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Article No. 194

The Anglican Church discusses women bishops


The row in the Church of England regarding women bishops hinges on whether or not provision is made for those who are so averse to women bishops that they want to preserve access to male bishops who have been made bishops by the action of male bishops only.  In other words they do not want their bishops tainted by any involvement of women bishops in the process.

The amendment by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York was to meet the wishes of those who wanted nothing to do with women bishops. The amendment was defeated and so the process of enabling there to be women bishops in the Church of England continues.   

What is the principle behind the amendment that the Archbishops were suggesting?  It is that this group of what I will call the dissident members of the Church should be allowed not only to hold to their dissident views but also to maintain within the structures of Anglican Church  a process whereby they could remain uncontaminated by these women bishops.

This matter has been debated back and forth many times in  the highest bodies in the Anglican Church, and decision times comes tomorrow! In my opinion, to preserve even one parish where women priests or women bishops are not acceptable means that we are leaving in doubt whether the principle of the equality for service of women with men is truly operative in the Church of England.

In short to let some members of the Church opt out of having women bishops is to devalue the whole movement towards and decisions about the acceptability of women priests and bishops.

The hierarchy seem unable to see the simple logic of this. What has made them myopic?  Well, quite simply, they could well lose hundreds if not thousands of fellow Anglicans to Rome. That plus, of course, a sympathy for those on the catholic and evangelical wings of the church who have to face a crisis of conscience. The writing has been on the wall, however, for a decade - women priests lead to women bishops!

Archbishop Sentamu said that the amendment that was defeated would have allowed everyone on both sides if the debate to live with each other as loyal Anglicans and he also said that he could not understand why the synod had rejected it.

This leads me to reflect that perhaps the endless discussions and self destroying agonies that the Church has gone through over the past decade on the subject of women priests and bishops is in part due to the failure of the leaders of the Church to understand and keep in balance the basic beliefs and motivation of its members. Surely the Archbishop can see that to allow a ‘church within a church’ for those opposed to women bishops - such as suggested by the Archbishops - is deeply damaging to the principle that there really is equality and equal treatment of men and women?  

Can they not realise that nearly every woman priest will feel affronted by the idea that the Anglican Church has reserved a part of itself where women are no go? Perhaps, if they do not realise this, they also do not realise that there are millions of women totally outside the Church of England who will feel insulted by the very idea that there ought to be a ‘church within a church’ where women are refused access.

Further - can they not realise that there are also millions of men who will see the idea of preserving a little bit of the church where women are refused access as being demeaning to not only their wives or partners, but also to their general view of what is right in our society?

Is the Archbishop blind to all of this?  How he can he say that he does not understand why synod has rejected their amendment? The truth is, perhaps, that there is something about high office (whether religious or political) that seems to gradually insulate the holder from understanding the common man and woman! They lose touch with common opinion. We have seen it vividly expressed in our political leaders- for example Margaret Thatcher and Gordon Brown. Why should it be different in the Church?  To be at the pinnacle of a large organisation and yet maintain the common touch demands a very special person. Maybe archbishops are better placed than most to hold onto that common touch. And we have seen examples of it in both our Archbishops. But to say that he cannot understand those who vote against a ‘church within a church’ is to me mind a prime example of being demonstrably out of touch.

What we are seeing here is an example that affects not just the question of women bishops. It has wider implications.  What is being demonstrated here is the same type of approach that has been used in the extremely drawn out and contentious dispute as regards homosexuality.

The two Archbishops are trying to hold together diverse elements of what is lovingly called a ‘broad church’. What is the reality of this situation?

There are three broad streams of religious approach in the Church of England. There is what is called the ‘catholic’ element, often referred to as  the High Church element. Less respectful people call it the bells and smells group! Then there is the ‘evangelical’ wing of the Church. This comprises distinct streams. There is the charismatic group, for example. There are the open evangelicals who are much less extreme than the ‘fundamentalist’ group.  Thirdly there is the mass of people in the middle, between these two groups which stand at opposite ends of the spectrum. Although the largest group, this residual group is often called the liberal group, although it contains all elements of belief from being strongly bible based, to being focused more on church custom and ritual.

The Archbishops have to keep their finger on the pulse of reality as well as on the essentials of the faith!  Perhaps they have been too concerned recently with holding the whole of the broad church together, rather than recognising the new insights and realities that have emerged in society. The recognition, for example, that gay people are perfectly normal people. That they are now regarded, generally as well as legally, as totally equal with everyone else - that they are human like everyone else and should therefore have the same rights and be treated in the same way. That they should not be discriminated against on any grounds anywhere in society.

Likewise, the recognition of the rights of women is based on the same deeper principle - the right to be human. Being human, they should not be discriminated against or withheld from any area of work where they can perform satisfactorily.

Some churches have been slow at accept the natural human rights of gay people and of women. Clearly the Church of England is one of them! But, just as the moment of truth came for slaves a hundred and fifty plus years ago, the time has now come for gay people and women! Humanity now has more insight and gives recognition to these groups on account of their humanity. It is recognised that, because they are normal human beings, they should be treated equally with everyone else.

It will just not do to listen to sub groups within the church that maintain that women are not suited to lead or that gay people are not really to be accepted.  Of course it is difficult for some of these people in the sub groups to change their thinking. But that does not mean all progress must stop!

Archbishop Sentamu commends the idea of the Church being a ‘broad house’.  Good!  I agree!  So do the millions who never come anywhere near the churches. And who will never darken our doorsteps while we have these old restrictive ideas in place. The world wants to see that we have learned the lessons of the last hundred and more years. Women and gays are to be accepted as totally normal people and their Christian commitment commended wherever we see it.  

I agree with Archbishop Sentamu - of course eventually we will have women bishops - and gay ones too! How on earth can any in the church think otherwise?

Some are suggesting that when it should be promoting a bishop at Southwark who is eminently suited to the post, the Church apparently stalls the process just because one of the three streams in the Church (the evangelical) - or, more correctly, one part of one of the three streams (the fundamentalists) - has problems because of its own extreme views.  And why is the Church spending so much time going back and forth when another stream - or part of a stream - in the Church objects to women bishops?

Of course we must treat gently those of our brethren and sisters who find themselves stuck in the old thinking  - but the ship must keep moving forward. There is a long journey ahead, with many hazards and difficulties. We must not let ourselves get hung up on these two difficulties any longer!  

Oh, and by the way, Archbishop - you say you would rather leave the Church of England than be part of an institution that excluded traditional opponents of women bishops - I, and many like me, would rather leave the Church of England than be part of an institution that forbids gay people to be priests and bishops!

Tony Cross
July 2010

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