Thoughts on the Anglican decision

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.

The disappointment was palpable. The next Archbishop of Canterbury has described yesterday as “grim” and carpers on the left are talking about the church’s “suicide.”

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.


  1. Just a questioning thought: Do you see contradiction in a church that is state-recognized not being accountable to the same laws of equality as other state-affiliated entities? Although I guess I am presuming (probably ignorantly so, and if so please pardon me) there is equality under law in England for genders, races, etc.

  2. The United Kingdom is a mess of compromise and contradiction, but we muddle through. Equality in the UK is largely a matter of common law with some relation to the 1689 Bill of Rights. Our adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights ensures that there is statutory equality but at the same time there is a strong resistance to changing tradition for change’s sake. My point #1 is that there is now the potential for that tradition and equality law to collide, however.

  3. H. A. Worle says:

    Another question for us uninitiated: There appears o be a contradiction incorporated in the second sentence of your post. Please explain what is meant by the “General Synod,” of which you say roughly 75% were for the proposal, and the “Laity,” which you say fell six votes short of a 66% vote for the proposal. If Laity means what it typically means, namely the non-clergy membership of the church, that would mean an extremely narrow defeat for this proposal, because there must be millions of them. I’m sure this is a total misunderstanding of how things work, therefore please explain.

  4. The House of Laity is a representative body of the laity comprising around 200 members. The wiki on General Synod is your friend here!

  5. @KerbearRN – Equality in England and Wales is largely mandated by the Equality Act 2010 (there are similar acts in force in Northern Ireland, such as the Relations Act 1976). The Equality Act 2010 puts a duty on the public sector, including persons who are not public authorities but exercise public functions, to advance equality and avoid discrimination based on certain protected characteristics, including sex (section 149). However, there are a number of excepted bodies, and the General Synod of the Church of England is one of them (schedule 18). Thus, equality legislation in the United Kingdom does not impose an obligation on the Church of England to have female bishops or female anything. If the Church of England moves in that direction, at least under the current legislative framework, it will have to be according to its powers of self-government.

  6. Gabriel, your assesment of the law is correct, but my sense is that the English tolerate such anachronisms as the Lords Spiritual because they are not a conscious bother. However, now that their maleness is now made so stark, that tolerance may begin to wear thin.

  7. Thanks, Ronan. I read the news yesterday with interest, but this helps me better understand the context surrounding the vote.

  8. RJH, the Lords Spiritual are a strange thing indeed. I remember how odd it was to me (i am not British) when i first heard about them. What is just as strange to me is that there is an entire house of parliament that is largely appointed as opposed to elected. That to me is as anachronistic as having clergy sit in the legislature.

  9. It is both anachronistic and wholly wonderful. An upper chamber that doesn’t need to wade in the muck of electioneering? Priceless.

  10. “Now that the exclusion of women from the episcopacy is in front of the nation I think it renders the Lords Spiritual illegitimate.”
    Only if it holds no actual powers; something that by all that I know (and that is limited to the usual American understandings) it already is illegitimate. Seems that the State Religion, like all Christian state religions in the modern era, is a figure head only with no actual governance beyond its religious borders. They might have a vote for what happens in the secular government, but there isn’t any laws it can enforce.

    ” I essentially agree with Professor Oman that there is not a good case for continuing the exclusion of women from the priesthood.”
    That is unless you read his second and third paragraph that make a great case of why women shouldn’t hold the Priesthood offices (I believe that a women who goes to the Temple already holds essential Priesthood, married or not). He basically argues for women getting the Priesthood (offices) and then automatically argues there has to be developed other gender differences to offset the change. If you are going to argue for equality then argue for it all the way, or not at all. I am voting for religious and theological reasons not at all. I also believe that the Bible is filled with arguments for men only Priesthood and yes, “. . . ancient Jewish cultural norms somehow give insight into God’s eternal and immutable view of gender roles.”

