by Micah Meadowcroft
The Church of England General Synod voted Monday to allow women to become bishops. This follows the ordination of female priests in 1994. While the measure will now need to be approved by the ecclesiastical committee of parliament and receive the assent of the Queen, observers expect the first female bishops to be appointed by the end of the year.
While one can argue that the installation of female bishops naturally reflects the ordination of female priests, doing so merely pushes the theological debate back two decades and ignores the significance of the escalation. That and a number of other recent moves by the Church of England cause me to fear that, in the footsteps of the Episcopal Church, her estranged daughter in America, the Anglican mother could fast be becoming Monty Python’s Camelot, “a silly place.”
To consider the stakes, the most orthodox choice made by the Episcopal Church of late was its decision to defrock a priest, Ann Holmes Redding, who claimed to be both Muslim and Christian. The church ordained gay and lesbian priests 18 years ago, and appointed its first gay bishop 11 years ago. That bishop has since both married and divorced his partner. The church began blessing same-sex marriages in religious ceremonies in 2012. In 2011, an Episcopalian diocese in Georgia attempted to have Pelagius, the fifth century heretic, reinstated. Pelagius denied man is born sinful, and claimed man was capable of saving himself apart from God’s grace. Individual congregations have broken away from the Episcopal Church as it has strayed further from historical Christianity, many joining conservative Anglican dioceses in North Africa. This has prompted Episcopalian leadership to engage in ugly feuds over church property and underhanded, certainly uncharitable, methods of penalizing departing flocks.
The Episcopal Church denies its departure from historical Christianity, and nominally affirms the historical creeds that define the Christian faith, writing on its website, “we join Christians throughout the ages in affirming our faith in the one God who created us, redeemed us, and sanctifies us.” It has to, to consider itself Anglican, a tradition that is built on the Elizabethan religious settlement of 1558 claiming to be both “catholic and reformed.” That first title of catholicity hearkens back to the creeds and councils up to the Protestant reformation and lays claim to the continuation of apostolic succession in the Church of England’s hierarchy of bishops, priests, deacons, and the laity. The second term, reformed, is theological and points to the truly Protestant beliefs of the church found in the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. Thus the Church of England can be understood as catholic in form but reformed in theology.
If the Anglican mother church, rooted in the Bishoprics of Canterbury and York, continues down the path it appears to be setting for itself, it will cease to be Anglican, for it shall cease to be both catholic and reformed. Female bishops, and female priests for that matter, are not found in the Biblical descriptions of church structure, and as Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry pointed out in a Tuesday column, Christianity is a revealed religion. That the apostolic church described in the Book of Acts or by the apostle Paul contains no women preachers ought to be informative, if not prescriptive. History and tradition both deny female priests, pastors, presbyters, what you will—bishops certainly—and the Church of England makes explicit claim to history and tradition. The confirmation of female bishops will cripple many claims to apostolic succession.
The General Synod has made much of the increasing secularization of Britain, and in attempts to appeal to post-modern sensibilities is seeking to let Low Church Anglicanism become very low indeed, promoting vestment free communion services in “alternative” locations like cafés, pubs, and parks. It is a minor, but another, sacrifice of tradition on the altar of popularity. More worrying is the alternative baptismal service leaving out renunciation of the Devil, leaving out Satan entirely actually. The Synod has decided to respond to the sentiment that he doesn’t exist not with preaching like the apostle Peter to, “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour,” but with silence. Moreover, there is now even discussion of support of assisted suicide, a step away from the sanctity of life.
This is not the kind of responsive development of Christian doctrine that John Henry Newman wrote about in 1845. Empty pews are not heresies to respond to. While his exploration of theological development led him from Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism, Newman set forth principles that should teach the church he left behind. Doctrine should become more precise as it is tested, not loosen and dissipate in response to disinterest or popular opinion. The Church of England has done well in response to gay marriage and homosexuality. The church will not officiate gay weddings, nor ordain those who practice the homosexual lifestyle or are in same-sex marriages, but it recognizes that it is a “new reality” in England. It recognizes the need to love and shepherd homosexuals, while standing strong for marriage between man and woman, and condemning adultery and fornication as grievous sin.
In marriage, the Church of England is affirming both form and theology. While it is sacrificing itself, a church both catholic and reformed, in its desire for increased attendance and relevance, it is not too reduced. It is, however, further alienating itself from traditional Anglican dioceses and other apostolic denominations. It needs to realize that it remains relevant inasmuch as it does not reflect the popular—a light to a dark world. It cannot reject either its form or its function without ceasing to be itself. If it does, English Anglicanism will fast become the American Episcopal Church, and let’s not go there. As King Arthur said, “it is a silly place.”
Micah Meadowcroft is a junior studying history. He is a member of the Dow Journalism Program.