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The Synod: On the consecration of women bishops

Tom Mendelsohn

81212097 300x200 The Synod: On the consecration of women bishops

Australian Anglican bishop Kay Goldsworthy, during her consecration on May 22, 2008

Women bishops are a hugely contentious issue for the Church of England, and have been for the better part of the past two decades. Ever since they lost the battle against the ordination of women priests, the Church’s conservative factions have fought to block the next logical step.

Things should finally come to a head at this Synod, however, and the majority of the five-day schedule has been given over to discussing and finalising the wording of draft legislation that will allow and govern the consecration of women as bishops. The principle was accepted in 2008, and this meeting of the Synod is more a means of ratifying the legislation, rather than concocting it.

Both sides of the debate, then, will be viewing this Synod with particular scrutiny. The conservative/traditionalist antis – who make up a tiny minority of congregations and clergy – see it as a last-chance saloon. If they don’t win any concessions, thereby losing the right to be ministered to by an exclusively male clergy, as they have for the time being, there’s a good chance they’ll break away to form a splinter Communion, or even rejoin Rome.

The vast majority of the CofE, though, who are by-and-large progressive and liberal, are seeing this Synod as the end of the road in a good way: they just want an 18-year farrago to reach an end. Most congregations see all this squabbling about ordained women as unseemly, out-of-step with the modern world and, increasingly, damaging to the public image of the Church. They’re in no mood to brook any more delay or distraction.

To an outsider, the arguments must seem pretty simple, but things aren’t as clear cut as you might think: it’s not simply sexists duking it out with progressives. There isn’t the room in this blog to deal with the full debate, but the key thing to understand is that conservatives genuinely don’t see themselves as sexist: women to them were created ‘equal but different’.

They reach this position from several perspectives. Biblically speaking, there were no women apostles, and the Marys, while valued followers of Christ, were notably never described as such. St Paul, too, who probably had a greater hand in shaping early Christianity than any other figure, explicitly stated that women should not hold these positions. Historically, there is plenty of case law too: there are early church laws stating that women can’t be priests, while sects which did try to ordain women (such as the Montanists) were struck down as heretics.

There are theological arguments, too. Conservatives do not see the Anglican Church as being divorced either from Rome or Constantinople – many of them consider themselves ‘Catholics’ in a roundabout way. They say they’ll accept ordained women when the rest of Christendom as a whole accepts them – doing it alone puts Anglicanism at odds with the mainstream of Christianity.

There is an excellent long-form summary of the debate here, which goes into far more detail from a conservative Anglo-Catholic viewpoint.

At the moment, matters have been disrupted an 11th hour intervention by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, who have taken the near-unprecedented step of tabling an amendment to the draft legislation. This amendment is designed to prevent dissenters from leaving the CofE, essentially by guaranteeing that congregations who can’t accept female bishops, and indeed male priests ordained by women bishops, will be allowed to have their own ‘untainted’ clergy.

This is the great unifier Rowan Williams’ last desperate attempt – alongside Archbishop of York John Sentamu – to keep the Church together, but it probably won’t pass. As I say, the progressive majority want an end to the question, and they’re see Williams’ proposals for the fudge that they are. Essentially, the amendment would inaugurate a tiered system of bishops, with female bishops forming a second, not-wholly-recognised class. This is unacceptable to a CofE which wants full parity now, and which won’t countenance bishops who aren’t quite bishops.

Williams and Sentamu are clearly making this proposal from the heart, but the signs are that the amendment is doomed to fail, and that it could be seen as a resigning issue, taking the two Archbishops with it.

Reabsorbtion into the Roman Catholic Church is not seen as a particularly satisfying solution by anyone except the absolute fringe. For a parish to turn its back on the CofE is tacit acceptance that the CofE was not a part of mainstream Christianity, which could prove too much of a wrench for any but the most hardline congregations. So, for all the Papal invites and dire murmurings of schism, it doesn’t currently look like that many parishes will join Rome. Things could change, though, and this is why all eyes will be on Friday’s Synod – no one really knows what could happen.

Picture: Getty Images

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