A church divided against itself cannot stand

By John Lloyd
November 27, 2012

The Church of England voted not to ordain female bishops last week, a move widely seen as defying the modern world. Much justification was given for this view.

Both the retiring and the incoming archbishops of Canterbury deplored the vote. The former, the scholarly (and “greatly saddened”) Rowan Williams, said, “It seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of … wider society.” The incoming Justin Welby took a more upbeat view, one appropriate for a former senior oil executive. “There is a lot to be done,” he said, “but I am absolutely confident that at some point I will consecrate a woman bishop.” Still, Welby conceded that the vote was “a pretty grim day for the whole church.”

British Prime Minister David Cameron, pausing in the midst of his battle to reduce European Union spending, snapped that the church needed to “get with the program” and that his task was, while respecting its autonomy, to give it a “sharp prod.” A succession of clergy, men and women, lamented the decision, some crying demonstratively on the street outside the hall where the synod – the church’s parliament – met.

The “victors” were a minority who scraped together a little more than the one-third of votes needed under the gathering’s constitution to block the change. The bishops and the clergy in the Synod voted overwhelmingly for gender equality, but the conservatives, the evangelicals and the Anglo-Catholics were stronger among the laity and “won.”

Immediately afterward, Ben Bradshaw, a former Labor Culture Secretary, said in the House of Commons that since the church “is established and answerable to Parliament,” that body should debate the question of whether it could remain exempt from equality legislation, which if applied would render its decision on women bishops illegal.

The problem, especially for the archbishops, is that scripture sides with the minority. The Old Testament is replete with statements, injunctions and anecdotes that confirm the subaltern status of women. Archbishop Williams implicitly recognized this when discussing the “trends and priorities of …wider society.” Wider society is one thing, narrow biblical authority another. Note the voice of God, thundering angrily in Genesis 3:16 (Eve had just eaten an apple, as expressly forbidden): “thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.” That takes a lot of exegesis to get round.

This leaves the majority in the synod in a kind of purgatory, wandering between scripture and secular liberalism, unable to fully embrace either. Some at least see the biblical narrative as fables that flesh out a discipline that has stood the test of time and whose central figure, Jesus, is thus worthy to follow because he gives a face to morality. Their problem is that they are yoked to a church in which a large number – most, worldwide – believe the Bible is literal truth.

In the Anglican church’s growth areas, the church is militant in its fundamentalism. Nicholas Okoh is the Anglican Primate (or presiding bishop) of Nigeria, where the church has up to 19 million active members. (This is second to England’s nominal baptized membership of 26 million, but Nigerian Anglicans go to church and the English ones usually don’t.) He believes that “the Christian faith is something which is once and for all delivered to us.” His church has sponsored the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a refuge for those in the United States and Canadian churches who cannot stomach the liberal mainstream in both countries.

Primate Okoh operates as a kind of reverse missionary from a continent partially Christianized by Anglicans in the 19th century. Beyond that, he has pointed to the fundamental weakness in the Church of England in its now threadbare but still extant claim to be the leader of 77 million Anglicans globally. The Church of England, he noted, has as its titular head the Queen, and the archbishop is appointed by the prime minister. “The Anglican communion,” he said in a speech, “should be separated from the politics of Great Britain.” That’s more of an anti-colonial position than a conservative one, and it strikes at the heart of the anomalous status of the church, at once independent of and chained to the state.

It is basic management theory that few things are worse for an organization than uncertainty at the top. For decades the church has lived with uncertainty and division, ambiguity and strife, elements that more or less monopolize its coverage in the news media. In religion, certainty – even if obscurantist, prejudiced or murderous– seems to win. Catholicism is neither prejudiced nor murderous, and it has much internal dissent. Yet at its summit it is certain, as the most recent book by Pope Benedict XVI – “Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives” – shows. Benedict says the answer as to whether or not Jesus was born to a virgin must be “an unequivocal yes” (though he concedes that the three wise men, which secularists might think were more possible, could have been a “theological idea” rather than reality). Matthew and Mark, who wrote two of the four canonical gospels, “didn’t want to write ‘stories’ but history, a real history, even if interpreted and understood,” said Benedict.

Others are still more certain. Evangelical Protestants are carving out large congregations in Latin America, Africa and South Asia with their charismatic brand of worship and their iron promise of salvation. Islam, itself caught between moderation and militancy, can in the latter guise present a deadly threat to Christians and others. Primate Okoh’s immediate concern is not liberal Christianity but the Islamist Boko Haram group, which is responsible for bloody massacres of Christians in northern Nigeria.

