Thursday, November 22, 2012

The Church of England's Vote on Women Bishop

             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 societyYou 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.


  1. Some thoughts:
    I) There is no demographic evidence of a significant increase of Islam in Europe. There is not one peer-reviewed demographic, statistical study that shows that the percentage of the European Muslim community has increased significantly in the past 100 years. The numbers have gone up, but not the percentages. Albania is still the European country with the highest percent of Muslims, while Britain still has one of the lowest percentage of Muslims. These claims that Europe is getting "Islamified" are nothing more than conspiracy theories, personified by Anders Behring Breivik and his mass slaughter on Utoye Island.
    II) Orthodox shouldn't get too smug about goings on in the Church of England. Too many Orthodox seem to think that it's obligatory to be a monarchist, that monarchism is grounded in an "Orthodox world-view". They will be staunch defenders even of the House of Windsor. And yet, Her Majesty remains the offical head of a "relevant" church that will eventually ordain women bishops; and of a church in which clergy don't believe in the Resurrection of Our Lord, and where men can marry men. Meanwhile, in republics like Greece, Russia, or Bulgaria, the Orthodox Church can keep itself away from the pitfalls of theological liberalism without a monarch - with or without being established Churches.

  2. You are correct that the rate of growth in Islam in Britain is contested, with some quoting what are to them alarming rates of growth, and others suggesting that the rate is quite modest. That is why I did not commit myself to either view, saying rather "some are suggesting that Islam is growing faster in Britain than is the Church of England". Given that numbers for the C. of E. are declining quickly, doing better than this is not hard to do.
    Regarding the monarchy: while you and I disagree about the value of the British monarchy, I think we can agree that the Monarch should not be the head of the church, and that having such a head (or "Governor" as the term has it; the practical difference is hard to see) has not kept that church from a slide into secularism. Prince Charles, I think, even suggested that the historic title "the Defender of the Faith" (i.e. the Christian Faith--bestowed on Henry VIII for his defence against Luther's teaching) be changed to "Defender of faith" (i.e. any faith). This suggestion, to my mind, reveals the total irrelevance of the Monarch to the historic Christian church there.

  3. This article brings up questions I have about Orthodoxy's own state churches, as those in Russia and Greece. (I'm not sure if they are state churches in the same sense that the Church of England is, but they have a certain presence as a national institution.)I am an Orthodox Christian in Canada with Protestant friends who live in Greece. While they are not hostile to the Orthodox church, they are fairly critical. Some of their criticism is theological (questioning of the veneration of the Theotokos and the Saints, the place of Tradition in relation to Scripture, etc.). I feel I can enter into a discussion with my friends on these points, but when they bring up the fact that they know so many people who call themselves Orthodox but almost never attend church and never read the Scripture, I am at a loss. I know the same can be said of people who call themselves Christians of every denomination in every part of the world and perhaps it is simply not my place to answer for the Greek Church (probably it is no one's place). But nevertheless, this is the scenario that has been thrown into my lap and my question is twofold:

    1) Is there anything I can/should say in regards to this criticism of cultural Orthodoxy? and
    2) Is the Orthodox church itself in error by having such close ties to earthly political systems?


  4. Dear Sarah: Thank you for your comments. In attempting an answer to your two excellent questions I would say:
    1) I quite agree that those who call themselves "Orthodox" and yet never go to church or read Scripture should reconsider their self-designation. I think the Fathers would define someone as "Orthodox" or "Christian" only if their lives reflected love for Christ. Perhaps "apostate Orthodox" would be the more accurate designation for those who once were baptized but now have fallen away from communicant status in the church and discipleship to Jesus. That at least would not give the merely culturally Orthodox a false sense of security, and would point them in the direction of repentance and true faith.
    2) I think that having close ties to earthly political systems and governments is a mixed blessing. While it allows for opportunities to influence Caesar for good, it does tend to involve the Church in ambiguous situations and can to blunt our sense of belonging primarily to the age to come. It is difficult to keep the balance. I am sometimes tempted to say that the job is best done by people who have recently been martyred by the system, as was the case in the years of Constantine's early reign, when many of the bishops at the State-sponsored Council of Nicea had suffered under Diocletian. It is a difficult situation. I think that simply renouncing any State ties is irresponsible, but the Church should all the more care to retain its prophetic and eschatological stance.


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