On July 14, 2014, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to permit women to be consecrated as bishops in their church. It followed a long, and sometimes bitter debate, and a vote in 2012 that barely fell short of the required two-thirds majority among lay representatives. Part of the decision—debated as to its enforceability—guarantees parochial opponents access to male priests and bishops.
For some, the decision was too late in coming. For others, though supportive of the concept, it is comes too early, putting another thorn in the bleeding flesh of the Anglican Communion and erecting a new barrier to reconciliation with Catholics and the Orthodox. For others, many of whom have already left the church, it is but one more sign of the inevitable slide of Anglicanism into a failed cultural accommodation with modernity’s egalitarian politics.
My own views are most sympathetic with those of the second group. Nonetheless, it should be acknowledged that the Church of England has labored hard and responsibly to reach this turning point, and, with whatever missteps, has done so in in sharp and positive contrast to several other Anglican churches around the globe. One may not accept the premises of Anglican polity, but in this case the polity has done its work with integrity according to its own self-understanding.
The Church of England did not begin ordaining women priests until 1994. That was almost twenty years after the U.S., Canadian, and New Zealand Anglican churches. The Lambeth Conference, in 1978, had already resolved that it was acceptable for member churches to ordain women if they chose. A long and engaged effort at Communion-wide consultation over the issue of women in the episcopacy gave rise to a report, endorsed by the Communion’s archbishops, to maintain communion as far as possible even while various churches carried on with different practices.
The Church of England, with its complicated establishment structures and great theological diversity, moved slowly. Significant numbers of its membership, including in the clergy and episcopacy, were strongly Anglo-Catholic or Evangelical in their commitments, and could not see their way theologically to accepting the ordination of women. Although there were acts of protest and provocation, women advocates and their supporters did not pursue a strategy of the fait accompli, as in the U.S., but worked to organize, debate, and persuade. Indeed, a number of British women who had been ordained priests elsewhere in the Communion returned to the Church of England and willingly worked as deacons as they awaited a potential change.
All this time, other churches around the Communion were beginning to ordain women. Often this occurred in areas known for their conservatism, like Africa, where numerous churches now have women priests. While there are women bishops in only a few Anglican churches (e.g. the U.S., New Zealand, Canada, Southern Africa, India, and recently Ireland) radical changes in women’s leadership roles around the world have altered perceptions from the ground up. There is a lived reality of women presidents and premieres, judges, doctors, lawyers, and Nobel-peace prize winners. This has combined with a growing sense that male leadership has proven incompetent, to render some of the theological arguments for restrictive male pastoral rule less credible, for better or worse.
It is unlikely that the Church of England’s decision will profoundly change the current dynamics of the church there, at least for the moment. Many of those most opposed have left the church already or are already so estranged from it that they have lost any compelling voice within the church’s councils. Women bishops are likely, however, to hasten some of the already growing splits within the more Evangelical and Reformed wings of the church.
Within North America, churches like the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA), that have separated from the Episcopal and Canadian churches, are moving in a direction that may well prohibit women’s ordination altogether. The already-existing divide between these groups and Canterbury is likely to widen, and the press for alternative churches in England itself will gain steam. On the other hand, ordained women in ACNA and in other evangelical churches may well decide that their own vocations are better pursued back within Church of England-related Anglican churches, and one may see a strengthening of conservative female leadership there. Certainly, it has been one of the sorrier aspects of North American Anglicanism that leading ordained women have been so roundly and predictably revisionist. It remains to be seen if the Church of England’s future women bishops can overcome this now engrained perception.
On the ecumenical front, particularly in relation to Catholics and Orthodox, there will likely be a good bit of angst over the Church of England’s decision. Without question, the Church of England has furnished the core of theological and ecclesial leadership in international dialogues, with North Americans having slowly disappeared from such gatherings. What now? I would guess the challenges will be greater with respect to the Orthodox. The Roman Catholic Church has long, formally, and repeatedly insisted that Anglican orders are “null and void” in any case. That being the case, it is hard to see how a new insuperable bar has been imposed on ecclesial recognition, let alone discussion.
Yet the approval of women bishops reflects the fact that ecumenical “consensus” is an empty slogan at best. If women in the episcopate are not considered worth such consensus, one must ask, “what is?” And, when the time comes, will there be the means to achieve it? My own concerns mostly lie here: Even if most Anglicans consider this a secondary issue of Christian “truth” or moral imperative, should we not have worked much harder to implement the means of open discussion, debate, and accommodation with our Christian sister churches, if only to fulfill our calling to such a work on its own terms?
Having said that, one decision can never be said to have foreclosed an ecumenical future. I remember well the witness of the late Rev. Dr. Susan Cole-King, one of the Church of England’s first ordained women. She was one of those who were willing to return to England (from the US) and work as a deacon before her orders were recognized there. Cole-King was the daughter of Bp. Leonard Wilson, the Singapore bishop who was tortured by the Japanese during World War II. In 1998, just a couple of years before her untimely death, she spoke at a Lambeth Conference eucharist that had followed a recent statement of repentance by Japanese Anglicans, many years in the making. She referred to her father’s divine gift of forgiveness of his torturers, including one who later became a Christian and whom he personally confirmed. Her father, she said, could forgive in the power of Christ; but true reconciliation, she went on to say, required an “acknowledgement of wrongs done,” “the truth faced,” and “painful self-examination [that] leads to confession and apology.”
Without knowing how it will be parsed out, I can say that there is much of this acknowledgement, truth-facing, examination, and confession still to come among Anglicans and their brethren on the matter of women’s ordination and consecration to the episcopate. As on much else. Our work now is to determine how this will happen.
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.