On November 20, the Church of England voted on whether or not women may be properly ordained to the episcopate. That church had already been ordaining women as priests for some years, and the approval of this final step was to have been the fruition of a move that was long in coming, and, as many thought, long overdue.
Because of the nature of the motion, it needed to be approved by a two-thirds majority in all three houses—that is, by two-thirds of the bishops, and by two-thirds of the other clergy, and by two-thirds of the voting laity attending the meeting. As a glance at the faces of those voting shows (captured on a link of The Telegraph), this was a very emotional and tense time. The result, as announced calmly by John Sentamu, the bishop of York, was as follows: bishops for the motion approving the ordination of women, 44 (versus 3 episcopal votes against it, and 2 abstentions); clergy for the motion, 148 (versus 45 against it); laity for the motion 132 (versus 74 against it). Since the motion required two-thirds majority in all three groups to pass, in the words of Bishop Sentamu, “The motion was carried in the House of Bishops, and Clergy, and lost in the House of Laity.” Watch the clip in The Telegraph: the faces of the bishops and the women priests present spoke silently and eloquently of their bitter disappointment. Though the move had the overwhelming support of the bishops and clergy, and a large majority of the laity, it still failed to gather the support needed for approval.
The results of the vote were immediately denounced in Parliament (the Church of England is “established”—that is, it is the State Church, and legally accountable to Parliament). One honourable member spoke of his “deep disappointment” that “the Church of England failed to make proper provision for women bishops…a sad day for our National Church and our national character”. The word (that is, the threat) “disestablishment” was used—not that this was directly threatened, of course! Rather, the immediate consequence of the present refusal to ordain women bishops, he feared, “would not be disestablishment, but disinterest”.
The Prime Minister himself, Mr. David Cameron, in responding to said Honourable Member, himself also assured Parliament that he was “a strong supporter of women bishops”. He said that it was important for the Church of England “to be a modern church, in touch with society…You do have to respect the individual institutions and the way they work [i.e. accept the rule which required a two-thirds majority in all three houses] while giving them a sharp prod.” There was little doubt that such a prod might conceivably involve disestablishment if the National Church continued to be recalcitrant.
The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, was also deeply disappointed with the result. He spoke of how the Church had “lost credibility” now with society, and he said, “We have, to put it bluntly, a lot of explaining to do…A great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society. Worse than that, it seems as if we are willfully blind to the some of the trends and priorities of that wider society. We have, as a result of [the vote] lost a measure of credibility.”
It was at this point that my Orthodox eyes widened a bit and I began the press the ‘replay’ button to make sure that I heard them correctly. The esteemed gentlemen quoted above need not lose sleep over the possibility that the recent vote will mean that the Church of England will be regarded now with general “disinterest” by the British public. The fact is that the British people lost interest in the Church of England years ago. And they lost interest precisely because they perceived that its National Church was pursuing a secularizing path and embracing “the trends and priorities of the wider society”. Bluntly put, the Church sounded like an ecclesiastical, privileged, and pompous version of what secular society already thought. Of course “the wider society” thinks that the C. of E. has “lost credibility” by the vote. They also think that no one has any credibility who says that Jesus of Nazareth is the divine Son of God who offers salvation to all who repent. But this is to only say that secular people think the Church “has credibility” when it espouses secularism. But in that case, why bother going to church? No one needs candles, hymns, and sermons to be secular. Secular people will regard the Church as “a modern church, in touch with society” if it reflects their own secularism—and then will simply stay home on Sunday morning. As I said, they are doing this already: Anglican church attendance is hardly soaring, and some are suggesting that Islam is growing faster in Britain than is the Church of England.
