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How a recalcitrant minority stopped the Church from entering the 20th let alone the 21st century

2012 November 22
by Paul Vallely

It is 18 years since the Church of England took the decision to break with two thousand years of Christian tradition and ordain women as priests. Outsiders might have felt what it was, therefore, only a matter of time before some of those priests – who now make up a third of all the nation’s 11,000 Anglican clerics – distinguished themselves by their service sufficiently to self-evidently make the case that they should become bishops. But there has been nothing self-evident about the way the CofE has behaved in the tortuous 12 years since the process which was put in train to allow women into the episcopate. The Church does indeed move in mysterious ways.

To the secular world the case for women to be bishops is the same as the case for them becoming priests. It is fundamentally a matter of equity and inclusion. To be fair, most people inside the Church agree, seeing inclusion and equality before God as central values of the Christian gospel. The majority of bishops, priests and lay members of the Church have long accepted that. But, because of the highly-cautious structures of the established church, a two-thirds majority was needed in all three houses of its General Synod to affect change. That has allowed a recalcitrant minority to prevent the Church from entering the 20th let alone the 21st century.

Most of the public will not care. They have little time for arcane theological arguments from traditionalist Anglo-Catholics about the Apostolic Succession and the fact that Jesus chose only men to be his disciples. (He also only chose Jews which does not appear to have disbarred the vast majority of male Anglicans from the priesthood). Nor does contemporary society care much for Pauline scriptural exegesis from conservative evangelicals about the headship of Christ. But the unholy alliance between these two groups has effectively scuppered the chances of the Church of England having a role of any more significance in contemporary society than merely officiating at a few state occasions.

That is a tragedy. The British people still look to the Church for spiritual succour in times of national crisis and counter-cultural moral leadership in times of both affluence and austerity. The outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams was able to give that over the war in Iraq, the global financial crisis, health service and welfare reforms and attitudes to British Muslims. But the bulk of his time in office has been consumed by a vain attempt to hold together a Church of England, and wider Anglican Communion, bitterly riven by issues of sexuality and gender.

The No vote represents a difficult beginning to Dr Williams’ successor, Justin Welby. He has been spared the problem of a few more disgruntled traditionalists joining the thousand or so Anglicans who jumped ship to join the Ordinariate set up by the Vatican to poach unhappy Anglo-Catholics. But conservative evangelicals will now continue to fight their homophobic rearguard against same-sex marriage and gay priests. It is important on this that Dr Welby holds firm to the principles of inclusion and equality, along with the Christian imperative to love rather than to disdain their fellow creatures, which he has already hinted will govern his approach to the job.

But yesterday’s vote means the church’s voice will have far less credibility in areas where its input ought to be welcomed – banking reform, the ethical behaviour of big business, fairness in public spending cuts, the conduct of the nation’s foreign policy and how a multicultural society replenishes the cultural capital it inherited from Christianity. The Church has things to say on all that which should be heard. But after yesterday’s betrayal of the principles of equity and inclusion, will anyone listen?

2 Responses
  1. Flora Alexander permalink
    November 23, 2012

    It is true to say that the opponents of women bishops formed an unholy alliance. I sat through most of the afternoon’s debate, and I was appalled by the weakness of the arguments being deployed by both varieties of opposition.

  2. James Mac permalink
    November 23, 2012

    It is 18 years since the Church of England took the decision to break with two thousand years of Christian tradition and ordain women as priests.

    It is worth pointing out that the deanery where I live appointed its first and only female priest with title to a parish barely 350 days ago.

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