Understanding the Crisis in the Church of England

November 20, 2012 By 41 Comments

Westminster Abbey

This afternoon the Church of England General Synod voted against women’s ordination. For those of you who are befuddled by this–join the club!

Here are some explanations from this former Anglican:

The Church of England is the Mother Church of the churches of the Worldwide Anglican Communion. Each of these churches are national churches and are independent. So, for example, the Anglican Church in Nigeria is independent from the Church of England the from the Anglican Church of Kenya or Canada or American or Australia. Most of the Anglican Churches in the developed world already have women bishops and have had for years.

The Church of England is itself, very divided. There are three wings of the church: Liberal, Evangelical and Anglo Catholic. The Liberals go for the whole secular agenda. The Evangelicals are Protestant. The Anglo Catholics more Catholic in practice and theology. These three groups have three very basic belief systems. Within these three groups there are sub groups: Liberal Evangelicals and Liberal Anglo Catholics, Conservative Evangelicals and Conservative Anglo Catholics. It is the last two sub groups who have scuppered the move for women’s ordination.

The Church is governed by the General Synod. This is an elected body with three houses: Bishops, Clergy and Laity. The members are elected from dioceses and deaneries from across the land. No special theological qualification is required to be elected to the House of Laity. The proceedings of the General  Synod have to be approved by the British Members of Parliament who form the government of Her Majesty the Queen who is officially the head of the Church of England.

The conservative Evangelicals follow a Protestant, Bible-only theology and they believe the Bible clearly forbids women to have authority over men in church. In 2 Timothy 2:12 St Paul writes, “I do not permit women to teach men or have authority over them.” More liberal Christians think St Paul’s teaching was a product of his time and culture and that it can be dismissed. Conservative Anglo Catholics hold to this verse from St Paul, but they add to the argument the fact that the Eastern Orthodox and  Catholic churches do not allow women’s ordination and they believe the Church of England is part of this greater Catholic Church and therefore cannot take this step on it’s own. Liberals disregard this argument and say it doesn’t really matter what the Catholics and Eastern Orthodox think. The Church of England is  a Protestant Church and they look to the other churches in the Anglican Communion and other Protestant churches that have ordained women as bishops and say they are the other churches they should look to as partners.

Behind this clear disagreement is a more profound disagreement about the nature of the Christian faith itself. The conservatives believe the Church is founded by Jesus Christ on Divine Revelation and the truths of the faith cannot be changed or adapted because of pressures or trends in society. Indeed, the church, they believe, is there not to conform to the world, but to challenge the society in which it finds itself–even if that means they are unpopular and misunderstood.  Liberals believe the church and Christian beliefs are the result of certain societal and cultural conditions and therefore the church has a duty to adapt and change the message and the method in order to listen to and reach out to the society in which it lives.

The crisis in the Church of England occasioned by today’s rejection of women in the episcopate is likely to be long, drawn out and bitter. The liberals have campaigned for women bishops for twenty years. The majority of bishops and clergy voted in favor of the measure. It lost in the House of Laity by only six votes. The rest of the British people don’t understand the fuss. They’ve had women priests for twenty years in the Church of England and for most people this is simply a common sense question of equal rights for women.

In this article I explain why the negative vote may well have even more serious implications for the freedom of religion in England. If the Members of Parliament decide to over rule the General Synod there may be a constitutional crisis involving the established status of the Church of England and a crisis over religious freedom which will tumble over into serious implications for the relationship between the state and other religious bodies like the Catholic Church.

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