British church in turmoil over women bishops

LONDON, UK — Outwardly, the church of St. Gabriel’s in northwest London is a conventional English place of worship: an imposing Victorian-era bell tower attached to a vault-roofed chapel. Inside, however, the century old building is thoroughly modern, warmly carpeted and filled with comfortable padded chairs.

The two aspects symbolize a collision of old traditions and new values that has left the Church of England in crisis after it voted last month to refuse consecrating women as bishops.

Vicar Jane Morris presides over an ethnically-mixed congregation, many of whom have dressed down for the relaxed session of Sunday worship. As they line up to receive holy communion, a six-piece rock band belts out Christian songs on stage while children roam freely.

Morris delivers a sermon about righteous fury in the face of stubborn tradition.

“I like the fact that Jesus is angry and distressed,” she tells her congregation after a Bible reading from the Book of Mark in which Jesus becomes indignant with hard-line Pharisees. “There is a place for anger.”

It’s been an angry time for Morris. A member of the general synod, the ruling body of the Church of England, she was on the losing side of a decades-long campaign for it to allow women bishops.

The decision — a victory for traditionalists who argue that scripture demands male leadership in the church — has caused widespread dismay in Britain, where many view it as an affront to a progressive society in which equality is enshrined in law.

It could also have dangerous consequences for the church because lawmakers, who usually avoid meddling in religious affairs, are considering whether they can compel the synod to rethink its position. Some say it could lose its prized position as the official church of state.

The defeat was keenly felt by Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury who had hoped consecrating women bishops — a practice already accepted by other Anglican denominations — would be realized before he retires as the church’s senior cleric next year.

Expressing “deep personal sadness” over the defeat, he warned that the church had exposed its failure to keep step with modern values.

“Whatever the theological principle on which people acted and spoke, the fact remains that a great deal of this discussion is not intelligible to our wider society,” he said after the motion was defeated by just six votes. “Worse than that, it seems that we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities in that wider society.”

Other senior church figures agreed. Williams’s anointed successor, Justin Welby, called the vote a “very grim day.” Writing on Twitter, he said the setback “lessens our ability to do anything good.”

Most senior church officials had expected the vote for women bishops to be successfully carried. Women have been ordained as priests since 1994 and campaigning together with behind-the-scenes discussions had brought most around to the notion of senior female ministers.

But while evangelical and Anglo-Catholic opponents may have been willing to tolerate women as rank-and-file clergy, they were against the prospect of being answerable to female bishops. They were able to block the measure under the synod’s complicated voting system.

In theory, the traditionalists succeeded in shelving the issue until the next full synod meeting in 2017. With the church thrown into turmoil, however, there’s pressure from both within and without to urgently reconsider the decision.

In an address to parliament, Prime Minister David Cameron declared himself a “strong supporter of women bishops” and threatened to give church leaders a “very sharp prod” to make them “get with the program.”

Cameron’s comments raised the prospect that equality laws barring discrimination on the basis of gender could be used to compel the church to reverse the ruling. They also raised questions about the church’s role in the House of Lords, Britain’s unelected upper chamber of parliament.

An online petition calling for bishops to lose their automatic seats in the House of Lords because the church is a “sexist organization” that violates the “the spirit of UK equality law” has gained more than 7,700 signatures.

Those are troubling signals for a church already worried by growing support for disestablishment — the process that would see it lose its 600-year-old status as the official church of state.

Prince Charles, the heir to British throne, has said that when he becomes king he will not take the title “defender of the faith” now held by Queen Elizabeth II, the church’s nominal head. Instead, in a nod to modern British multiculturalism, he wishes to become “defender of faiths.”

In a further sign the church is losing influence, a survey conducted in 2001 showed that almost half of all adults in the UK claim to have no religious affiliation. The downward trend continues to see church attendances decline as other religions grow in popularity. 

The vote on women bishops has drawn an almost undiluted chorus of disapproval from newspaper commentators across the political spectrum.

In failing to move with the times, the church has exposed itself as a “bizarre sect” unworthy of public respect, wrote Suzanne Moore in the left-leaning Guardian.

“For heaven’s sake, if Swaziland has a woman bishop, surely Suffolk should be allowed one?” asked Allison Pearson in the conservative Daily Telegraph.

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Back in northwest London, Morris, the vicar, finds strong support for her sermon about anger, which she directly links to the debate over women bishops by warning against the kind of “formalism and traditions” she says can blinker the church’s vision.

After the service, some parishioners grumble that the issue is distracting churchgoers from matters more worthy of their prayers — such as the recent hostilities between Israel and Gaza and violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo — but most want to see ecclesiastical equality.

“The general synod made a mistake,” said John Wolffe, a member of St. Gabriel’s congregation and a religious history professor at the UK’s Open University. “What they need to do is break their own rules, revisit the issue as soon as possible and find a solution that everyone can accept.”

Alice Molnar, a Hungarian-born British resident who says she abandoned the Roman Catholic church to become a St. Gabriel’s regular because she preferred its egalitarian atmosphere, agrees.

“If you can have a woman vicar, why can’t you have a woman bishop?” she asks. “In any other job, if you have the talent you become the manager. And women clearly have the talent.” 

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Andrew Kearney on 12/07/2012 - 03:19 pm.

    The Vote clarified

    I believe the vote was passed by the clergy and bishops although not unanimously and defeated by the laityby six votes. Pretty darn close. Parliament would be well within its rights to intervene. This is after all a church that was created by government decree. The service and music of the C of E is an important part of our western heritage. You can have churches like the one featured that do rock music but without establishment and financial support that’s all you’ll have. You will not have the glory of the English tradition except in a few places like the Abbey and King’s. Traditonalists there are like Republicans here-shoot yourselves in the foot in order to avoid being shot at by someone else.

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