Sunday, July 11, 2010

Yesterday, in York

Although an Anglican Curmudgeon, I do not consider myself a Church of England "Curmudgeon", for the obvious reason that I do not belong to the Church of England. The following critique of what happened at the Church of England's General Synod yesterday should not be taken as representing any of the current factions in the debate over female bishops in the Church of England. What I feel constrained to point out are the longer-term consequences for the Church of England's position in the Anglican Communion should yesterday's vote on the amendment proposed by the Church's Archbishops prove decisive.

Although General Synod still has many more proposed changes to consider, the divisions over the Archbishops' measure contain all that is necessary to divide the Church of England even further than it has been divided to date. The irony of the vote yesterday is that, while a majority in the Church of England are committed to the ordination of women to the episcopate, a majority were also in favor of the compromise proposed by the Archbishops, which was designed to keep the Church from tearing itself apart. Nevertheless, the Archbishops' measure failed to pass all three orders in General Synod. In the House of Bishops, it passed handily, by a vote of 25-15. In the vote by the laity, it also succeeded by a vote of 106 to 86, with 4 abstentions. But in the vote by the clergy order, the measure garnered 85 votes in the affirmative, to 90 in the negative, with 5 abstentions. Thus the anomalous result: taken overall, there were 216 members of Synod who favored the measure, while only 191 opposed. Nevertheless, because each order did not vote in favor, the measure on the whole failed to pass Synod, and so the change to the legislation which it proposed was rejected.

It is instructive to delve beneath the bare numbers. At stake is proposed legislation that would enable women to be ordained as bishops for the first time in the Church of England, while the Synod passed in 1992 changes which allowed the ordination of women as priests. It was the latter change which made it possible for the clergy order to defeat the Archbishops' compromise measure, since there are now a significant number of women clergy delegates to Synod as a result of the changes enacted in 1992. The number so elected to Synod easily exceeds the plurality of 5 by which the Archbishops' measure went down to defeat among the clergy.

In short, the women priests in Synod combined with a sufficient number of male priests to ensure, by a bare minimum, that the wisdom of the other orders in the Church of England would not be put into practice. And in that description of the result is all the data that anyone needs to conclude that the admission of women to the priesthood in the Church of England was just the first step in a widening gyre. There will be no turning back: after the approval of the ordination of women to the episcopate, the numbers will so change in the Church of England's House of Bishops, and in the lay delegates as well, as to make inevitable the ordination of LGBT's to the episcopate. And at that point, the Church of England -- in whatever form it then remains -- will be indistinguishable from ECUSA.

I recognize that there are those who, like Damian Thompson, see these developments as positive in the long run for the Roman Catholic Church -- since those who are against the ordination of women to the episcopate are likely to be most sympathetic to the alternative being currently offered by Pope Benedict XVI. To the extent the Roman Catholics' numbers grow as a result of the defeat of the Archbishops' compromise, however, simply drives home the more what that compromise was all about. As illustrated by this letter from a member of WATCH's national committee, the opponents of the compromise have set themselves against any internal resolution of the current difficulties in the Church of England by working within the confines of its polity. It is, paradoxically, only those who have utterly given up on that polity who will find the rejection of the Archbishops' measure a positive step for the Church of England -- since it was a rejection not by a majority, but by a minority of orders. And, most significantly, the order whose vote proved decisive to the rejection was the order to which women had already been admitted.

At the risk of becoming even more controversial, I would suggest that the vote in yesterday's Synod on the Archbishops' proposals represents the unavoidable consequences of the Church of England's opening the door to women's ordination in 1992. Many who voted for that measure must have done so on the ground that "it does not put women into the apostolic succession, and so by voting for it, we can appear to be post-modern intellectuals without committing the Church to women in the episcopacy." Well, that was 1992, and now we have 2010. Having gotten their foot in the door in 1992, the women priests of the Church of England were not about to resist the ordination of women bishops when that issue came to a vote. Yesterday's result, a negative victory achieved by just five votes out of the 407 cast, and in which a majority of 216 voted to adopt the amendment, signifies not so much a democratic outcome in the Church of England as it does bloc thinking by a determined and well-organized minority.

What is more, the absolute refusal to compromise to the smallest degree signifies the rigidity with which women bishops will demand full recognition from everyone in the Church. We have already seen this phenomenon in ECUSA: the ordination of women was introduced with the understanding that it would be optional for dioceses. Then, once a sufficient power base had been accumulated at General Convention, what had been optional suddenly became mandatory, within the space of only twelve years. And one by one, those bishops who maintained their opposition to women's ordination were deposed and driven out of the Church.

Although after Synod the draft legislation has to go out to the individual dioceses for approval, and it may still be possible for a compromise to be worked out, I think Cranmer's Curate reads the tea leaves correctly, and the Vicar of Ugley is not far behind. Radical change is in store for the Church of England, and God help those who would stand in the way. (Notice how the leftist press treats the story: all about personalizing resentment against the Archbishop of Canterbury, and not one word about the fact that more Synod members voted to support him than those who did not.) Dissent will be neither accommodated nor tolerated; the politically correct will see to that. What will be fascinating is to see how these predictions will turn out.

So much for the prospects for the Church of England -- what will these mean for the Covenant, and for the Anglican Communion at large? I see it as weakening, not strengthening, the ties that still connect provinces, primarily because of the inevitability that same-sex marriage will now gain a foothold in the Church of England, with the consequences already mentioned earlier. The Church of England will look more and more like ECUSA, and that will drive the Communion farther apart, not bring it together. Any Covenant that is acceptable to the ECUSA group will not be acceptable to the other, and vice versa. With yesterday's vote, the Communion's fate is pretty much determined.

Five votes -- and five abstentions, too -- that changed history. In time, people may forget. But it all started yesterday, in York.

[UPDATE 07/12/2010: The Archbishop of Canterbury made some well-tempered remarks in an address to Synod this morning, urging that it move forward with its work (the text of the remarks is downloadable here). All may not yet be lost. After the measure comes back from the dioceses, it will have to pass each House of the General Synod by a two-thirds majority in order to become law, and that is a tall order. As this story in The Independent informs us, those against the measure as currently drafted will need to elect to Synod enough representatives to constitute, in any one of the three Houses, an opposition of one-third plus one of its members, and the measure will be defeated. The narrow defeat of the Archbishops' compromise may have galvanized opponents to attempt to do just that (elections are held this October). And if that is how things turn out, the five votes in York will still remain historic, but for another reason.]


  1. Hi Curmudgeon,
    Thanks for your analysis of the CofE situation. I just wanted to make you aware of the experience of the Diocese of Melbourne in Australia, which first ordained women as priests in 1992, and appointed its first woman bishop in 2008. The female priests in the diocese are not all crazy, liberal lefties. There is a fair proportion of solid evangelicals among them. Assistant Bishop Barbara Darling is fairly solidly evangelical too. It has not led to a wholesale slide into the liberal abyss you suggest is likely for the CofE. Ordination of LGBT people to any order is not on the agenda at all, and neither is same sex blessings. So, it is not always the case that ordaining women is the first step towards the entire liberal agenda.
    Best wishes,
    Andrew Reid

  2. Andrew Reid, thank you very much for sharing that information with us. Perhaps -- just perhaps -- the Church of England may avoid the slippery slope of liberalism as well. (See my update above.)

  3. What the C of E did in 1992 has finally come around and bitten them on the rump.