On July 14, 2014, the General Synod of the Church of England voted 351 to 82 to allow the consecration of women bishops. (Religion News Service reported the event online almost immediately after its occurrence, thus proving once again that its journalism can be as speedy as that of secular media in the pursuit of a story.) July 14, Quatorze Juillet, is of course the holiday when the French Republic celebrates the anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille. Presumably the date is coincidental, though progressives are cheering the vote as a victory over yet another bastion of male oppression. Others are not so sure.
Given the passions that have been invested in this issue, and not only in the C. of E., I suppose that a personal disclosure is in order: I am neither an Anglican nor particularly progressive, thus (as they say in Texas) I have no dog in this fight. I am a Lutheran, albeit with some reservations, but on this issue fully in agreement with Article 7 of the Augsburg Confession, according to which the forms of ecclesiastical organization are prudential matters not central to the Christian faith. The institution of bishops is such a matter. One may or may not be in favor of individuals bearing this title. If you are going to have bishops, I see no reason why only men should have the title. The idea of apostolic succession, a direct line from Jesus to the Apostles to an uninterrupted series of bishops consecrating each other is thunderously implausible as historical fact. Certainly in the case of the English church: Henry VIII did his best to liquidate any bishops that placed loyalty to Rome over loyalty to the king; Queen Mary then reversed this policy, persecuting royal loyalists; and then Elizabeth I once and for all established the royal supremacy in the Church of England. I wonder how many bishops survived these successive purges to continue the alleged succession.
Be this as it may, I have a certain sympathy for Anglicanism. Its earlier history was as ferocious as that of any other religious tradition. But over time it developed a spirit of tolerance and mellowness, despite the controversies between its “high church” (Anglo-Catholic) and “low church” (decidedly Protestant) factions. I think that Anthony Trollope’s novel Barchester Towers (1857) provides a great introduction to these disputes. I fell in love with the English language from the moment I first started to learn it as a teenager: The Church of England created the two greatest monuments to that language– the King James translation of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer.
Issues of gender and sexuality have been highly contentious in the worldwide Anglican communion, including the Episcopal Church in the United States. The C. of E. has had women priests since 1992 (not without opposition). The action authorizing women bishops now puts a certain full stop to the controversy over the ecclesiastical role of women (which does not mean that all opposition will cease). At the previous meeting of the General Synod in 2012, a similar measure was narrowly defeated. As far as I can tell, the opposition comes from three sources: Those who worry about the differences between Anglicans in developed countries (generally progressive) and their more conservative coreligionists in the so-called Global South (though interestingly the current gender issue has been less divisive between North and South than that of homosexuality). Then there are Anglo-Catholics, who are concerned about relations with the Roman and Orthodox churches (that faction has been diminishing, because its most fervent members have tended to convert to one or the other of these ecclesial communities–as the saying goes, respectively “swimming in the Tiber”, or the “Bosphorus”). The strongest opposition has come from Evangelicals, who have become very influential throughout the Anglican family of churches: The Bible supposedly commands the male prerogative.
This time around the supporters of women bishops won big. Television reports on the BBC and PBS showed enthusiastic celebrations at the Synod, with the two archbishops (Canterbury and York) rather awkwardly joining in a sort toi-toi, the African dance made famous by the anti-apartheid movement. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a strong supporter of the measure, had a big smile on his face. One reason for the smile must have been relief at not having to take a step he had threatened if the vote should fail again.
