The Church of England Still Won't Allow Female Bishops: Good for Them

This week's narrow vote protects Christians with increasingly unpopular views.

Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters

When the Church of England narrowly defeated a measure to allow women to be appointed bishops this week after a dozen years of legislative effort, many observers were surprised. After all, the group has ordained women as priests since 1994—what's the big deal with letting female priests become bishops?

The answer helps explain why the measure failed. The Church of England is known for the graciousness with which it accommodates minority theological opinions. Since the 1990s, parties that disagreed about female ordination merely had to tolerate each other's presence. Female bishops, on the other hand, would hold significant ecclesial and sacramental authority over everyone in the church, even over the minority who believe that female ordination is a theological impossibility. Mere toleration would no longer be possible.

Legislation in support of women bishops was debated by the church this summer, with a focus on whether to protect that group that views female ordination as invalid. Bishops asked members to trust that the Church would respect opponents of the change, even while some proponents of the legislation opposed protections. Traditionalists and their sympathizers doubted these pledges, remembering that promises made to opponents of female ordination in the 1990s were subsequently broken: They were told that there would be no damage to the careers of clergy who viewed female ordination as invalid, for instance. A simple look at the vote in the House of Bishops this week (44 for, 3 opposed) tells a different story.

The measure easily passed the House of Bishops and House of Clergy, and failed by only six votes out of 206 cast in the House of Laity. Passage in all three houses is required by Canon law. Under church rules, the legislation can't be revisited for the next five years. But there are a few loopholes leaders are exploring.

The stakes are high. Outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams pinned his legacy to the passage of the vote. The repudiation, despite the narrow margin, is a stinging defeat. Some MPs insist that they will move forward with legislative penalties against the church if the situation is not rectified to the state's satisfaction.

Telegraph columnist Damian Thompson says "it's an ecclesial mess of the most peculiar variety." Times religion reporter Ruth Gledhill sounded deeply hurt, writing, "The Church of England has forfeited right to speak on assisted dying—because it has just committed suicide, assisted by synod."

Noted atheist Ricky Gervais, whose feelings about the Church of England would undoubtedly be the same regardless of the vote's outcome, snarked, "The best thing about Christianity is its message of acceptance and equality. That's why the C of E have always welcomed female Bishops."

The argument from these leading cultural figures seems to be "get with the times." Indeed, the authority of the times could not be clearer: Gender doesn't matter, all people are equally capable of performing all duties and sexism is a cardinal sin.

The cultural context is clear and convincing to those pushing for a change in the church's doctrine. But Scriptural authority and tradition are just as clear and convincing to those who resist the doctrinal changes. Most Christians are in church bodies that retain male-only clergy, a doctrinal teaching that was settled without much controversy for millennia—until the 20th century. This group includes Catholics, the Orthodox Church and much of Protestant Christianity.

In addition to the passages in Scripture that require male authority in the church, based on the order of creation, there is the example of Jesus Christ himself, who chose only men to serve as Apostles, even while women served in a variety of other roles. This happened in a context where Jews required male clergy but other ancient religions had priestesses.

While arguments about gender in the secular realm frequently speak in terms of fairness and power, the organizing principle in Christian theology is service. In the New Testament, men and women served the early church in a variety of ways, while ordination was reserved for men (and only a few men at that).

For reformers, the issue of female ordination derives from notions of human rights and human customs. Much of the response to the Church of England's vote charged the church with discriminating against women by denying them equal rights.

And while social reformers argue that men and women are more or less interchangeable and that their differences have little bearing on life, traditional Christians say that Scripture and tradition teach otherwise.

Traditional Christians believe that both men and women are created in the image of God, but that they are two distinct and special creations of God. Traditional Christians view this as a blessing more than a burden. These distinctions also mean that men and women have different responsibilities and duties (e.g. husbands, wives, mothers and fathers). Men and women have different responsibilities and opportunities for service in the church, too. A posture of service guides the traditional church less than a demand for rights.

Traditional Christians have a high view of the Office of Holy Ministry, but the most important teaching on gender in the New Testament is probably from Galatians, which proclaims that everyone is equal in salvation. "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus," the Apostle Paul writes.

The global Anglican Communion is wrestling with how to reconcile its progressive and traditional wings, and the Church of England is no exception. If the church body eventually consecrates its first female bishop, it wouldn't be the first time the voices of culture and politics have spoken with greater authority in the Church than Scripture, tradition, and the erstwhile consensus of the Christian church.

But it is worth keeping in mind the words of William Ralph Inge, who was an Anglican priest, Cambridge professor, and Dean of St. Paul's Cathedral in the late 19th and early 20th century. He wrote, "Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next."