This week the Church of England’s General Synod—the parliamentary body that oversees the 80 million-strong Anglican Communion—voted down a historic settlement that would have created a system of second-class citizenship for female bishops. There are still no female bishops in the English Church, and there is strong opposition to creating any—at least, creating any who would be equal to male bishops. But the settlement’s failure was encouraging for women. The Guardian‘s Andrew Brown wrote:
One third of the Church of England’s clergy are now women, though most of those are unpaid. It was they who were being told that God had put a glass ceiling on them, and they who replied that He hadn’t.
The settlement was meant to be a compromise between the conservative and progressive factions of the church. It was brokered by Dr. Rowan Williams, who as Archbishop of Canterbury is the supreme head of the Anglican Communion. Williams—a scholar and dead ringer for Merlin—has been described as “a theologian of almost paralytic reticence.” He’s likeable and generally liberal, but on the issue of women bishops, he has proved an ineffective leader with scant moral authority, presenting nothing but half-assed “solutions” which only enable the Anglican Communion’s strident woman-haters.
The New York Times described Williams’s “compromise” as:
…a settlement under which hard-line traditionalists might have accepted the appointment of women bishops. The proposals would have provided for a “complementary” male bishop with independent powers, working alongside a woman bishop, to minister to traditionalists unwilling to accept a woman as the head of their diocese.
These complementary “flying bishops” simply cater to the misogynists. Don’t like the fact that there’s a woman running your diocese? That’s okay! You can ignore her and talk to this other bishop instead, who’s exactly the same as your bishop, but with a dick.
Williams is prepared to ignore the fact that “flying bishops” compromise validates misogyny and unfairly undermines women priests. That’s because Williams’s first priority is not upholding the dignity of women priests or speaking out against the irrational hatred of them (more on that in a minute). No, his first priority is to keep everyone happy and unified under one Mother Church, even though it’s painfully obvious to everyone but Rowan Williams that keeping everyone happy and unified is simply not possible. Like it or not, the Anglican Communion is going to have to split the baby.
Why? Male privilege dies hard. There are men within the church, both parishioners and clergy, who simply refuse to accept women in any position of leadership. Some are now threatening to either establish their own schismatic arch-conservative church or to rejoin the ultimate boys club, the Roman Catholic Church (from which the Anglicans split in the 1530s). Pope Benedict XVI has openly courted disgruntled Anglican clergymen, pledging to take any defectors who want to join Rome, married or single, with or without their congregations.
Progressives supporting women bishops—who include the one-third of Anglican clergy who are female—are fighting back, enlisting legal as well as moral suasion:
The legal argument runs this way: given the Church’s special status [it is the state religion of the United Kingdom, with the monarch as its head], priests are functionaries of the state, and, because of this, its claim to a “religious exemption” in regard to women in the episcopate violates both Britain’s and Europe’s anti-discrimination laws.
Don’t have a constitutional church/state divide? Too bad. The Church of England may be forced to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s—in this case, a non-discriminatory hiring policy.
In addition, Williams also has a financial incentive to keep the Church unified, as the Guardian explained:
Over 500 clergy have left the Church of England since the 1990s, when Synod agreed to allow women into the priesthood, receiving payouts totalling £27.4m. Some of them later returned to the fold. (ed: No word on whether Williams got a rebate from them.) In 2008, around 1,300 clergy threatened to leave if Synod removed legal obstacles barring the ordination of women as bishops.
Still, it’s not just the prospect of money and lawyers that’s firing up this debate. It’s digust with the the rampant misogyny of the conservatives, especially the radical male activists of Forward In Faith, some of whom Jane Kramer wrote about in an April New Yorker article:
“Don’t underestimate how hateful some of those men are,” Pauline Perry, a seventy-eight-year-old life peer who was Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector for education during the Thatcher years and who now sits on Parliament’s ecclesiastical committee, told me. Perry is a Tory, a feminist, a patron of WATCH, and a fierce advocate for female bishops. “I’ve been on the committee for a long time,” she said. “And I thought I’d heard everything until one of the Forward in Faith people on it stood up one day and said, ‘Can you imagine my pain if I have to kneel at the altar with a woman’s body under those robes!’ Those people have treated the women in their church terribly. They have told the women, ‘You are not received.’ ”
Christine Hardman, archdeacon of a southeast London church, says of the conservatives:
What I don’t understand is why they think maleness is enough, and why the only ones they grant as having theological beliefs are men. This isn’t about what women want. It’s about religion and about what we believe God wants, about how we ‘discern’ someone to whom leadership is given and about our vow to our bishops and ‘the grace of orders’—about what it means to be the Body of Christ. I care about maintaining the integrity of the Church of England. I’m less concerned with women bishops than with getting it right, and I haven’t heard a persuasive theological argument against them.”
