On 11th November 1992, I was in the middle of studying for my Religious Education A level. My (female) RE teacher was passionately in favour of women priests being allowed to be ordained into the Church of England, so on that day, she arranged for us to miss lessons in order to be able to watch the now historic vote in the General Synod. When the result of the vote was positive, we watched a large group of women deacons outside the Synod crying tears of joy and relief. It was a moment I will never forget.
Sadly, on Tuesday, I was forced instead to watch many of those same women, 2o years later, crying with anger and frustration, as the House of Laity effectively spat on their ministry, threw it on the floor and then stamped on it for good measure. Why? Because a small but important minority of them genuinely believe (and I quote a member of the House of Laity, who I heard on BBC Radio 4 yesterday) that women are “not to be trusted” with the spiritual leadership of the Church. The deeply flawed theological reasoning they use for taking this insulting view is for another post entirely.
What I want to deal with here is the issue which is at the heart of all this – should the Anglican Communion split? When Archbishop Rowan Williams began his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, many of us hoped that he would oversee a huge change in the hierarchy and governance of the C of E. After all, he was known to be not only pro-women, but also pro-gay in his theology. I’m not going to go into the gay issue much in this post, but suffice it to say that the fiasco that was the aborted appointment of Dr. Jeffrey John as suffragan Bishop of Reading was a disgrace and we were left in no doubt that Dr. Williams would not be sticking his neck above the parapet on gay issues. As more and more issues which divided conservative and liberal Christians have arisen during his tenure, we have seen him bow to pressure far too many times. He is a brave and forthright man, so what on earth has he been so afraid of, you may ask? The answer is quite simple, in my opinion: he does not want to be the Archbishop who splits the Church.
The conservative wing of the Anglican Communion, most notably in the African churches, has become more and more rigid and unmoving as time has gone on. Horrific tales of gay teenagers being put through terrifying exorcisms in British churches and across the world abound on the internet and the increasingly hysterical fundamentalists rail against any sign that the Anglican Communion may be drifting away from the letter of the law as written in the Bible.
On the other hand, liberal Church of England clergy and laity have begun to welcome change. Many churches now openly welcome gay people into their congregations and the decision to allow women to become priests in 1992 has only strengthened the Church and allowed it to grow as it finally recognises (as Jesus himself did) the power and importance of women’s ministry. However, along with that historic decision came a load of provisos and allowances which sicken me and, I know, many clergy, both male and female. Have you heard of flying bishops? This disaster of a policy allows for parishes which don’t accept the ordination of women, but have a bishop in their diocese who is willing to ordain women, to request the leadership of another bishop who is not willing to do so. The idea has been a massive failure, with many of the “flying” bishops becoming Roman Catholics and leaving the C of E all together. This and many other measures have seen the C of E tie itself in knots trying to accommodate everyone, whilst in actual fact they have only succeeded in alienating people still further. And why was this done? To avoid a split in the Anglican Communion.
It is about time that the leaders of that Communion realised that these increasingly desperate attempts to keep the Communion together are not working. It is already splitting apart at the seams and there is nothing they can do to stop it. A far better solution would be to embrace it, instead. If the Communion splits, all the fundamentalists and traditionalists will form their own Communion (or go over to Rome). The Archbishop will no longer have to pander to the small yet vocal minority who screech on in his ear about tradition, biblical fundamentalism and the fires of hell. He will be able to listen to his own conscience and provide real leadership.
In fact, if he were to do this now, take this brave step and change the way things are run to ensure the introduction of women bishops and the welcoming of gay priests and laity alike, effectively forcing the fundamentalists to “like it or lump it”, he would gain a lot of respect both in this country and nationwide, which would almost certainly lead to growth within the Communion, even as the traditionalists left. More importantly, he would be doing what I am convinced Jesus would have done if He were still with us today, which is to welcome those who have been marginalised and demonised, both within the Church and society at large, with open arms.
Come on, Rowan, do the right thing and make your time as Archbishop really count for something. Split the Anglican Communion. Without this, I fear that the Church of England has no meaningful future at all.