Yesterday was a historic day for the Church of England. The governing body of the church finally put to a vote the resolution to afford women the opportunity to serve the church as bishops. This particular issue has been a significant point of contention for the Church of England. The main issue is that there are those (labeled “conservatives”) who do not believe that this role of oversight and spiritual responsibility should ever be held by a woman. There are others (labeled progressives) who feel that this is an idea whose time has come. Women have been serving as priests in the Church of England for the last two decades. There have many discussions regarding this.
What was voted on yesterday was the compromise legislation that would have allowed those parishes who found themselves under the spiritual supervision of a female bishop to be accommodated and, in essence, transferred to the care of another bishop during the time that the female bishop served. This did not sit well with the conservative crowd. There were concerns about whether this would cause for unfair treatment of those parishes that did not submit to the leadership and authority of their bishop. The irony of this situation is that they compromise resolution actually brought the opposing sides together against the measure.
Now, I am not really interested in the politics of the debate. Nor am I going to comment on whether the church should or shouldn’t do this. What I take exception to are some of the reasons that were cited for why this decision should result in the approval of this female bishops.
I have seen various versions of this rationale. However, the following example is the most egregious example of what is wrong with making decision in the church that are not based on scriptural reflection and theological conviction.
Peter Broadbent, bishop of Willesden in London, has called for a “yes” vote so that the church does not “look completely stupid in the eyes of society.” [Source]
This is a bishop of the church and the best reason he can provide is that the church would “look completely stupid in the eyes of society.” It does not matter what the context of this comment was, it represent that ongoing trend within many Christian circles to make decisions based on the greater motivations of the surrounding culture. The words that describes this is capitulation. Whenever the church, regardless of theological or denominational flavor, surrenders it moral prerogative it loses valuable ground to speak prophetically to the world for which Christ died and the church is called to serve.
The bishop of Willesden may hold to a conviction that women should be allowed to serve as bishop within the church. He may look forward to the day this is no longer an issue, but the stated reason was a poor choice of words, at best, or a total surrender of moral ground, at worst.
At least I found a voice from within the church that saw the problem with arguments for this measure that did not actually address the concerns of those that opposed it.
Tom Sutcliffe, an opera critic and member of the Synod for over 20 years, said he would be voting against the measure because it did not provide adequately for traditionalists.
“This is a very bad piece of legislation … I personally do want women bishops, but we have to make proper arrangements for those who don’t accept them on religious grounds,” he said. [Source]
Any time we fail to firmly and consistently ground our convictions we run the risk of being swayed by influences outside of the faith. This kind of thinking is what causes the church to look weak, anemic, impotent and dated. This is the not the way theological issues should be addressed. The Church of England has revealed the symptoms plague churches across the board. There can be cordial and sincere disagreement about a wide range of issues. However, these disagreements, I believe should be grounded in an individuals theological convictions.
Conviction should be the way forward. Not capitulation. The Church of England and the new archbishop of Canterbury have a long road ahead. I will be praying for them.