I happened to be in London when the Church of England voted to reject female bishops. The verdict came as quite a surprise. Women have been ordained as priests in the Church for twenty years, and allowing them to become bishops would certainly seem to be the next logical step. Twelve years of negotiations between “reformers” and “traditionalists”—apparently a way of life in the C of E—had culminated in a compromise under which dissenting parishes not wanting to be under the authority of a female primate could request hierarchal supervision by a male. Both the soon-to-retire Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, and his about-to-be-installed successor, Justin Welby, energetically advocated for the reform. In the run up to the vote, most commentators believed that the resolution allowing woman bishops would receive the General Synod’s overwhelming support.
And indeed, it did. Seventy-four percent of all four hundred-plus voting members voted ‘yes.’ But it wasn’t a simple referendum: Church rules require a two-thirds approval in each of the three “Houses” that make up the Synod—Bishops, Clergy, and Laity. Because traditionalists elected enough of their own to the House of Laity two years ago, they were able to prevent the requisite majority in that body by six votes.
Uproar! Thunder and lightning! Wailing and gnashing of teeth! Newspapers—conservative and liberal alike—ran screaming headlines decrying the “scandal” of rejection. Caustic editorials flew in all directions. The Church was accused of “committing suicide.” Even Prime Minister David Cameron decried the rejection from the floor of Parliament, warning darkly that the Church of England had better “get with the program.”
As an American, it was a bemusing experience. I had never seen an entire nation react so viscerally to the action—or in this case, inaction—of a church.
But I was astonished when, the day after the vote, the Archbishop of Canterbury not only bemoaned the failure in his farewell speech to the General Synod, but also insisted that the Church had betrayed its responsibility to reflect the sensibilities and values of the general culture: “Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday,” Williams sternly lectured his flock, “whatever the theological principle on which people acted or spoke,” dissenters had to understand that their objection to woman bishops “is not intelligible to wider society. Worse than that, it seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of wider society.”
Whatever his settled views of the matter, the unfortunate suggestion in these remarks is that the Church of England has the duty to be of as well as in society, rather than in, but not of it—a breathtaking assertion for a major Christian leader that turns the traditional and proper role of faith on its head.
There may be something to this. Perhaps bowing to the sensibilities of “wider society” is the price paid for being an established church—as opposed to a mere “sect,” the term applied to other churches and religions in the public discussion. Sects can believe as they please. Mosques can segregate women from men. Catholics can insist on celibate clergy. Evangelical Protestants can oppose homosexuality in their preaching (although saying so in the public square can land one in legal trouble).
But the Church of England is a national as well as a religious institution. That means, apparently, that its dogmas and governing policies are expected to generally parallel the broad social values of society.
That comprehension had me thanking the Founding Fathers. When they enacted the First Amendment prohibiting the “establishment of religion,” they guaranteed there would never be a Church of the United States. The point was to ensure that people would be free to worship as they choose (or not).
But with the culture having become generally “post-Christian,” the Establishment Clause now also protects the freedom of churches. Can any state-established church long retain the fortitude to speak truth to power when its leaders consider themselves obligated to follow “the trends and priorities of wider society”? No wonder the Archbishop didn’t defend the Church’s prerogatives by telling Cameron to shove off with his criticism. The threat of disestablishment was in the air.
Here’s a further irony: Statues honoring Christian martyrs—including Martin Luther King—have been installed above the main entrance to Westminster Abbey. But what Christian was ever martyred for adhering to mainstream cultural values?
It is amazing that Rowan Williams, a widely respected scholar of Church history, would urge the church toward such a blatantly conformist course. Under his theory of fitting in, for example, should early Christians have attended the wildly popular gladiator games in order to prove they were not “blind” to the values of their culture? Rather than seeming aloof and intolerant, should they have participated in pagan feasts and consumed meat dedicated to idols? Heck, maybe they should have gone through the motions of emperor worship—such as famously required by Pliny the Younger and approved by Trajan—to avoid martyrdom.
I mean, dying rather than lighting incense to a statue? How “not intelligible to wider society.”