A few days ago the synod of the Church of England failed to approve a measure that would allow women to become bishops, and that has led to a lot of comment in the blogosphere, on social networks, and no doubt elsewhere.
Like Antioch Abouna, I have no wish to comment on the internal affairs of another Christian body. What the Church of England decides about who to have as its bishops does not affect me. Sixty years ago Anglican ecclesiology was perhaps a bit closer to Orthodox ecclesiology than it is now. Back then, at least some Anglicans believed that apostolic succession was important; it strongly affected their relationship with the African Orthodox Church and the Order of Ethiopia, for example. Now, I think hardly any Anglicans regard apostolic succession as important, and the model for episcopacy is perhaps more akin to that of a branch manager of a supermarket chain, and the criteria for selection are probably similar — can they perform the management task adequately? Of course the analogy is not complete; a supermarket manager is not expected to be pastor pastorum to the other members of staff, and I believe there is still that expectation of Anglican bishops. As Antioch Abouna has noted, the discussion has been almost entirely in secular tems, and based on secular criteria. So it is up to Anglicans to decide on the criteria for the selection of their bishops in accordance with their current understanding of what bishops are. It is not for Orthodox, who have a different understanding of bishops, to approve or disapprove of whatever they decide.
But an Orthodox Facebook friend also commented “Orthodox Christians who delight in knocking Anglicans (esp. Rowan Williams) very distasteful. Don’t they have anything better to do?” and cited this post Women Bishops and an Archbishop Agonistes | Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy:
Well, it seems that the lame duck Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, has decided to take his episcopal duty of admonition with some seriousness this week…
Now there may be a cultural difference here. It is possible that the term “lame duck” is inoffensive or neutral to people in the USA, because of their political system, but to people outside the USA it sounds very offensive indeed, and quite uncalled-for.
But, personal insults aside, what Archbishop Rowan Williams said (as opposed to what he is) does seem to be worth commenting on. Church of England in crisis: Archbishop of Canterbury attacks members for voting against women bishops – The Independent:
Speaking in the aftermath of that decision this morning, Dr Williams said the church risked being seen as “willfully blind” to the demands from wider British society that it must do away with institutional and theological sexism.
“We have, to put it very bluntly, a lot of explaining to do,” he told the General Synod. “Whatever the motivation for voting yesterday, 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. Worse than that, it seems as if we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society.”
He added: ”We have some explaining to do, we have as a result of yesterday undoubtedly lost a measure of credibility in our society.“
Perhaps he was speaking as the leader of the Established Church, and believes that the church needs to shape its own priorities according to the trends, priorities and demands of that society.
But if so, I think that reflects the dangers of Establishment. And I cannot help comparing it to another Anglican archbishop, facing a synod, at another place, another time.
The archbishop was Bill Burnett, then the Anglican Archbishop of Cape Town, and the occasion was the 1979 meeting of the provincial synod of the Church of the Province of South Africa (now known as the Anglican Church of Southern Africa).
There was a rather dull motion being debated, proposed by a Canon Albertyn of Cape Town, asking that the synod set up a commission to look into and report on all the permits the church was required to apply for in terms of the then-current apartheid legislation. Bill Burnett intervened from the chair, and said that in his position as Archbishop he was often called on to apply for permits for various things, and he disliked doing so. He did it because he thought it was expected of him as part of his role, and that it was expected of him to try to preserve the church as an institution, but that it was a role he disliked, and he disliked having to apply for permits, and was prepared not to do so, if that was what synod wanted. He warned that it could mean the end of the church as an institution. Its property could be confiscated by the government, and worse, but he was prepared to do that if it was what synod wanted. “Is that what you want?” he asked.
There was dead silence.
The moment passed, and the synod went back to its ordinary dull business (you can read more about that here Trapped in apartheid – South African churches | Notes from underground.)
But there you have two Anglican archbishops, more than thirty years apart. One is saying that the church must conform to the demands of the wider society, and the other announcing that he was prepared to resist the demands of society, no matter what it cost.