It appears that the church is militant or it trembles; the rock on which it has claimed to stand must be granite or it crumbles. The part of the Anglican communion that has most enthusiastically accepted the “trends and priorities of…wider society” is the North American one, with (in its U.S. guise) a history of independence from Britain and a more recent history of proactive promotion of women’s equality. But it, too, is declining. Women’s ascent to the House of Bishops, which is, as Archbishop Welby indicates, probably a matter of time rather than doctrine, will not save it from further shrinking. Liberal Christians cannot pretend to square the testaments with what they believe are the truths of science and the liberations of social progress. In that honorable dilemma lies the cause of their slow marginalization.

PHOTO: Rowan Williams, the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury, speaks with (L-R) Caroline Spencer, Reverend Celia Thomson and Reverend Clare Edwards during a break in a meeting of the General Synod of the Church of England, at Church House in central London November 21, 2012.  REUTERS/Yui Mok/POOL 

6 comments

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Centuries old practices, rooted in Scripture, should not lightly be changed on the basis of the latest equal opportunity fad – this is not about corporate employment.

Posted by SayHey | Report as abusive

The challenge of every society is to bind-in its young males, who otherwise are happy to either disconnect or, Samson-like, shake down the pillars of the temple in which they feel no stake. Different social roles for males and females merely reflect the huge average difference in motivations and impulses that divide the sexes. Recognizing this is key to a sustainable culture – or religion. Viewing the Anglican debate through the lens of formal legal equality is absurd. It’s notable that those prone to so view matters are untroubled by growing disparities in male participation in work or family life or their overwhelming preponderance in prisons or in workplace death statistics. An Anglican church run by females will simply become more and more of a culturally irrelevant, male-less ghetto.

Posted by NBresht | Report as abusive

Yes, social fact indicates there should be much more concern for the alienation of men than for the promotion and preferences for women, which has been established fact in the US for almost a half century. That is where social destruction lies. Males must feel included, and not just the ruling class. The ruling class does not fight wars. The existence of patriarchy among the wealthy and the powerful does not justify oppressing politically weak males.

Western leadership is, simply, asleep at the wheel.

Posted by usagadfly | Report as abusive

“It is basic management theory that few things are worse for an organization than uncertainty at the top. …. In religion, certainty … seems to win.”

Well, as you yourself pointed out in life, rather than just in religion, certainty wins.

And by the way, so far as “thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee.” goes, that would be between married couples. Rather than between pastor and flock. So not much getting around at all.

But the real issue is the division. You don’t need management theory to know it will wither be fatal or resolved.

“A house divided against itself cannot stand”. Who said that??

Posted by Dafydd | Report as abusive

Those who oppose the consecration of women as bishops fly in the face of contemporary biblical exegesis.

It is, simply put, misleading to say that “scripture” sides with those who oppose women as bishops. Scripture can say almost anything.

In the New Testament we see a very different picture than in much of the Old Testament, and for much of the New Testament (though certainly not all) women hold a place of equality in the leadership of the early Christian community:
- In all four canonical gospels Jesus is shown as including women as equals among his inner circle;
- Across the canonical and extra-canonical gospels a leadership struggle between Mary Magdalene and Peter is played out – Luke gives the mantle to Peter, the Gospel of Mary to Mary. At the very least this reflects differing views of women as leaders in the early Church, with some embracing women as leaders.
- The genuine letters of Paul (7 out of 13) promote a radically equal role for women, including one (Junia) whom Paul describes as “prominent among the apostles” (Romans 16:7 NRSV).

The reality is more complex than this article suggests, and offers much stronger support for women as leaders than the conservative factions within many Christian churches claim.

Posted by NigelTH | Report as abusive

Numbers do not equate to truth… otherwise Hitler would have been justified.

Additionally what the World or the Clergy wants, has nothing at all to do with what the Church should do, but God’s Word dictates truth, not Man’s. For it is by God’s Word that we are sanctified from the ways, lifestyles and deeds of the World.

John 17:17
Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth.

Paul is clearly seen to command that a believing women should neither teach or exercise authority over a believing man, in both Church and believing home. He points the truthful seeker to the Creation Account and the events of The Fall to validate his ‘seemingly’ bigoted commands.

It is there that we discover that the order of our creation has left a vulnerability within Mankind, that an enemy had once exploited seeks to do so again. A vulnerability that can only be remedied by our adherence to God’s authoritative order.

However, after nearly 2000 years of adherence to God’s protective order, we see once again the same rebellion that led to the first apostasy being repeated, even a deceived Eve usurping her head… and an Adam casting-off God’s command that he might knowingly rebel

Better expounded here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0d2uKJSpJ M0“

Posted by Karlos1001 | Report as abusive