Theo Hobson

Will the Church’s division over women clergy re-ignite?

Will the Church’s division over women clergy re-ignite?
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Now that London has a female bishop, you might assume that the whole saga is over: surely the liberals have effectively won? Well, yes and no: because the traditionalist rump that opposes women’s ordination is still officially affirmed as authentically Anglican, and has its own episcopal structure, the liberals’ victories have a hollow feel. Of course liberals have grumbled about this odd situation since its origin in 1992. But charitable rhetoric about co-existence has kept such grumbling in check. Might this now change?

You might wonder how this rump has survived, and found new recruits. What is its appeal? It’s hard enough for a vicar to keep a congregation going: why tie one hand behind your back in this way? Well, you could say some clergy like the constraint. Or rather, there are still plenty of young men who are energised by the counter-cultural aura of this movement, who see the sacred mystique of priesthood magnified by this form of defiant otherness, who feel spiritually distinct from jolly down-to-earth females like Kate Bottley of Gogglebox. To a certain mindset, an embattled form of religion, condemned by mainstream culture, feels holier. And more adventurous: it makes a small congregation feel like a brave band of defiant disciples, rather than another disappointing turn-out.

But who occupies the pews of these traditionalist parishes? Do the worshippers share the vicars’ considered dissent from women priests, or is the whole issue something that they are only dimly aware of? The latter. At my local traditionalist parish, the matter is kept very quiet. I recently attended a service and talked to a few people afterwards: two longstanding members of the congregation were unaware of the parish’s position on women clergy.

I phoned Emma Percy, chair of WATCH (Women And The Church). The basic purpose of this organisation, I put it to her, was to lobby for women’s ordination – so can’t it disband? ‘No. It’s still a major issue that the Church says that it is equally valid to say that women can’t be priests – that means the priesthood of women is in a sense still provisional’. So your aim is to re-unite the Church by edging out the traditionalists? ‘Well, I wouldn’t say that’; she laughs slightly, perhaps remembering that both sides are meant to believe in ‘mutual flourishing’. ‘But I think there should be more aspiration to unity, more serious theological work done on this. The problem is that we’ve institutionalised separation.’

Then I spoke to Jonathan Baker, the traditionalist bishop of Fulham. Surely the rhetoric of mutual flourishing is dubious: it glosses over a serious division and leaves women priests feeling provisional. ‘Some women priests may feel that, but the Church of England as a whole has decided that differences on this issue should not be church-dividing. Talk of division is not where it feels that we are now – we’ve moved to a much more forward-looking way of approaching the issue, to accepting that all can have an honoured place. If you look at the history of the church, you see that diversity has never reverted to uniformity – there’s no desire to turn the clock back.’

So he thinks that the Church will accept its divided state for all time? ‘I’d question the premise that the Church is divided – our unity is much greater than our differences. Both sides have made a commitment to live with each other without limit of time – there’s no pre-nuptial agreement limiting that. And it’s a very serious commitment we have all entered into, not something to be revisited lightly.’

The traditionalists seem to relish the rhetoric of diversity, turning a progressive ideal to their advantage. It clearly annoys the liberals, but do they have the stomach to fight it? They would surely be on strong theological ground if they said, ‘No, sorry, a church needs a single authority structure; it’s time to plan the Church’s re-unification.’ But there has been so much rhetoric of virtuous co-existence that seeking to reverse it would be a bloody business. It would dramatically conflict with the niceness that seems the C of E’s prime article of faith, and which Bishop Sarah and her episcopal sisters seem to embody. 

Written byTheo Hobson

Theo Hobson is the author of seven books, including God Created Humanism: the Christian Basis of Secular Values

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