Anglicans and Women: Understanding the Crisis in the Church of England

by Father Dwight Longenecker

The Church of England was plunged into another crisis this week when their governing body, the General Synod voted by a slim margin not to allow women to become bishops. Why would they do that?

For heaven’s sake, the head of the Church of England is the Queen. Many member churches of the Anglican Communion — the worldwide confederation of Anglicans — have had women bishops for years. They Church of England has had women priests for 20 years. Women have reached the top jobs in every other profession. Forty-two of the forty-four dioceses in the Church of England voted for the measure. What’s the problem?

It’s complicated.

The Church of England is split not just on women bishops, but on the fundamental questions facing Christians — issues facing all denominations; what is going on in the little Church of England reflects the clash across Christianity.

It’s a clash between revealed religion and relevant religion.

Conservative Christians believe the Bible and the Christian religion are revealed directly from God. What he says goes. You can’t change it with a vote of well-meaning suburban English Christians. Conservatives quote 2 Timothy 2:12, in which Saint Paul says, “I do not permit women to teach or whole authority in the church.” Conservative Protestants say that settles it.

More Catholic-minded conservatives also note that the pope and the Eastern Orthodox Church have both ruled out women clergy, and that they represent the largest body of Christians in the world today and down through the ages. To them, the combined weight of the Bible, tradition, and Catholic authority settles the question.

Liberal Christians believe the Christian faith and the Bible are human constructs which emerged from a particular historical and cultural setting. The truths therefore can be changed, and indeed should be changed, in order to adapt to different cultural circumstances. They think it’s Christianity’s job to be flexible and up to date. They point out that one of the traditions of the Bible and Jesus was to be un-traditional and radical. They think the Church should be an agent of change — the pioneer of peace and justice for all. In other words, religion is not revealed; it’s relevant.

The liberals are angry and frustrated this week, and generally in recent years, because their dream of radical reform has been stymied by conservatives. “Don’t they know that the Church has now lost all credibility with the modern world?!” they bleat.

The conservatives reply, “We’re the part of the church that’s growing in enthusiasm and numbers. We may be conservative, but the future is ours. Our churches are growing. Are yours? Besides it’s not the our job to please the media darlings and conform to the world. We’re the ones who are being radical by resisting the trendy agenda of the liberals.”

As to the present fisticuffs over female bishops? Because of the fundamental divisions at hand, there might be a compromise, but there will be no solution.

— Father Dwight Longenecker is a former priest of the Church of England. He now serves as a Catholic priest in Greenville, S.C. He has written sixteen books on the Catholic faith and he blogs at Standing on My Head.

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