That’s because there isn’t one. The argument from the right boils down to pure chauvinism. Here’s a whiff from one of England’s arch-conservative bishops:
John Broadhurst was already mourning the loss of strong father-figure priests, swept away by the petticoats of an “overly feminine” clergy that was “not equipped for service in the kind of neighborhoods where people get stabbed in the middle of the night and a priest has to get up and drive to the hospital to administer last rites.”
Women serve in the police and the military but the priesthood is too scary for them? That doesn’t pass the smell test. Let’s not turn a blind eye to the the elitism of Broadhurst’s comment, either. Women already live in those “kinds of neighborhoods”, of course, and are perfectly capable of ministering to their neighbors there. But Broadhurst seems be fixated on an image of women priests as idealized church ladies of his social class—nice white women who hold teas, organize jumble sales and would never dream of going to “those kinds of neighborhoods.” There’s plenty more of the misogyny and the women priests’ perspective in Kramer’s article, which is long but worth the read.
In contrast to the UK’s home-grown misogynists, who are a minority, the strongest resistance to women bishops comes from the large and extremely conservative African branches of the Anglican Communion. This is especially true of the archdioceses of Nigeria and Uganda, which have, for all intents and purposes, already split with the Mother Church, and now provide a haven for overseas schismatics who refuse to accept the authority of female or gay bishops (those dioceses and individual congregations have resigned from their home archdioceses and voluntarily submitted themselves to the authority of the African archbishops).
Williams wants to avoid being seen as a colonial “white father” forcing egalitarian Anglican culture on his African archbishops. His sensitivity is commendable, but misguided. Misogyny–and homophobia—are not unique African cultural traditions that deserve respect. Oppression—and outright hatred—of women (and gays) is immoral and unChristian whether it’s practiced in Kampala or Canterbury. As head of the global Anglican Communion, Williams’s reluctance to challenge the African archbishops only furthers the damage they do to their communities by denying the many men and women in their flock who would make fine bishops, and whose pastoral work would only benefit the Church.
By comparison, the Episcopal Church—the US branch of the Anglican Communion—has long since moved past this argument. While the Church of England did not ordain women until 1994, and still has no female bishops, the Episcopal Church began ordaining female priests in 1976 and invested its first woman bishop, Barbara Harris, in 1989 (Harris is also African-American). There are also women bishops in other “Western” branches of the Anglican Communion, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
Since 2006, the head of the Episcopal Church—also known as a primate or Presiding Bishop—is a woman, Katherine Jefferts Schori. Although Schori was elected by her fellow bishops to lead the US church, eight American dioceses have rejected her authority and ten of her fellow primates in the Anglican Communion have stated that they will not recognize her. Schori has also generated controversy by backing the rights of the church’s gay members and clergy, including Mary Glasspool of Los Angeles, who is the Anglican Communion’s first openly gay female bishop. Glasspool, it should be noted, was invested despite objections from Rowan Williams, who “begged Americans to reconsider”—not because he is theologically opposed to a gay female bishop, but because he didn’t want to further inflame the woman-haters and gay-baiters in the Communion.
Rowan Williams’s compromise approach is nothing but appeasement. As leader of the Anglican Communion, he’s willing to sacrifice the rights—and dignity and legitimacy—of his female clergy in a last-ditch attempt to mollify the schismatics. He doesn’t appear to care that by devaluing women clergy, he devalues all women, including the tens of milliions of women who are his congregants. He’s sending the wrong message, but sending it is ultimately a futile gesture, as Williams can not and will not persuade the anti-woman activists; they will accept no compromise. Unfortunately, Williams’s waffling and obvious catering to misogyny may very well alienate the progressives and women who remain once the schismatics have exited.