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“Allowing women to take up the role of bishop is going to change the church,” was the crisp conclusion of the current Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, The Very Revd. June Osborne after the vote which finally paved the way for women to be consecrated to the Episcopate of the Church of England. The Dean went on to add that “I think its going to change our society as well because its one more step in accepting that women are really and truly equal in spiritual authority as well as in leadership in society.”
The result of the votes in each of the three houses, which together comprise the church’s Synod, had to amount to a two-thirds majority or more for the proposal to pass. This majority has proved hard to obtain on the several previous occasions when the matter was considered, with the laity being the last House to grant the needed level of support.
In Monday’s vote, the results were: House of Laity 152 in favor, 45 against; in the House of Bishops 37 in favor with only 2 against and in The House of Clergy 162 in favor and 25 against. In November 2012, the change was prevented because the number of votes needed fell short by just six votes in the House of Laity.
The widespread indignation then, which was much reported in a largely hostile media after the last vote in 2012, together with the negative comments of a great many public figures, from the Prime Minister down, was a significant factor in the relative haste with which the measure was brought back to the Synod this time around. (Under the normal rules of procedure such an important matter would not be permitted for further debate until after a new Synod had been elected which could have delayed things for up to 6 years).
The vote is clearly one of deep historical importance, changing as it does an all-male line of succession since the time of the Apostles. In that long historical context it is fascinating that it has only come 20 years after approval was given for women to be ordained to the priesthood. Given that admission to major Holy Orders in any of the three forms of Deacon, Priest, and Bishop marked the acceptance of this as a theological possibility, such delay may seem strange. On the other hand, an enduring sense of the bishops as successors to the Apostles has lent this step a certain feeling of added magnitude.
Moreover, the considerable depth of resistance from those opposed, reflected mostly theological concerns upon which matters of social change had no bearing and this made the opponents hard to overcome. This was made yet more difficult by the unwillingness of those favoring the change to offer “cast iron” guarantees that provision would be made to allow the opponents to sustain themselves indefinitely into the future. This again marked a policy change from the time when women were first ordained as, at that point, such structural provision was made in the form of “flying bishops” for congregations which opted for this. However, it seems that the side in favor of innovation drew from the subsequent experience—that such congregations far from withering and fading away actually continued with renewed vigor over time—the lesson that no such provision should be provided again.
So with such deeply entrenched but opposing positions what changed? The fact that it was not felt possible to leave this matter to the usual slow procedural processes and that it was also seen as especially urgent by the new Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, since the time of his installation, reflects some important factors unique to the position of the Church of England in the life of the nation. These have to do with the complicated ways in which the Church of England relates to wider society and culture which is why the expectations of the wider society outside its doors seems to have weighed so heavily in the end.
Most churches through history have tended to be cautious in their attitude to change and the Church of England is no exception in structural matters, however wide the spread may be of opinions it has often allowed within its institutions. But the issues at stake here were felt to touch ultimately on the relationship between the church and the wider society and for the Church of England as a church enjoying the particular place that it does in the State, this is an area of special and indeed growing sensitivity.
It is a matter of some fascination that people who may not ever go to church, or, who may even profess themselves to be atheist often feel it is entirely appropriate to express strong views upon how it should be run and upon such matters as consecration of women to the episcopate.
At one level, it would seem hard to understand why the matter would be of concern to those who do not belong or even attend. On the other hand, there is a sense in which, by virtue of seeing itself as the Church-of-everyone-in-England, the Anglican church does implicitly make its internal affairs open to the concern of all.
This gives a particular edge to the matter of how far the church needs to try and be aligned with the general sentiments of its host society. And in the nature of the case, this is an always changing relationship as society changes, and there are plenty of further issues that loom ahead where the tensions may get worse: notably in regard to same-sex marriage, which the Church is thus far resisting, even though it has after a fashion had to accommodate the state imposed concept of same-sex partnerships.
Then again, there are other points of pressure. For example, the senior bishops of the Church sit ex officio as full members of the House of Lords. One of the generally unspoken issues when the last synod vote failed to approve women bishops in 2012 was that it was likely to enhance support for those who would like to disestablish the Anglican Church altogether. Though for how long such voices can in fact be assuaged in any case remains to be seen.
So all this lies behind the rather intense negotiations that have gone on for the last eighteen months to ensure that the result seen today actually occurred and it meant in the end that acute pressure was felt by those resisting to the point that for the sake of the church’s place as institution in Britain the few needed lay votes shifted.
All of which may seem oddly to one side of the little matter of theology! The subservience of theology to matters of politics is hardly a novelty and it always a risk in an ultimately Erastian church polity. Though this is hardly a novelty when one looks at the early church, but it does help to explain the peculiarly Anglican concern to make the church fit social demands which was surely an important part of what happened this week.
It also, in some degree, explains why the impact of this decision on the relations of Anglicans with those parts of the Anglican Communion which still do not even ordain women, let alone make them bishops, was not much mentioned. And in turn, why the clearly major potential impact upon ecumenical relations with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches was again not as prominent a concern as might have been expected. This does not mean that these issues were not known about, but, for the present, this was all about institutional and administrative arrangements expedient to national needs and ultimately who could have access to power.
And in these terms at least the proponents of women bishops were deeply conservative. Whereas a truly radical critique of the church and the phenomena of patriarchal hierarchy would have led to a critique of the very structures it involves such as Deans, Arch-Deacons, and Bishops there was no such attack made. Instead the problem was not after all seen as with the fact of hierarchical power, rather it was simply that women were not part of it, or not controlling enough of it. Patriarchal power structures were not the problem, just the people in it. So in these terms the debate is actually a very old-fashioned one about who gets to pull the leavers after all. It also has the potential to set the tone for what becoming a bishop will call for when the women start to ascend to the bishops’ bench. It suggests that it may well seek expression in the exercise of power and ensuring that everyone subject to it offers due homage appropriate to its validation.
Hence there should be no surprise at the immediate comment of one woman which was that “I won’t really believe we have won though until the Archbishop of Canterbury is a woman.” Archbishop Justin, we may be sure, will want give that particular call to sacrificial giving appropriately prayerful consideration, for it is indeed a season of change that now opens for the church’s power structure—one from which no one truly committed would want to stand immune.
The Rev. Canon Alistair Macdonald-Radcliff is Senior Advisor to the King Abdullah Bin Aziz International Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue and Director General of the World Dialogue Council.