‘Reformers’ win British battle over women in the episcopate

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The Church of England has taken what appears to be a definitive step toward women in the episcopate and, as you would expect, journalists at our major newspapers are pretty pumped up about that. You can see this quite clearly in language near the top of the Washington Post report about the historic vote in this symbolic national church.

The move effectively shatters the glass ceiling that prevented women here from being promoted to top church jobs and was made possible after reformers and traditionalists reached a compromise that would satisfy parishes opposed to female bishops. …

That it has taken this long for the church, the mother church of the Anglican Communion, to make the move may seem baffling to Anglicans in countries such as the United States, Canada and New Zealand, where women already serve as bishops. It has been baffling for many here, too, with churchgoers and even the prime minister accusing the Church of England of being out of step with the times.

Once again, note the language used to frame this event.

The word “traditionalists” is certainly appropriate, since this was a debate about centuries of Christian tradition in churches that claim apostolic succession from the early church.

But what about that other word, “reformers”? As I have noted in the past, that is a problematic term for use in doctrinal disputes because it automatically assumes that something needs to be reformed. This term pretty much settles the issue, telling readers precisely who the good people are in this story, which means that folks on the other side are the kinds of blokes who are opposed to “reform.”

Do an online search for definitions of “reform” and you can see what I’m talking about. Here are some samples:

* make changes for improvement in order to remove abuse and injustices; “reform a political system”

* bring, lead, or force to abandon a wrong or evil course of life, conduct, and adopt a right one; “The Church reformed me”; “reform your conduct” …

* a change for the better as a result of correcting abuses; “justice was for sale before the reform of the law courts” …

* improve by alteration or correction of errors or defects and put into a better condition; “reform the health system in this country”

* a campaign aimed to correct abuses or malpractices. …

So we are talking about the defeat of traditionalists who oppose the correction of abuses, the righting of injustices, the defeat of evil, etc., etc. Needless to say, the bad people on the losing side of the vote are not given much room to discuss their beliefs and concerns.

The Post team does mention people in the opposition, however, even while failing to listen to their voices.

… (The) issue of women as bishops remains highly divisive in the global Anglican community. The majority of the world’s 80 million Anglicans reside in Africa, where many vehemently oppose the idea.

In concessions to opponents with theological objections, the package of measures passed Monday allows a parish unsatisfied with a female bishop to ask for a male alternative and take its complaints to an independent body.

“You don’t chuck out family or even make it difficult for them to be at home,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said in reference to the traditionalists during a lively, five-hour debate that preceded the vote.

Oh, those backward Africans.

Meanwhile, an analysis piece at the BBC — which was more balanced than the hard-news piece at the Post — dug a bit deeper and noted that quite a few of the major players in the highly Evangelical Protestant churches of Africa have no major objections to allowing their female priests to be considered as bishops. That piece also hinted at one of the major issues looming in the background, based on past history here in the United States and elsewhere:

But Lorna Ashworth, a lay member of the Synod who voted against women becoming bishops, suggested it was “not going to be a smooth road ahead”. She said she had no plans to “run away” from the Church but predicted there could be “difficulties” in a number of areas, such as those involving new priests opposed to the changes.

Another lay member, Susie Leafe, director of the conservative evangelical group Reform, said she was “very disappointed” by the vote.

“There is still at least a quarter of the Church for whom this package does not provide for their theological convictions,” she said.

Well, there is the issue of whether men who are opposed to the ordination of women will find it harder to be ordained in the future. And what about the highly political system in England’s national church that selects new bishops? How easy will it be in the future for traditionalists to make the leap to the lofty land of purple shirts?

However, the larger issue is one of apostolic orders. The ordination of women as bishops affects the ordination of new priests, creating what amounts to two separate churches that do not see each other’s orders as valid. As Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher noted the other day:

Prior to the vote, a reader and I were discussing how the Anglicans could justify accepting women priests but not women bishops. My guess … is that an individual Anglican may not believe that women can be ordained priests, but as long as the bishop is male, the traditionalist believer can be certain that the male priests have been validly ordained. With women bishops, it becomes impossible to know who has been validly ordained or not. From this point of view, a male bishop in the year 2100 who was ordained by a male bishop, who was ordained by a female bishop, would be no bishop of all — and there would be no easy way for the worshiper to know.

