Dr Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury has had much to ponder lately ahead of the Lambeth Conference starting mid-July. To those hearing his sermon on Sunday at York Minster, he threw out a question. An inquiring Williams was considering Monday’s General Synod vote on admitting women bishops. “In the middle of our discussions at Synod, where would Jesus be?”
A message of consolation was offered for those conservatives within the Church who felt threatened by the liberalisation agenda of the Church. Jesus would not discriminate - he would be with the traditionalists and the reformers.
The Archbishop of Canterbury had much to fear. Some 1,300 clergy threatened to leave the Church over the issue unless “safeguards” against women bishop appointees were introduced. In truth, Williams had little to worry at the voting stage itself, an occasion described by a Times columnist as “Ladies’ day at the Church”. The decision in the General Synod went in favour of the liberal wing of the Church by a margin of 2 to 1. It took place after six hours of debate, fuelled by the arguments of 72 speakers.
The conservatives, backed into a corner, offered one reprieve: male bishops could administer in those dioceses recalcitrant to women bishops. The move was rebuffed. That, said Williams, would have been unacceptable, an arrangement he called “structurally humiliating”. Women appointees would be put into a position of “haggling about the limits of their jurisdiction and their authority”.
Before the vote, members had various proposals on the board. One was for a national code of practice, purposely designed to cover parishes refusing to accept women bishops. This passed resoundingly.
Added to this was the possibility of creating, suggested by Rt Rev John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, a class of “super bishop” who would otherwise be known as a “complementary bishop”. Three would be established two for Canterbury, one for York. This proposal, which had been known to have the support of such members as Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, was given short shrift.
The divisions, over such issues as women bishops and homosexuality in the Church, have been identified as global. The Anglican Church in Uganda made it clear in February that it would boycott this year’s Lambeth Conference. Nigeria, Kenya and Rwanda would also not be in attendance. The issue: the condoning of “active homosexuality” reflected in the American Church’s ordination of Gene Robinson in 2003, accompanied by the persistent practice by some in the Church of blessing homosexual unions.
The divisions may look less severe in England, but they are very much there. “I’m a conservative evangelical,” proclaimed traditionalist lay member Alison Ruoff of London. “I understand from the Bible, in 2 Timothy, that it’s wrong in terms of headships which goes back to Genesis”. Conservatives feel betrayed, exiled from the family that promised to keep them in some 15 years ago. The Rt Rev Stephen Venner, Williams’ deputy and otherwise keen supporter of women bishops, was so dismayed he was moved to tears.
Other reactions were similarly strong. Simon Killwick, Chairman of the Catholic Group in General Synod signatured, along with others, a note expressing regret that “no meaningful provision [had been made] for those in conscience unable to receive the ministry of women bishops”.
Unity is everything in implementing reform. The cracking divides that have sprung up across the “universal” church have damaged the communion. It has worried Sentamu, who has been the victim of reactionary reproach before. For Sentamu, the family is in dispute, and it is best to be gracious in disagreement. “My mother said, ‘don’t ever point a finger’, because when you do, three others are pointing back at you.”
There has been much finger pointing of late. Problems have become so critical that discussions are said to have taken place with advisors to Pope Benedict XVI, canvassing the salient issues of women bishops and gay rights. The Vatican, with little surprise, expressed unease with the general decision, signifying a “rift to the apostolic tradition” (July 8).
The hitch with this outcome at the General Synod is that approval of such a measure is not ultimately a religious matter at all, but a political one. The admission of women will have to be given the seal of Parliamentary approval. If so, the Anglican Church could see its first female bishop by 2014. But there is little reason to speculate too much - the much vaunted code of practice hasn’t even been written.
For those unhappy with this new arrangement, other sources of support will be sought. A vocal Gerry O’Brien, conservative lay member of the General Synod, offered a summation. Just as what took place in the United States, people might be forced out of the Anglican Church, but not the Anglican communion, as “there are a lot of archbishops elsewhere in the world who will be more than ready to provide the support”. Williams’ woes are far from over.