The Church of England rejects women bishops

N.b., A revised version of this post will follow in coming days.

Today, the General Synod of the Church of England was all-but universally expected to approve a motion authorizing the consecration of women as bishops, eighteen years after the Anglicans first ordained women to the priesthood in 1994 and twenty-five years after their first female deacons in 1987. 1 It didn’t. A visibly-deflated John Sentamu announced the tally: A two-thirds majority being required in each house, the motion passed the House of Bishops by 44 to 3 with two abstentions, the House of Clergy by 148 to 45 with no abstentions, but failed to gain a sufficient majority in the House of laity, failing 132 to 74 with no abstentions. 2

This is a baffling turn of events. It must be said that the reactions of many disappointed supporters has been churlish at best, and the threats to have Parliament force the church to fall in line ought to horrify even the most committed supporters of female bishops. 3 Nevertheless, one must wonder whether the opponents are not living in a dream world, for both halves of the opposition—the low-church evangelicals and the very high-church Anglo-Caths 4—are dragging out a question that was actually decided, it seems to me, eighteen years ago, a quarter-century ago, or several centuries ago, depending on how one sees it.

It seems to me that the issue was given away entirely when women were ordained to the Anglican priesthood; thereafter, what possible reason could be adduced for refusing to consecrate them as bishops? From a theoretical perspective, it could only be a matter of time, 5 and it’s hard to understand how anyone could have avoided the conclusion that women bishops were anything but a matter of time. It’s easy to understand why a political compromise was made—the “flying bishops” and so forth—but very hard to understand why such a compromise would be thought durable by those for whose benefit it was made. (The assurances of Justin Welby, the incoming Archbishop of Canterbury, to “respect” the concerns of traditionalists, 6 cannot be taken seriously, for as the reaction to the vote shows, neither objections nor objectors are respected in the slightest. 7) And one could also make an argument that it was given away even further back. I indicated two dates above: 1987 and the reformation. The first is easy to explain in isolation: When the Church of England ordained women to the diaconate in the Eighties, it became all-but an inevitability that they would be ordained first priests and then bishops, because all Anglican deacons are what we would call transitional deacons.

The second  shades into the the obvious question: As a Roman Catholic, of course, I don’t have a dog in this fight, 8 and one might reasonably say “well, your lot doesn’t ordain women at all.” The distinction and the answer were previously-discussed back in July. 9 The Catholic objection to “ordaining women” is too vague when dealing with interconfessional issues; in this context, we must be more precise and say that the Church holds that she has no authority to confer the sacrament of orders on a woman and thus to consecrate her to the sacramental priesthood.  Seen this way, it is apparent why the Anglican situation is different. Although the Church of England uses terms like “ordain” and “priesthood,” its understanding what those terms mean is entirely different, and labels do not control analysis over and above substance. 10 The ministry of the Anglican priesthood “is to represent Christ and his Church, particularly as pastor to the people; to share with the bishop in the overseeing of the Church; to proclaim the Gospel; to administer the sacraments; and to bless and declare pardon in the name of God.” 11 And that sounds familiar enough, right? But when you read the Articles of Religion and realize that said sacraments number two only, baptism and eucharist, and that they do not understand either of them in the way that we do, familiarity evaporates. The Church of England does not “ordain” anyone in the sacramental sense that we mean; it does not have a “sacrament of Holy Orders” or a “sacramental priesthood” in the sense that we mean. Consequently, in a and for analytical purposes, we can say that the Anglican clergy consists in what the Catholic Church would classify as lay apostolates, and what possible warrant could there be for excluding women therefrom? 12

The best remaining argument, it seems to me, is merely a practical one: If the Church of England ordains women to the episcopacy, the next obvious target for those of a progressive bent (for their work is never done, you know) is a female Archbishop of Canterbury, 13 at which point the Anglican communion will collapse entirely. But why blow up that bridge before the train gets there?

Notes:

  1. See Martin Percy, Women bishops: a failure of leadership, Nov. 21, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9693284/Women-bishops-a-failure-of-leadership.html (last visited 11/21/2012 20:42)
  2. See Church of England votes no to women bishops, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9691831/Church-of-England-votes-no-to-women-bishops.html (last visited 11/21/2012 20:38).
  3. See, e.g., http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9691990/Women-bishops-Churchs-final-no.html; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/9693229/David-Cameron-Church-needs-to-get-with-the-programme-after-rejecting-women-bishops.html; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9692494/Women-bishops-Churchs-final-no.html; http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/columnists/allison-pearson/9694402/Swaziland-has-a-woman-bishop-why-not-Suffolk.html; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/21/women-bishops-controversy; http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/20/women-bishops-vote-disaster-church-of-england?intcmp=239; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/21/church-of-england-women-bishops; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/21/archbishop-church-vetoing-female-bishops; http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/nov/21/female-bishops-supporter.
  4. See Longenecker, Understanding the Crisis in the Church of England, Nov. 20, 2012, www.patheos.com/blogs/standingonmyhead/2012/11/understanding-the-crisis-in-the-church-of-england.html
  5. Cf. Cole Moreton, Ladies in waiting at the Church of England, Nov. 18, 2012, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9685085/Ladies-in-waiting-at-the-Church-of-England.html.
  6. See Moreton, supra.
  7. Giles Fraser’s response to the news should be credited for its repulsive candor of nothing else: “it is now almost obligatory in the church for us to say publicly that we respect each other’s differences. We speak of opponents’ “deeply held convictions”, but few of us actually believe anything of the sort. What we say in private is utterly unprintable. But for the church, even to admit this is an honesty too far.” After the bishops vote, I’m ashamed to be a part of the Church of England, Nov. 21 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/belief/2012/nov/21/female-bishops-ashamed-church-of-england.
  8. Neither, mind you, do the secular liberals who are fuming about it, see http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/donatahuggins/100190786/why-are-secular-liberals-telling-female-christians-how-they-should-feel-about-women-bishops.
  9. See http://simondodd.org/blog/?p=665.
  10. Cf. Ritchie v. Wickstrom, 938 F.2d 689 (CA6, 1991); United States v. Gonzalez-Ramirez, 477 F.3d 310 (CA5, 2007).
  11. See http://anglicansonline.org/basics/catechism.html
  12. As noted in my previous post, the Church’s teaching on ordaining women “by no means precludes women from action in the apostolates and activities proper to the laity. But in those ecclesial communities that reject the ministerial priesthood, even if they maintain an ‘ordained’ ministry that they call a ‘priesthood,’ there are no offices but those that we would recognize as lay apostolates“ (footnotes deleted).
  13. Cf. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/9685085/Ladies-in-waiting-at-the-Church-of-England.html.