    Number 3 is why most modern religions are becoming, and Christian state religions have become, irrelevant. They proclaim their beliefs and positions by the voice of the people and not of God. Western people today may be more comfortable with a democratic religion, but it loses any self-contained identity and therefore becomes soft while not keeping the loss of membership at bay any better than more strict organizations. I don’t think religions are losing membership because people losing faith in institutions, but losing faith in faith. Organized religion has just become the “whipping boys” of an ego driven society.

    “Our society is overwhelmingly secular already”
    That is the Church’s fault for not putting its foot down and fighting to consolidate power and authority at the state level. They could have made and enforced a law, for instance, that all citizens must attend state church, or with waiver another of their choosing so long as they attend. Who to blame for the disengagement of the religion in public matters I am not sure. If a reassertion is even desirable or possible is questionable.

    All of this will probably be in 100 years mute as Islam starts to assert its control over England. The state religion will become de facto controlled by shari law in large parts of the United Kingdom as the Church of England continues to lose its tentative importance.

  11. Good point re: number 3.

  12. Latter-day Guy says:

    All of this will probably be in 100 years mute [sic] as Islam starts to assert its control over England. The state religion will become de facto controlled by shari [sic] law in large parts of the United Kingdom…

    Hmm. When was the last time you were in the UK, jettboy? I just don’t see that happening.

  13. Don’t feed the troll, L-dG.

    More interesting is this: one Labour MP is introducing a bill to remove all the church’s exemptions relating to sex discrimination. This may all seem like ecclesiastical minutiae from the US, but this strikes at the heart of the English establishment in very interesting ways, which is why it has toppled Gaza from the headline spot over here.

  14. There’s also an interesting Tea Party analogue here. Both the population at large and the laity as a whole support women bishops, but the conservative wing has organised itself successfully enough to be an over-represented voice in the synod. A minority of activists have pulled the church far right of both its ordinary members and the country as a whole. The result is damaging to the church.

  15. I’m still stuck in Gilbert and Sullivan:

    When Wellington thrashed Bonaparte,
    As every child can tell,
    The House of Peers, throughout the war,
    Did nothing in particular,
    And did it very well.

    As long as the House of Lords continues to do nothing in particular, I’m not too concerned who or what is appointed a Peer. An orangutan? What difference does it make?

  16. It’s strange, isn’t it, and yet so common. If my side wins an election, then truth and justice have prevailed and the decision should be respected permanently — but if my side loses, then there is unfairness and we need to keep trying to overcome those benighted people who did prevail this time.

    Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, the process is more important than the outcome.

  17. 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.

    In the old days. there were arguments about altar rails and cleric dress and so forth, and people killed each other to get their way. I like the current process much better.

  18. Except, umm, the sky IS falling!
    # of Episcopalians in the US in the mid-60’s: 3.4 million.
    # today: 1.9 million.
    The result of following modern secular trends on women and gays = irrelevence, decline, and, ultimately, death.

  19. Contrast that with the Catholic Church, which has continued to grow but not budged on women priests.

  20. Of course, what the Church of England does and how it does it is their business, but there is something to the argument that letting popular trends govern your theology (and consequently your practice) simply waters down your belief system and makes it irrelevant because it offers nothing that is not to be found in a secularist worldview. If whatever current of doctrine flows out there sets your ship on a new course, there is no point in being in the ship. There was an op-ed piece about this in the New York Times (“Can liberal Christianity be saved?”) which i found interesting.

  21. Mark Brown says:

    I would like to politely push back against this assumption that the growth of decline in church membership is an accurate indicator of a denomination’s alignment with God’s will. Don’t look now, but LDS membership in Europe is on the decline. As for the U.S. Catholic church, it is closing parishes all over the country. The growth is has experienced is almost exclusively due to the in-migration of Hispanic Catholics from other parts of the world and has nothing to do with the church’s position on gays or birth control or female ordination. And the Vatican’s position on homosexuality and celibacy is certainly implicated in the recent scandals, to say no more.

