I was primed yesterday to cheer the Church of England’s decision to allow women bishops . . . and then they didn’t. Around three quarters of the church’s General Synod voted in favour of women bishops, but requiring a two thirds majority in all three Houses (Bishops, Clergy, and Laity), the proposal fell short by six votes in the Laity.
To understand my interest in the internal affairs of another church requires an understanding of the Church of England’s role in the United Kingdom. It is the nation’s established church — its Supreme Governor (a woman, note the irony) is the Queen, its bishops sit in the House of Lords, its rituals (seen on state occasions) are part of the public religion. Thus the Church of England belongs in some sense to all of us.
I have four things to say about yesterday’s vote and I would welcome your comments:
1. The British tolerate anachronism so long as it is not demonstrated to be harmful or ridiculous. Now that the exclusion of women from the episcopacy is in front of the nation I think it renders the Lords Spiritual illegitimate. To seat, by right, senior members of the Church of England in the upper chamber is one thing; it is another to exclude women from those seats. Now that this is made jarringly plain, I wonder if the Lords Spiritual can last much longer if women continue to be barred.
2. I essentially agree with Professor Oman that there is not a good case for continuing the exclusion of women from the priesthood. Certainly, the Bible gives no compelling reason to do so, unless you believe that ancient Jewish cultural norms somehow give insight into God’s eternal and immutable view of gender roles. Having already allowed women priests, it is a nonsense to disallow women bishops in the church. It is a nonsense plain to see and does violence to that good old fashioned notion of English common sense that the Anglicans ought to embody. As a side note, Anglicans in Utah will have known a woman bishop and as far as I can tell, the sky did not fall.
3. John Fowles has remarked to me that however annoying the outcome, this was a victory for a robust notion of government by common consent. One hears the observation by some Mormons of how the CoE is hopelessly divided and thus compares poorly with the LDS church, but that is to compare apples and oranges. Mormons employ a closed, top-down ecclesiology that is not accountable to wider society and relatively easy to manage. Similarly, the Roman Catholic tradition has the power of proclamations given ex cathedra, and rules largely by fiat rather than consent. These are not criticisms, but a recognition that the Church of England has a very different role. It is the public church and thus must be seen to both do its business in public and employ a robust system of democratic voice. To do otherwise would be to threaten its privileged place. Of course, the result is the kind of messiness on display yesterday. I think that is to be applauded; to wish for greater unanimity would be also to wish for disestablishment.
4. I support establishment. Our society is overwhelmingly secular already and the benign influence of the church in government is a small attempt at counterbalance. One could call for a more inclusive religious representation — as in Charles’ wish to be known as “Defender of Faith” rather than “Defender of the Faiths” — but I think that would result in a damp squib of nothingness.
An interesting day.