Justin Welby has held his present position since 2013. He has an interesting biography. After many years as an executive in the oil industry, he studied for the priesthood and made a rapid career in the Church. While his religious position is broadly Evangelical, he appears to be free of dogmatic fervor and given to acting pragmatically. When Parliament voted to allow same-sex marriage, Welby made a very sensible statement: The Church of England will continue to maintain that marriage is between a man and a woman. But same-sex marriage is now the law of the land, and the C. of E. will not expend energy in opposing it. However, it will not perform same-sex weddings. If somebody wants to have a church wedding, there are other denominations happy to oblige. Yet on the issue of women bishops Welby has been unbending. I can only speculate why. Perhaps he has strong convictions about this. Perhaps he is pragmatically accommodating to a wave of philo-gay sentiments in the Church and in the wider society. There may be a more political motive: Parliament will be pleased and thus may refrain from legislating that anti-discrimination laws apply to churches. A sort of bargain: We’ll give you women bishops, but don’t open the door for lawsuits against Anglican clergy who refuse to marry same-sex couples. In case the vote in the Synod went the other way again, Welby has threatened to introduce a bill in Parliament (he sits in the House of Lords) to legalize women bishops–a bill sure to pass. This would be a kind of nuclear option, disrupting the current understanding of state-Church relations and potentially putting in question the establishment of the Church of England. There is irony in this.
The Church of England is still the established religion of the English state. Queen Elizabeth II is still its head; since the monarch today has only a symbolic function, this means that real power resides in Parliament. Which in practice means that it could do anything to the C.of E.–(such as making Swahili the liturgical language?–or after a hiatus of several centuries once again acknowledging the supreme authority of the Pope?) In fact Parliament has not exercised this power over the Church for a very long time. There is no written constitution; like so much else in English culture, its political system rests on tacit understandings; (this has worked reasonably well until now–something quite incomprehensible to French or American observers.) It was Jean-Louis de Lolme, an 18th-century writer about English politics, who wrote that Parliament can do anything except change a man into a woman, or a woman into a man; the recent legislation on same-sex marriage could be seen as an effort to disprove this proposition.
But I am digressing. Back to the irony in Welby’s threat to have Parliament impose women bishops on the Church of England. Over the last century or so there has been increasing unease about the religious establishment among two quite different groups–some within the Church, who were offended by the idea of secularized Parliamentarians having the right to interfere in ecclesial affairs; and some outside the Church, who resented its residual privileges. The General Synod was established in 1970 to make sure that almost always the Church will be in charge of its own affairs, free of state interference. Very much the same constellation of religious and secular motives resulted in the recent disestablishment of the Lutheran Church of Sweden. Welby’s threat to use Parliament to impose a significant change on the Church of England would have violated the tacit understanding of the relationship between these two institutions, and might have encouraged demands for disestablishment. The Archbishop smiled. I smiled too when I learned about the result of the vote in York the other day, though I am not inclined to toi-toi in celebration.
Grace Davie, the distinguished British sociologist of religion, has proposed an interesting idea: A strong establishment of a church is bad for both religion and the state–for the former because the association with state policies undermines the credibility of religion, and for the latter because the support of one religion over all others creates resentment and potential instability. But a weak establishment is good for both institutions, because a politically powerless yet still symbolically privileged church can be an influential voice in the public arena, often in defense of moral principles. Davie’s idea nicely fits the history of the Church of England. In earlier centuries it persecuted Roman Catholics and discriminated against Nonconformist Protestants and Jews. More recently it has used its “bully pulpit” for a number of good causes, not least being the rights of non-Christians. Thus very recently influential Jewish and Muslim figures have voiced strong support for the continuing establishment of the Church of England, among them Jonathan Sacks, the former Orthodox Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, and the Muslim Sayeeda Warsi, currently Minister of Faith and Communities in David Cameron’s cabinet.
Of course it would be foolish to recommend that the British version of state/church relations be accepted in other countries—as foolish as to expect other countries to adopt the very distinctive American form of the separation of church and state. However, as I have suggested in other posts on this blog, the British arrangement is worth pondering by other countries who wish to combine a specific religious identity with freedom for all those who do not share it. For starters, I’ll mention all countries who want legislation to be based on “Islamic principles” (not full-fledged sharia law); Russia, struggling to define the public role of the Orthodox Church; Israel trying to define the place of Judaism in its democracy; India, similarly seeking to fit hindutva into its constitutional description as a “secular republic”. In a globalizing world, cross-national comparisons can be surprisingly useful.