Last week, the General Synod of the Church of England rejected a revision of canon law which—coming after years of deliberations, defections, redraftings, and often ugly debates—would finally have opened its episcopate to women. This wasn’t the outcome envisioned in 2008, when the Synod voted to remove the last traces of discrimination from church law, or in the summer of 2010, when the Synod voted to proceed with the revision.
By the fall of that year, there was a new Synod, its lay members elected in their home dioceses for a five-year term, and the draft revision it produced was in fact a disappointment to the battle-weary church progressives who supported it, faute de mieux. It was a compromise, intended to appease the ultra-traditionalists of the church’s Anglo-Catholic wing (Paul of Tarsus: “Let your women keep silent in the churches, for they are not permitted to speak”) and the ultra-conservatives of its increasingly dominant evangelical wing (Paul again: “The head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man”). Specifically, it guaranteed alternative (read “male”) clerics to parishes that refused to accept the ritual services of a female priest, let alone a female bishop or even a male priest ordained by a female bishop. In other words, it set a double standard where bishops were concerned; and yet even that turned out not to be enough of a compromise.
Never mind that the C. of E. has been ordaining women for twenty years, or that by now those women account for a third of its clergy, or, for that matter, that taken together more than seventy per cent of the bishops, clergy, and laity who make up the three “houses” of synod voted for the revision. Think of that seventy per cent as the popular vote. Now think of the “houses” of synod as a kind of electoral college. For the revision to pass, two-thirds of the members of each “house” would have to had voted “yes.” The bishops and clergy did much better than that (only three bishops were opposed). The revision was killed in the House of Laity, which approved the revision by a substantial simple majority (132-74) but was six votes short of the two-thirds mark—which is to say that six people out of a synod of nearly four hundred and fifty men and women have formally put the country’s established church—its church of state, directly responsible to Parliament and the reigning monarch since Henry VIII broke with Rome in the sixteenth century—in violation of Britain’s Equality Act, which since 2010 has forbidden social and professional discrimination.
The Church of England accounts for some twenty-six million of the world’s eighty million Anglicans. Less than two million of them actually go to church on Sundays, though that number has been rising as the ten-easy-steps-to-God evangelicals draw crowds of euphoric teen-agers and twentysomethings to services that are arguably more multi-media-party than solemnly sacramental. You could probably describe England as a secular state that identifies itself as Christian—after which you would have to ask: Why was secular England so shaken by the news from the Synod that even the conservative Prime Minister took it upon himself to tell the Church of England to “get on with it”? The truth is that the English are caught up in the machinations of their established church in ways that have very little to do with Sunday services. The Church of England represents the state—it has the imprimatur of officialdom and, because of this, considerable privilege and status. More to the point, it provides parochial social services to people of all religions in the state’s name, and is the source of the pomp and circumstance with which royal unions attach themselves to a history of authority and tradition and preserve a dynastic claim. Its ritual head may be the Archbishop of Canterbury, but its official head is Elizabeth II, and its overseers sit in the Houses of Lords and Commons. There have, over the centuries, been movements to disestablish, but the C. of E. has ridden the coattails of the “exemption” from equality that Catholics and other religions (not to mention London’s men’s clubs) claim. Until last week, neither the Queen nor the Parliament has had to consider the elevation of women bishops—for the simple reason that no Synod had reached the stage of producing a canonical revision to that effect. The difference today is that a revision was produced and rejected before it left the Synod floor—which meant that an arm of the state had pointedly defied the state’s law against discrimination.
How did this happen? By stealth, the women of the church said. Here is how my friend Judith Maltby—the canon and chaplain of Corpus Christi, an Oxford historian, and a Synod member—put it, when I called: “We’d been assuming that the problem was the conservative Anglo-Catholics, but they’re a diminishing group, and a lot of them really do want to be part of the Church of England; most realized that this compromise was the best deal they could get. The others needed the conservative evangelicals to defeat the revision—it’s the evangelicals who have the numbers and the money and the real power, and they don’t care about the rest of us. They don’t think that we’re really Christians. They wanted the right terms—a church within a church—so they made a power grab, with women being the convenient issue. They were pretty well organized. They worked the grass roots, where most lay people in a diocese don’t know each other well and don’t always have the time or energy to run for Synod. They told those people, ‘Oh, we’re all for women priests,’ and the trusting electorate voted them into the House of Laity. Remember, it only took six of them to defeat us.” Maybe the real question, in politics as in religion, should be: Why is the right so much better at stealth than the rest of us?
One of the ironies of the Synod vote was that Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury and a proponent of women bishops, had devoted more of his time, energy, and influence to looking for ways to keep conservatives happy and in the church than to fighting for his own side of the debate, while Justin Welby (pictured above), the incoming Archbishop and an evangelical, spoke so passionately in favor of women bishops that, as Maltby put it, “We thought the on-the-fence evangelicals might be swayed.” It didn’t happen. I asked her to describe Welby, a former oil executive who had quit business to study for the Anglican priesthood after his first child had died in a car accident. She said, “In some ways, Welby’s faith started in that evangelical theological culture, and he grew broader from that.” The conservatives in the church, having watched their old archbishop back away from his deepest convictions to accommodate the most intransigent among them, might end up wishing they had him back.
One of the things that most distressed the women I spoke with when the Synod ended was what one called “the institutionalization of eternal subordination”—the idea of clergywomen being somehow destined to remain subordinate to their male colleagues not just for the moment—in real time—but forever, up to and including heaven. They were even more distressed by the coverage of what had happened, given that so few journalists grasped the extent to which the revision itself had undermined them, as second-class priests, both practically and theologically. As Maltby told me, “We have to earn our place at the table. As things stand now, how can I say that my church deserves the privileges it has in sectors committed to equality. We have a ‘we share your values’ defeat.”
No one knows what will happen now. Parliament does have the legal right to introduce a new bill that no one can contest. There are already calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England; this won’t happen, but there is some chance that its bishops will be asked to leave the House of Lords, at least until the Church accepts its obligations under the country’s anti-discrimination laws. The E.U. will certainly complain, because under European law public bodies are “called on” to conform with exceptional effort and attention to public practice.
Three years ago, I went to see the great Oxford historian of Christianity (and former ordained deacon) Diarmaid MacCulloch, and asked him to explain the roots of such lingering hostility to the idea of women bishops. He laughed and called it a piece of theatre, confabulated by men still smarting from the fact that Christ chose two women to witness and announce the Resurrection. I quoted him then, and I’ll do it again, now: “The historical ‘against-women’ argument about twelve male apostles—it comes from the early years of the Christian era and the spectacles put forth by the male leaders, who [had] wanted to be the ones to ‘see’ Christ first. By the end of the second century, a male leadership had emerged, and after that it became the men-were-what-the-Holy-Spirit-intended argument and then the tradition-of-the-church argument. It was specious. Slavery was also our ‘tradition’ for seventeen hundred years. If you want a doctrine of the Holy Spirit, you change.”
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