-Anglican Communion, producing a statement to the effect that they no longer recognized the legitimacy of Canterbury and the Church of England. Their issues were female bishops (heretical) and gay priests (unnatural) and same-sex marriage (worse).
The Archbishop of Canterbury then was Rowan Williams, a poet, essayist, highly regarded scholar, and author of many books, who was perhaps better suited to the collegiality of Oxford and Cambridge, where he had taught theology for years, than to the ugly identity politics of a splintering church. When we talked at Lambeth Palace, early in 2010, Williams told me that he wanted to be the Archbishop to welcome women to the episcopate, but he was also determined to mend the Church—to be “inclusive,” he said—by which he meant urging patience on his flock in England, where a third of the priests were women, and reaching out to those angry conservatives abroad, hoping that “in God’s time” their resistance would disappear. (People in England called him “our Obama.”) Williams retired in 2012, and was succeeded by Justin Welby, an Anglican evangelical and former oil-industry executive who had left business to study for the priesthood a few years after losing a baby daughter in a car crash. (Grief, he said, had, strangely, brought him and his wife “closer to God.”) In 2011, he became the Bishop of Durham. A year later, he was named the hundred and fifth Primate of All England.
At first, women in the Church were worried about an evangelical in Lambeth Palace—especially one who, while working in London, had worshipped at Holy Trinity Brompton, the famously lively megachurch on Brompton Road, otherwise known as the biggest, richest parish church in England. Welby surprised them all. He was a feminist. He was impatient with “patience.” He wanted to get the Church of England back on course—and never mind the loss of a misogynist schism. You took your losses and gained a far more inclusive church. One of the first items on Welby’s agenda was the ordination of female bishops. He strode into what in the oil business would be called a leadership role. He was supportive, persuasive, and, more to the point, vocal in rallying a synod of bishops, priests, and parishioners that only two years earlier had rejected the modification of Canon Law that would have opened the episcopate to women. (It was the laity, not the clergy, that cast the decisive negative votes.)
Today, only two weeks after the Synod vote, the names of the five or six likeliest candidates for “first female bishop” are beginning to sound familiar, like the names of women you knew or wish you knew. (Move over, Kate!) The bookies are posting odds. The phones of friends I’ve called in London have been ringing busy all week. It was about time. God was pleased. Thank Her.
This American view of the acceptance of Women Bishops into the Church of England has a predictable air of “We Did it First”. However, the writer, Jane Kramer, acknowledges the fact that the Church of England had more hurdles to overcome in its opening up of church ministry to women than most other Anglican Church Provinces in the West.
The author’s comments on the conservatism (some would say ‘intransigence’) – of the non-Western Provinces, like those of the GAFCON sodality, who announced their own specific polity on biblical hermeneutic on gender and sexuality questions – would seem to be fairly well presented. The fact is that most of the African Provinces of the world-wide Anglican Communion (apart from South Africa) would now consider themselves to be ‘more orthodox’, biblically, than the rest of the Communion Churches, refusing to join the more liberal provinces at provincial meetings of the Primates, or the traditional Lambeth Conference of Anglican Bishops from around the world.
Whether the issue of the Church of England’s acceptance of Women Bishops will drive another wedge between the liberal and conservative provinces of the Communion might be doubtful – especially in view of the fact that even some of the conservative African provinces have accepted women in the ministry of their Churches. However, it remains to be seen how the Church of England’s decision to ordain women bishops will substantially affect her relationship with the other main-line Churches – Roman Catholic and Orthodox – which still ordain only men as priests and bishops.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand