Medical Tuesday Blog
Anglicanism And Women Bishops
Hello ladies, goodbye Communion?
The Economist | Print Edition | Nov 19th 2014 | by B.C
AMID loud sighs of relief in many quarters, and muffled moans from a traditionalist minority, the Church of England has cleared the last procedural obstacle to the appointment of women bishops. At a meeting on Monday of the church’s General Synod, only around 30 of the 480 people present raised their hands against the necessary change in canon law. This means that a woman could be wearing episcopal purple by the end of the year, and a lady could join the ranks of the “lords spiritual”—Anglican prelates who sit in the upper chamber of Parliament—by next spring.
This was a big but expected landmark; a Synod vote two years ago, in which the measure narrowly failed to gain the approval of lay delegates, looks in retrospect like a rather weird anomaly. The change was overwhelmingly favoured by the leadership of the church, the clergy (one-third of which is female), and by public opinion—which matters for a church which aspires to be the spiritual voice of a whole nation, however diverse or secular. The feelings of low-church evangelicals who oppose women bishops have to some degree been assuaged by a promise that one of their number will be appointed to high office; among high-church opponents, quite a few have taken up an offer to join the Roman Catholic church. So hard-line opposition to ladies in purple has gradually faded. . .
Nobody can deny that Justin Welby, who is leader both of England’s established church and worldwide Anglicanism, has tried his best keep the family intact. As he told the Synod, he has visited 36 fellow “primates” of Anglican provinces in the past 18 months, covering virtually the entirety of an institution that functions in every corner of the world, especially places where the British flag once flew. And although he was well received almost everywhere, he had to acknowledge that:
There are enormous problems. We have deep divisions in many areas, not only sexuality…Our divisions may be too much to manage. In many parts of the Communion…there is a belief that opponents are either faithless to the tradition, or by contrast that they are cruel, judgemental, inhuman. I have to say that we are in a state so delicate that without prayer and repentance, it is hard to see how we can avoid some serious fractures.
In even plainer language, the division between (roughly speaking) northern and especially North American liberals, and traditionalists whose biggest stronghold is Africa, has become or is about to become unmanageable. As the archbishop implied, the split is mainly but not purely over same-sex relations. At one end of the spectrum, the Episcopal Church of the United States has consecrated an openly lesbian bishop; at the other end, African bishops have supported harsh anti-gay laws. By comparison with same-sex relations, the issue of female clergy and bishops is not especially divisive, though Nigeria stands out as a large Anglican province where women are not ordained to any clerical rank. But developing-world conservatives are also dismayed when their northern colleagues make liberal theological noises—by suggesting, for example, that Jesus Christ might not offer the only path to salvation.
In his latest speech, Archbishop Welby acknowledged for the first time that the Lambeth conference—a once-in-a-decade gathering of Anglican bishops—might never happen again. Nor, he made clear, was it even certain whether the basis existed for convening another “primates’ meeting”—a global gathering of slightly lesser status which would normally take place every couple of years. In any case, he was no longer prepared to take sole responsibility for deciding such matters; instead there should be a “collegial model of leadership” with Anglican leaders from around the world deciding which meetings were worthwhile.
Despite all this, the archbishop gallantly insisted, reports of the global club’s death were exaggerated. “The Anglican Communion exists and is flourishing in roughly 165 countries.” That may be sort-of true as far as it goes, but it is rather like the Queen saying that the Commonwealth exists. Of course it does, in the sense that nobody has abolished it, and not many people have left it. But post-imperial arrangements can lose salience very gradually, to the point where the boundary between existence and non-existence becomes almost imperceptible.