Anglicans aren’t the sort of church-goers who set much store by miracles, signs and wonders. Yet their own church is one of the greatest miracles of our society: it has managed to hang together, in spite of raging differences, for centuries.
Since 14 July, that miracle has been under threat. For most, it was a great leap forward when the General Synod finally approved the ordination of women bishops. A delighted Archbishop of Canterbury was ‘grateful to God and to answered prayers’. David Cameron called it a ‘great day for the church and for equality’.
But one section of the church didn’t feel it was a great day. Members of the conservative evangelical movement, represented by a pressure group called Reform, had resisted this change for years. Reform was set up after the Church of England approved the ordination of women as priests in 1993. Before the vote on bishops, they and the remaining Anglo-Catholics had argued there was insufficient provision for those who still believed that the Bible does not permit women to lead in this way. The conservatives feared being forced to submit to a bishop whose authority they disputed. They lost the argument.
Next week Reform will hold a conference for its members to decide what happens next. And what does happen next will surely change the character of the Church of England, for better or worse.
By the time July’s vote rolled around, the conservatives just wanted an exemption from being led by a female bishop. They argued that if a woman was appointed in their diocese, those churches that are ‘complementarian’ (believe that men and women are equal in the sight of God but have different roles) could have a different spiritual leader. They failed to get this, but the declaration by the House of Bishops said it was dedicated to this particular group ‘flourishing’ in the Church of England, and will appoint a conservative evangelical bishop to ‘represent them’.
This word ‘flourish’ may prove more sinister than it sounds. It seems to be that complementarians can continue to believe what they do, but only so long as they don’t cause a fuss if a woman is appointed in their diocese. Conservative clergy applying for jobs may find that their honesty about their stance on this issue puts an interview panel off them entirely. Silent flourishing is welcome, but nothing more vocal, thank you.
To non-Anglicans, this probably sounds like a storm in a vicarage teacup. Even other Christian denominations might be bemused: the Bible talks only of overseers and deacons, so the Church of England is bickering over a made-up job. Baptists might well feel they’d got it right all along: by not having bishops, you can avoid an almighty row.
Even to those who do worship in Anglican churches, it’s difficult to understand why this has become such a big problem that it requires pressure groups, repeated votes and horsetrading. The church once again seems obsessed by gender and sex when the outside world has moved on.
The conservatives themselves say that these debates are ‘secondary issues’ that shouldn’t split the church. But they’ve spent a heck of a lot of time and effort fighting over something ‘secondary’, haven’t they? Susie Leafe, director of Reform, argues that she and her colleagues are not stick-in-the-muds but are instead sticking to the Bible: ‘Who are we to redefine who God claims to be and what He says?’ Those bits of the Good Book, incidentally, include 1 Timothy 2:12, where Paul says ‘I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet’, and 1 Corinthians 11:3, in which the early church is told that ‘the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man’.
Liberals take those verses with a strong dose of context: women were barely educated when the church was forming. And elsewhere, Paul also instructs women to cover their heads, which not even Reform advocates. Even evangelicals can’t agree on the practical implications of these verses: the late theologian John Stott argued that it meant women could be teachers but not bishops. Others, like those parishes associated with Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha Course, are quite comfortable with women serving in all roles.
But for those who do take a literal reading of these verses — and who don’t fancy Catholicism — a split looms. It won’t be dramatic or happen all at once: Reform anticipates that Anglican congregations who disagree with female bishops will be forced to leave whenever their diocese is led by a woman. But they don’t want to join the Baptists or other evangelical denominations: they see themselves as Anglicans, committed to those articles of faith that jumbled them into the C of E in the first place.
Instead, they have an alternative Anglican structure waiting for them. It is called the Anglican Mission in England (Amie) and was set up by the Global Anglican Future Conference, itself a deeply conservative movement in the global communion. Amie is a support group, but it is also well organised, and would be able to cope with practical administrative matters for refugee evangelical groups.
Good riddance, loyal Anglicans might say. If you can’t commit to the compromises necessary to be part of that miraculous unity of liberals and conservatives, high church and low church, then you haven’t really got it in you to be a proper Anglican anyway.
But those preparing to pack up their bags or declare independence argue that they represent the growing wing of the Church of England, and say they’ll leave behind liberals who cannot keep Anglicanism alive. Reform’s research backs them up: in a survey of 185 churches who opposed women bishops, two thirds had grown in the past decade, with a third growing by more than 33 per cent each year. And a third of these congregations are under 30. For the rest of the church, the picture is miserable: the average age of a congregation is 62 and nearly half of English congregations have fewer than five members under 16.
This isn’t quite fair to the churches the conservatives would leave behind. If Holy Trinity Brompton, which devised the world-famous Alpha Course, is happily staying, then the C of E is hardly doomed to a dusty decline. But if a rapidly growing branch of the church breaks off, soon Anglicanism could be somewhat less miraculous.