Precisely right. That is a crucial issue for many who defend the centuries of tradition calling for an all-male priesthood and episcopate. What are their other beliefs on this topic? I have yet to see a story that talked to anyone on the losing side about this.

Please hear me: I know that the winning side is the big story on the day after this kind of event. I get that. However, I am asking if anyone in the mainstream even addressed the doctrinal reasons behind the traditionalist stance.

Readers, how about you? Anyone seen a report that reported some of those facts? Or were those in the opposition merely against something new, as opposed to being in favor of something ancient?

There is also the issue of how this move will effect the Church of England’s ecumenical relations with Rome and the ancient churches of the East. There was this strategic reaction that I saw online, but, so far, I have not run into it in mainstream news reports. This is from the Right Reverend Msgr. Keith Newton, leader of the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham — the Catholic outreach to Anglican traditionalists in England:

For many in the Church of England this will be a very happy day. Having agreed to permit women priests in 1992, the Church of England’s decision today to allow women bishops is the next logical step. What is undeniable is that both developments make harder the position of those within the Church of England who still long for corporate unity with the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

Pope Benedict XVl’s decision to set up the ordinariates — allowing former Anglicans to enter the full communion of the Catholic Church, bringing with them much of the Anglican heritage and tradition — was made in response to repeated requests from Anglicans who longed for unity with the Catholic Church. It was a prophetic and generous ecumenical gesture because it demonstrated the possibility of unity of faith with diversity of expression.

Stay tuned and help us follow the ongoing coverage. I have asked Father George Conger, who is an evangelical Anglican, to pay special attention to the coverage on the other side of the pond.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • DeaconJohnMBresnahan

    The paragraph on the BBC report in the posting seems a bit confusing. It is rare to see Evangelical Protestant clergy called “priests.” Does this have something to do with the evangelical wing of the Anglican Church???
    Have seen no covering of those in favor of defending apostolic Tradition. It would be interesting to see any Orthodox reaction since many Anglicans consider themselves sort of the Western or Latin Orthodox Church. (Their “branch” theory of Church.)Also have seen little mention of how the Church of England is very much more a government department than most other Christian churches making it far more susceptible to cultural–political secular viruses(what little I saw was virtually bragging about how wonderful it was for the state Church to finally turn its back on apostolic Tradition and take its proper subservient place under the thumb of culture and the government.)

    • tmatt

      “Priest” is the normal term for Anglican clergy in all wings of the church, in my experience. Perhaps you are thinking of Lutherans, who prefer the term “pastor”?

      • FW Ken

        40 years ago, I was received into the Episcopal Church in the low church diocese of Texas. The most common form of address was “Mister”, and his office (or job) was as a “minister”, or maybe “rector/vicar. Of close, the principle service on Sunday was Morning Player, with Holy Communion on the first Sunday.

        Long long ago…

  • Kevin Spencer

    I’ve yet to find any mainstream reports that show any theological or doctrinal analysis.

    It may be that attempting such an analysis requires speaking to the opponents of such a move. Those opponents would argue that the founder of the faith left a clear pattern to follow in their history and tradition. But confirming this point to the upmost levels of journalism might end with “attempts to reach God for comment had no response.”

    The journalists are left seeing matters though an NGO lens at best and an advocacy lens at worst.

  • Ray Ingles

    But what about that other word, “reformers”? As I have noted in the
    past, that is a problematic term for use in doctrinal disputes because
    it automatically assumes that something needs to be reformed.

    Well, it certainly establishes that they think there’s something that needs reform. I have to ask, what alternative words do you suggest? I presume “malcontents” or “agitators” goes too far in the other direction…

  • wlinden

    In the debate over immigration policy, EVERY faction calls what they happen to want “immigration reform”. It is no more than a signal asserting “We are the Good Guys”.


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