    If the growth of church membership is a sign of God’s approval, we need to quit being Mormons and start being Pentecostals or Jehovah’s Witnesses. Their growth rates around the world are better than ours.

  22. MB: The catholic church closes parishes because of physical demographic change more than numbers. The old 19-th to early 20th century parish structure was based on dense urban immigrant populations, often using ‘old country languages,’ etc. With the decline of those kinds of populations, they are no longer needed.

    FWIW, the episcopal church has lost about a million members in since Gene Robinson was elected. There, it’s not about general trends. It’s really about a church deciding scripture wasn’t important and then moving to actively drive out those who think it is.

  23. Mark Brown says:

    TMD: Right. The Catholic church’s decline or growth is all about demographics, not doctrinal positions in the culture wars.

    As for the Episcopal church, thus sayeth Wiki:

    “…the Episcopal Church’s membership numbers were broadly flat throughout the 1990s, with a slight growth in the first years of the 21st century. A loss of 115,000 members was reported for the years 2003–05, which has been attributed in part to controversy concerning ordination of homosexuals to the priesthood and the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, but is a similar rate of loss to that which prevailed in the period from 1967–69, when the church lost 113,000 members, which has been attributed in part to liberal policies in an age of racial tension.”

  24. Latter-day Guy says:

    It’s really about a church deciding scripture wasn’t important and then moving to actively drive out those who think it is.

    Wow. Do you always use this kind of charity in your interpretations of other folks’ actions, or do you pull it out and dust it off just for the holidays? Suffice it to say, there are many Episcopalians that would strongly disagree with what you’ve just written. Just because they take a different position than you do on a given doctrine doesn’t mean they decided “scripture wasn’t important”. Your characterization is neither accurate nor useful.

  25. Amen to L-dG. Anglicans I know believe that scripture is very much important, they just sometimes interpret it differently to you. And remember, *all* scripture reading is interpretation.

    Ditto also to Mark Brown’s comment about LDS membership numbers in Europe.

  26. For example, pro-female clergy Anglicans take Gal 3:28 and Mary Magdalene’s witness of the resurrection very seriously. Their opponents take other passages seriously. What’s left is interpretation.

  27. Um, SisterX, it would be good to take note of some of the results of (among other things) not having women priests, and the resulting precipitous decline in participation among U.S. Catholics….

    Also, here’s a good response to “Can Liberal Christianity be Saved?

  28. Left Field says:

    Is there anything in the Doctrine and Covenants that prohibits priesthood from women? The closest I can think of is OD2, which acknowledges that faithful worthy men may be ordained, but which is silent on the ordination of women. All those revelations on priesthood, and it is curious that something allegedly so important was left out.

  29. Personally, I think it’s hard to argue that temple endowed women don’t have the Priesthood. It’s only outside the temple that they can’t use it in the performance of ordinances and by being ordained to an official office in the Priesthood. Based on our history, I would say that restriction fits firmly into the place of policy – not immutable, divine doctrine.

    Since the word “bishop” appears in the Bible in only six places, and since there is only one place where it can be read reasonably that it is a male office only, the issue of female “Bishops” is more an issue of holding to the restriction in 1 Timothy 3:2 of bishops being monogamous men – but we have gutted that restriction already by the extension of the office to polygamous men (and our general unwillingness to hold to a strict application of all Biblical practices), so it’s hard for us to argue that position. Furthermore, we already have situations where women have organizational stewardship over Priesthood-holding, temple endowed men, so we can’t argue against that structure as being opposed to divine will.

    In other words, I think our current policy is rooted in the gendered language of the D&C and in the precedent of our early organizational structure. Since on-going revelation has allowed us to make some significant policy changes in the past, a change in policy to allow temple endowed women to use their Priesthood in the performance of ordinances and stewardship to include entire congregations wouldn’t bother me in the least.