None of this should be surprising. C. S. Lewis (who died in 1963) warned of the result of this secularizing trend some time ago. In his 1959 talk (preserved as “Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism”), he warned his Church of England seminary audience that if they continued to offer the common man a secularized version of the Gospel, it would “produce only one or other of two effects. It will make him a Roman Catholic or an atheist. What you offer him he will not recognize as Christianity. If he holds to what he calls Christianity he will leave a Church in which it is no longer taught and look for one where it is.” Lewis apparently discounted the possibility that if the Church echoed the “trends and priorities of the wider society” that multitudes would beat a path to the parish church door. And as it turns out, Lewis was correct, except that the options available to the common man in Britain now also include Islam.
I suggest that the lesson to be learned from the recent vote is that we are called by God to offer to the world something different than it already has. The world already possesses liberal secularism in abundance. Our task is not to assure the world that we share its values, but to convert them to a different set of values. Of course the unconverted world finds apostolic Christianity “unintelligible”. It considered its Founder’s message unintelligible to the point where it crucified Him. Until the world repents, and believes the Gospel, and embraces a different set of “trends and priorities”, it will continue to find the Faith unintelligible. That is why our apologetic and evangelistic task must begin at the beginning. We can no longer assume that the average person in the wider society is a Christian. That is the classic mistake continually made by State Churches. Great Britain hasn’t been Christian in any sense worth discussing for years, and our task now is to re-lay Christian foundations which were overturned and uprooted decades ago. In making such a beginning, we must be clear that we are dealing with thoroughly secularized people, however much a thin veneer of Christianity may remain painted overtop. To quote Lewis again, “Great Britain is as much part of the mission field as China.” Our call is to missionary work, to make the Gospel intelligible and compelling to modern people. We do this by changing the people, not the Gospel.
What then for the Church of England? Archbishop Rowan Williams said, the vote “did nothing to make polarization in our church less likely, and the risk of treating further polarization of views is a very great one”. Polarization is, for the archbishop, the great disaster, the one thing he fought valiantly against for his entire tenure as archbishop of Canterbury as he strove to keep the various fighting factions together within the same church. The Church of England is built upon the foundation of what some have described as “glorious comprehension”, the ability to be so comprehensive as to hold together in a single body both high church and low, both liberals and conservatives, both fundamentalists and feminists, both those who believe the Resurrection of Christ actually occurred in history and those who regard it as a mere metaphor, both those who regard gay marriage as simple common sense and those who regard it as an abomination. A very comprehensive church indeed, and one can only sympathize with anyone whose assigned task it is to keep everyone together in this venerable institution. But this task is an impossible one, since it involves attempting to reconcile the irreconcilable. And whatever the task of a State Church may be in securing national unity (the original raison-d’etre of the Church of England), it has never been the task of the apostolic Church founded by Christ to give equal time to both truth and error. The Church which held the ecumenical councils did not think it proper to allow both an Arian party and a Nicene party to co-exist within it, nor did it lament the polarization of the Arians and the Orthodox. Indeed, the Council of Nicea was called for the express purpose of polarizing truth and error, and for drawing a firm dividing line between the different groups espousing them.
I do sympathize with those in the Church of England who were bitterly frustrated by the results of the vote. The Church of England, considered as a body, clearly wants to ordain women as bishops, and I see no reason why they should not do so. Let the State Church become as secular as it wants, and let those unhappy with a secularized church leave and form an alternative. This alternative would not be established, of course, but if the Church of England continues to not ordain women bishops, it might become disestablished anyway. And it is at least arguable that being established has not made the Church’s job of converting the population any easier in the long run, and even functions to some disadvantage. Islam is growing there, and it is not established.
In its current state, the Church of England is a house divided, and this internal division is a source of frustration for all concerned within it. Those pushing for the ordination of women have vowed to go on pushing until they are successful, while those who oppose it will continue to rely upon the internal legal machinery of the voting process to frustrate the majority, and will suffer increasing denunciation for it. No one is happy, and the situation is clearly intolerable. Like Israel in the days of Elijah, its membership seems to be limping between two opinions (1 Kg. 18:21). Enough limping. It is time to choose.