Yesterday, Matt Schmitz posted about the decision by the General Synod of the Church of England to reject women bishops. At question time in the House of Commons today, UK Prime Minister David Cameron spoke about yesterdays decision. According to the Guardian ,
Cameron said he was very sad about the result. On a personal basis Im a strong supporter of women bishops. Im very sad about the way the vote went yesterday . . . . I think its important for the Church of England to be a modern church in touch with society as it is today and this was a key step it needed to take.
Cameron indicated that the government would respect the Churchs self-governing status although established by law, the Church legislates for itself through the General Synod while giving the Church a sharp prod. Its not clear what the prod will be. Some MPs are threatening to end the Churchs representation in the House of Lords; others, to remove the Churchs exemption from anti-discrimination laws. Anyway, Cameron made clear, the Church would somehow have to get with the programme and reverse yesterdays decision.
Please note that the Prime Ministers objections, and the objections of the other MPs, are entirely political. I dont mean that as a criticism; its simply a fact. In essence, what the Prime Minister is saying is this: The Churchs decision is inconsistent with the deepest values of contemporary English society; therefore, the decision is illegitimate. Now, no doubt, the Prime Minister thinks it is morally wrong and un-Christian to refuse to ordain women as bishops, and many people agree with him. But his main point, at least as expressed in Parliament, is that the Church must change to keep up with modern society. As a public institution, the Church has a responsibility to reflect public values.
Public values are not in principle the binding authority for Christian churches, however. Whether women may become bishops or priests, for that matter is a complex theological question on which Christian churches disagree. To resolve the question in an intellectually honest way, youd have to spend a lot of time considering scripture and tradition. And youd have to be open to the possibility that scripture and tradition point to an answer that contradicts public opinion, in which case, youd have to conform to scripture and tradition, not public opinion. It wouldnt be the first time Christians found themselves at odds with the wider society, after all. But, anyway, Im not arguing here about women bishops. My point is only that the values of the wider society cannot, for Christians, be the determinative factor.
And here we come to a central problem of establishments . Inevitably, public values do become the determinative factor. Public institutions cannot contradict public opinion for long. What will the outcome be in this case? I dont know enough about English society to make a confident prediction, but two possibilities suggest themselves. First, the General Synod will get the message and reverse course in the near future. The supporters of women bishops were only six votes short of a supermajority, which is awfully close. Perhaps next time the vote will be different. Alternatively, the opponents of women bishops, who come disproportionately from the laity an observation that requires a post of its own will hold on, and the Church will move, slowly, toward disestablishment. I cant imagine Parliament will remain patient for long with a public institution out of step with public values.
Mark Movsesian is Director of the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University.