  30. I still don’t see anyone adressing the massive decine in Episcopalian numbers. I will conced that the Catholic counterpoint is confounded by immigration. Yet, still, you have massive declines in Episcopalians attendant to liberalization. And birth-rate is endogenous. Trying to push LDS down this same path is suicidal.

  31. >Trying to push LDS down this same path is suicidal.

    Do you think that if the church began ordaining women it would be suicidal?

  32. Mark Brown says:

    Within the past decade the LDS church has closed over 900 wards in the countries of Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Peru.

    I attribute this massive decline to our church’s liberal policies on women and gays.

  33. Latter-day Guy says:

    I still don’t see anyone adressing [sic] the massive decine [sic] in Episcopalian numbers. I will conced [sic] that the Catholic counterpoint is confounded by immigration. Yet, still, you have massive declines in Episcopalians attendant to liberalization. And birth-rate is endogenous. Trying to push LDS down this same path is suicidal.

    Though it’s possibly (probably) stupid to do so, I’m going to bite on this one. You see, the problem here is an undeclared bedrock of presupposition. First, you (and doubtless many others) assume that the “massive decline” in the American branch of Anglicanism can be piled at the doorstep of “liberalization” and “modern secular trends”. I’m not so sure the case is that clear; perhaps this is a situation in which we succumb to the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.

    Second, and even more fundamentally, it seems there is an inclination to equate increasing membership with validity. But this inclination only lasts so long as it is advantageous, and it is quickly abandoned when the numbers do not work in one’s favor. If membership of the favored group is rising, this is a sign of relevance and vitality. When it falls in the opposite camp, it signals “irrelevence, [sic] decline, and, ultimately, death.” When the numbers demand it, though, the rhetoric conveniently stands on its head. Irrelevance is oh-so-easily re-branded as courage in the face of unpopularity, declining membership becomes a sign of a leaner, meaner, more faithful cohort rising to the top.

    Episcopalians lose membership because of changes in their Church? Surely, it’s a sign of what happens when we kowtow to The World™.

    An increase of resignations from the LDS Church after Prop 8 in California? Well, we’re a peculiar people, after all. This isn’t a popularity contest.

    Neither is convincing.

  34. Anglican link provides excellent dissident coverage from within the epsicopal church. The words I used were not my own but the words of friends who are traditionalist anglican/episcopal clergy. For instance, one described the recent move to silence a set of bishops, for opinions on church polity divergent from PB Shori’s (, as “My bishops are now charged with fraud, financial misconduct, etc. by the 815 thought-police fascists.”

    In describing the nature of the arguments in TEC, look at the Bishop of South Carolina’s recent speech to his convention (before it voted to leave):

    “We have spent far too many hours and days and years in a dubious and fruitless resistance to the relentless path of TEC. And while some of us still struggle in grief at what has happened and where these extraordinary days have brought us, I believe it is time to turn the page. The leaders of TEC have made their positions known—our theological and creedal commitments regarding the trustworthiness of Scripture, the uniqueness and universality of Jesus Christ, and other precious truths, while tolerated, are just opinions among others; our understanding of human nature, the given-ness of gender as male and female, woven by God into the natural and created order, is now declared by canon law to be unacceptable; our understanding of marriage as proclaimed in the Book of Common Prayer “established by God in creation” and espoused by Anglicans around the world hangs precariously in the life of the Episcopal Church by a thin and fraying thread; and our understanding of the church’s polity, which until the legal strategy of the present Presiding Bishop’s litigation team framed their legal arguments, was a widely held and respected position in this church . Now to hold it and express it is tantamount to misconduct or worse to act upon it – is ruled as abandonment of this church. While one might wish the theological and moral concerns were on center stage, it is the Disciplinary Board for Bishops misuse of the church’s polity that has finally left us no place to stand within TEC. So be it. They have spoken. We have acted. We have withdrawn from that Church that we along with six other dioceses help to organize centuries ago.”

    in moving against the SC diocese, “the Anglican Communion Institute noted the actions taken by the presiding bishop and the loyalist group violated civil and canonical law. The Episcopal Church has “no canonical basis for the actions that the Presiding Bishop and pro-TEC local parishes appear to be taking. There is no canonical authority for an ‘Interim Bishop’ to be ‘appointed by the Presiding Bishop’ in an existing diocese. Nor is there any canonical basis for a self-appointed ‘Steering Committee’ to attempt to ‘reorganize’ an existing diocese, to ‘communicate with the Presiding Bishop’ or be advised by other bishops of the church.”

