In what we will no doubt look back on as a watershed moment, the Church of England has begun a “completely new phase” of its history, in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
To outsiders, the decision to allow women Bishops might seem like an anachronism. After all, the rest of the world’s denominations are wrestling with gay marriage; they don’t give the gender of Bishops much thought anymore. But the decision of the General Synod, which was given the royal nod this week, proves yet again that the Christian church is no longer prepared to draw any distinction between the roles of men & women.
This is not the moment we claim the sky will fall in; clearly, life will go on and people (in declining numbers it has to be said) will be back in church on Sunday. But what this decision reveals is that the visible church is inextricably linked to the thinking of the world and, given enough time, will gradually fall into line with it, despite the teaching of Scripture and centuries of mature believers’ thoughtful exegesis.
The Church of England itself has debated this issue for four decades, but, in the end, it took no more than a show of hands and a few signatures to enact this new piece of legislation. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s response was telling:
"I think it means above all that we have started a completely new phase of our existence as the church."
I would agree. The Church of England has a chequered history. It has done a lot of good, but it began under the auspices of King Henry VIII. One wonders what his response would be to the appointment of female Bishops!
King Henry VIII, however, is hardly the yardstick by which we should judge the church’s faithfulness to doctrine. Only by God’s grace did the Church of England survive his rule and become what it did. But I can’t help noticing that the denomination which began as a result of one tyrant’s desire to gain an unBiblical divorce so he could fulfill his lustful desires with another woman, will now effectively be run by women.
Church and masculinity
I first became aware of the problem the Church of England had with the male population a decade ago when I read David Murrow’s book Why men hate going to Church1 I knew the church I attended had trouble attracting and keeping men, but Murrow revealed the global significance of the trend.
The Christian church, Murrow pointed out, is full of nice old ladies of both the male and female variety. What he meant was even the men in church had been powder puffed until their God given masculinity was almost unrecognisable. If you want a masculine activity at your local church these days, you would have to go to the working bee. As for the Sunday service, forget it. If you don’t like handing out hymn books, serving morning tea, singing or doing flower arrangements, then it’s not for you.
The stats Murrow offered on the Church of England were alarming. Most of the trainees for ministry at the turn of the millenium were retired women looking for some something meaningful to do in their remaining years. When I read that, I knew straight away that this denomination would eventually be run by women, for women.
It was inevitable that women Bishops were next on the hit list. What surprised me was that Lesbians gained traction in the church before women were established as Bishops. How is it that a denomination could acquiesce so easily on a moral issue but take so long to deal with its internal legislation?
Above: Archbisop Welby signing female Bishops into law (Courtesy The Telegraph)
Pay attention to the little things
I can’t see how this week’s shift in the Church of England can be seen as anything other than the logical conclusion to decisions taken over the 40 years of this debate - especially the last 10. If you are not going to base your decisions on Scripture in areas which seem inconsequential, what makes you think it will be any different when the big issues come along? You have already established the method of your decision making - democracy. Whichever side of the argument gains the most votes becomes the correct one, doesn’t it?
Archbishop Welby said this week that it would be at least another decade before the number of female Bishops was on parity with males.
“It has got to be 10 years allowing for the fact that men will be nominated to some sees as well and it could be longer."
Sooner than that, I would say. If men hated going to Church before, this is unlikely to remedy the situation. My prediction is the Church of England will experience a man-drought, if it hasn’t already.
Where there’s no separation
What seems to be driving the Church of England is the urge for relevance in the community. Don’t forget, this is the official State religion and to maintain its position, the church has to jump through a few hoops. If it wants to be invited to the big events - the coronations, the royal weddings, funerals et. al. - it must reflect the community’s pulse on such matters. The people want the church to dress up and say all the right things on those great, public gatherings of national importance, but what “the right things” are is by no means set in stone.
A church which fights for relevance by changing its doctrine on such a core issue as qualification for overseer, will eventually cease to be a Christian church. The stakes will only get higher. If the Church of England (ie in England) wants to know what the future holds, it need only look to the Episcopal church in America.
That doesn’t mean the women who would be Bishops are ungodly or have impure motives. I’m sure they’re all wonderful people with a heart for their flock. The point is this decision has not been reached by finding the mind of God in Scripture. It was done democratically. That is to say, the church worked hard over many years to find out what the people wanted.
What God wanted barely seems to have rated a mention.
Murrow, D. Why men hate going to Church, Thomas Nelson, 2004.