Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Church of England's rejection of Ms. bishops mystifies

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The departing Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, argued for it. So did the incoming one, Justin Welby. Two of the three houses of the Church of England's governing synod, representing bishops and clergy, overwhelmingly voted for it, together with a large majority of the House of Laity.

It was not enough, however, and on Nov. 20, a measure that would have cleared the way for women bishops in Anglicanism's mother church failed to pass. There was immediate talk of a church "committing suicide."

The vote is not the end of the matter. The principle of female bishops in the Church of England, which was approved by the General Synod in 2008, remains. Women are sure to enter the House of Bishops eventually. Fully 42 of the church's 44 dioceses are in favor, as are three-quarters of the general public -- which matters to an established church.

What was rejected was a fudged compromise between liberals on the one hand and Anglo-Catholic traditionalists and conservative evangelicals on the other.

Under the proposed measure, women could have been consecrated as bishops, but those unable to accept them would have been able to request a male stand-in. Many in the pro-female-bishops camp found this humiliating, whereas their opponents felt the proposed wording, calling for their wishes to be "respected," failed to provide a cast-iron guarantee that a woman would not be imposed upon them.

The majority nonetheless believed that, after many years of bitter wrangling, this was the best arrangement they were likely to get.

The measure's failure has prompted angry claims that the House of Laity has been hijacked and is out of step with the rest of the church. This is partly true. Elected once every five years, the current synod was chosen in 2010, two years after women bishops were approved in principle. Determined to block the measure from going any farther, a clutch of conservative activists made sure as many of their people were elected as possible.

It has been 20 years since the church first allowed women to be ordained as priests. There are now more than 3,000 of them, out of a total of 17,000 priests, representing one in every five paid clergy and more than half the "self-supporting" ones. The church is gradually replacing paid men with unpaid women. Offending them might be seen as poor management.

Six of the 70-million-strong Anglican Communion's 38 autonomous provinces -- Australia, Canada, Cuba, New Zealand, southern Africa and the United States -- already have female bishops. A further dozen have approved them, but do not yet have any. None has made any provision for an opt-out.

However, three-quarters of Anglicans are now in Africa, and most of them are passionately opposed to the idea. Some worry the introduction of female bishops could further split a communion already torn over homosexuality and undermine rapprochement with the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Britain's established church is declining. Although four out of 10 Britons still describe themselves as belonging to the Church of England, barely 800,000 regularly attend services, half the level in 1970, and only one in eight English children is baptized into the church. The introduction of female priests has done nothing to halt this slide, nor would female bishops.

The vote has dismal consequences for the established church, though. Even socially conservative MPs quickly disparaged it. There is talk of forcing the church to bend to equality laws.

Britons now view sex equality as a settled matter, and are beginning to feel the same way about gay marriage. The Church of England's battles over such issues provoke mystification, which threatens to turn into outright hostility.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 29, 2012 A17

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