    The ACI further stated the “absence of any canons authorizing what the Presiding Bishop and others are doing is proof that TEC is operating under a profoundly flawed understanding of the church’s polity.””

  35. Robert_Patterson says:

    I don’t know . . . the decline in Episcopal numbers is scary. Who’s to say this wouldn’t happen to us if we “liberalized”? What is the alternative explanation for their decline? It seems to me that all of the mainline, liberal Prot. churches are shrinking and only the. ore conservative groups are holding their own. The same is true with Jews in the US.

  36. And as to believing in scripture, I mean, Shori’s easter message didn’t even mention Jesus this year. Nor the actual, you know, resurrection.

  37. More enlightened students now know that scripture is the record of some writers written decades after Jesus died on the cross. It is their personal testimony from the oral tradition. As we all know, there are many ancient records that didn’t make the cut. Theology was as varied in the ancient world as it is today. Scripture is valuable, once you strip away the myth because it’s the only way we know Jesus even existed. His message of the Kingdom of God (people taking care of one another) has long been traded for salvation theology, which is a selfish “me” theology. Christianity has bought into that heresy.

  38. Left Field says:

    Wait a minute… Don’t we believe in revelation any more? If God were to give us the go-ahead on “liberalization” (however it be defined), isn’t that what we should do? Or instead of actually consulting the Almighty, should we consult instead with the Episcopalians and make a decision based on what the Episcopalians predict will be the effect on our membership numbers?

  39. JennyP1969 says:

    My friends of Protestant faiths are leaving because they can no longer accept patriarchal systems that claim to serve women, minorities (including LGBT), the poor, the distressed, and the lost while never including these very groups in the governing body(ies) of decision-making policies, programs, and interpretation of doctrine. They prefer to worship God privately now because they do not see Jesus’ teachings in their church’s stands and proclaimed doctrines. They see too much preaching of condemnation of other religions or ways of life. They see more negative harping than inspiring words of holiness.

  40. So, Jennyp1969, you’re suggesting that the FAILURE to liberalize has resulted in conservative churches losing membership–particularly young members. So perhaps being a tail-light rather than a headlight is not terribly advantageous except in keeping the intact members comfortable. I believe in a dynamic doctrine, and share RJH’s disappointment. I have long felt that the ideal presiding system would be a couple rather than just a man. That wouldn’t work in Roman Catholic churches because of the celibacy rule, but the Anglicans could manage it. Too bad that didn’t happen. But it will eventually, I’m sure.

  41. While there have been very visible exoduses from the Episcopal Church due to the major liberal decisions it has made, I think that (from the bit that I’ve read on the subject) the most long-term damaging “problem” in the EC and other liberal protestant groups is simply that liberals have fewer children. I attended an EC a few weeks ago and it was simply a service full of old people, or young families with perhaps 1-2 children. And I use scare quotes around “problem” because, as has been pointed out, a decline in numbers isn’t technically a problem unless growth = truth. The RC can replenish its numbers despite major hemorrhages of de-converts because many Catholics have many kids. Now I’m not saying that’s the only or even main reason the EC has declined so dramatically, but I think that it’s the biggest “snowball” type contributing factor over the last half-century and shouldn’t be overlooked in discussions like this.

  42. Robert_Patterson says:

    I don’t think one can separate the low birth-rates from the liberalization. They are causally interwoven.

  43. JennyP1969 says:

    Yes, dear Margaret, I am saying exactly that.

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