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Rejection of women bishops is not terminal


'Women Bishops' by Chris JohnstonThere have been two remarkable, historic events in recent weeks in the Anglican Communion's struggle with the question of women's ordination as bishops.

Last Saturday the Rev. Ellinah Wamukoya was ordained as bishop of Swaziland in southern Africa.

On the continent where most Anglicans now live, women have taken a major step towards full participation in ecclesial leadership. Although African Church leaders have played on the conservative side of serious intra-Anglican arguments in recent years, women's ordination has rarely been central to these. In this case, African Christianity is paying little regard to theological battlelines drawn by westerners.

On the other hand, most eyes in Australia and around the English-speaking world have been on another story, of the Church of England's General Synod stumbling at the threshold of a change supported by all its leading bishops, and by overwhelming majorities of its clergy and lay members.

This damaging but temporary impasse may ultimately prove to be the less significant story. The growing list of Anglican provinces that have left their staid mother Church standing flat-footed on women's ministry is a clear reminder of what missiologists have been saying for decades, that the European hegemony of the Church is over.

The Church of England faces what the whole western Church faces — a still-emerging secularist dominance of culture and society, within which the Church will be a distinct minority. This was the real, if veiled, subject of the fruitless argument in England last week, and won't go away even when a different result is eventually obtained.

The Church of England's particular gift and burden is its historic comprehensiveness, which has often left it trying to accommodate parts whose diversity challenges the attempt of the whole to manifest a clear identity, let alone to take bold action. These latest events reflect that difficulty.

This was not a decision to reject women as bishops, but a failure to make a decision at all. And the vote was not even about whether to ordain women as bishops, but on how to construct a parallel universe for dissenters, who could opt out of accepting the ministry of women if their parishes determined this was unacceptable to them.

More than anything, it was the rules governing the Synod's decision-making that caused the measure's failure: only six lay votes among more than 200 would have had to change to achieve the requisite two thirds majority.

While the movement to have women bishops has seemed a juggernaut, supported both by the outgoing Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams and his more evangelical successor Justin Welby, it is by no means certain that a repeated vote on the same proposal would be very different in five years.

The General Synod is composed of bishops, priests and lay persons. Perhaps surprisingly, the further one travels away from the clerical hierarchy in this structure, the more likely one is to encounter conservatism. This is partly because the processes whereby lay members are elected allow more representation from larger conservative evangelical parishes, where the most significant opposition to women's leadership now lies.

As time goes on, the voices and arguments from that minority might actually become louder.

These failed proposals were generous to conservatives. Some of the solutions to the impasse may however be less conciliatory to the dissenters, taking different routes that would bypass the Synod structure and its daunting voting hurdles. These might involve accepting that the almost impossible theological sprawl of the Church of England has its limits, and that fundamentalist forms of evangelicalism in particular are testing them.

To describe the failed vote as suicidal is an overstatement. These events may lose the Church members in the short term, but the possibility of ecclesial death stems from wider issues, and the slide towards secular indifference to the Church is not likely to have been halted merely by the advent of women bishops.

In England as in Australia, there are liberals and conservatives of various traditions who offer glib solutions to the wider malaise of the Church, claiming that the unfolding disaster stems either from failure to change or from excessive change; an issue like this then becomes a locus for dispute between these inadequate alternatives.

Both pay scant attention to history, or even theology — the first reminds us that the Church has struggled for survival before, the second that its heroes have ultimately been measured by faith, not success.

It is the faith of women like Wamukoyah and her sisters in episcopal ministry, not prognostications about the success or failure of a Church with or without them, that continues to commend their ministry and leadership. 

Andrew McGowan headshotAndrew McGowan is Warden of Trinity College, The University of Melbourne, and Professor in the MCD University of Divinity. He blogs at Andrew's Version and Royal Parade Diary


Topic tags: Andrew McGowan, Church of England, Anglican Church, women bishops



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In my first year of high school I desperately wanted to be a part of the netball team. Each member of the team was well known and liked within the school, the team being fairly successful. After trying out, and missing out, I was devastated. Some time later, I picked myself up and decided I'd probably like tennis better, which I did. This story is only about faith to the extent that I found an alternative when my way was blocked. Rev Wamukoyah's ascension to Bishop-hood is a much more hopeful story for women in the church than last week's Synod vote in England. Andrew's final paragraph commends 'women of faith' -it would be heartening indeed if every 'man of faith' could see the point that he makes.

Pam | 26 November 2012  

It all underscores both the necessity of an 'Anglican magisterium' and highlights astonishing rigidities. Frankly, I adhere unswervingly to infallible 'Ordinatio Sacerdotalis' and Last Supper complexion. Any wonder an Anglican Primate touring the Vatican curial offices expressed wonderment and envy at this mighty phalanx of efficiency noting how such would be an invaluable adjunct at Lambeth.

father john george | 26 November 2012  

Rejection of women bishops may not be terminal, but rejection of misogynistic religions must surely be on the cards.

Ginger Meggs | 26 November 2012  

I agree that this vote is not suicidal for the Church, but it is depressing all the same, especially because it was the lay people who rejected the move towards women bishops. If they are mainly Evangelicals as Andrew believes, are they all brainwashed to think that because St. Paul said the man is head of the woman, this condemns women to subservient roles for all time? How can the rest of us have any respect for this view, in the 21st century? But it is certainly heartening that a woman has been elected Bishop of Swaziland.

Rodney Wetherell | 26 November 2012  

Father John George expresses well why I left the Roman Church for the Anglican Communion, note not Church. incidentally there are a number of Anglican primates in the various provinces. I admired Rowan Williams scholarship but as ABof C he seem to have been impressed by a magisterium idea. Hence what I trust is the abortive Anglican Covenant, I hesitate to say that the more I look at the Vatican approach the more i think of the lawyers and Saducees.

Brian Poidevin | 26 November 2012  

Perspicacity personified. Good one Andrew.

Jonathan Gale | 26 November 2012  

Father John George lives in his own paradise of perfect prefects, which is why he will never understand why an 'Anglican magisterium'is little more than a touch of unreality to keep us amused. He lives in a church where bishops don't listen to one another let alone anyone else, with commendable exceptions. One wonders which Anglican Primate in particular when "touring the Vatican curial offices expressed wonderment and envy at this mighty phalanx of efficiency". Presumably it was a day visit. "A mighty phalanx of efficiency" with all its military connotations, is hardly what we expect of a loving communicative church. It also reminds me of Pope John XXIII's famous reply when asked how many people worked in the Vatican: "Oh, about half of them."


Unbeknownst to Father George, there is evidence that women attended the last supper... http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1558952/Da-Vincis-Last-Supper-New-conspiracy-theory.html

AURELIUS | 26 November 2012  

Father John appears evidently opposed to women in ministry. One can hardly say that rigidities control the Anglican system when in our Church, Catholics simply walk out of the Church since they have nothing to say in any case. The rigidity is in the application of the system in this case - five votes making the decision not to proceed? Incredible!

Peter M | 26 November 2012  

A very interesting article that goes to the heart of the issue for first world believers: the relationship of faith communities to "the emerging secular dominance of western culture and society." The article raises so many further questions. Thank you Andrew.

Fr. Steve SInn SJ | 26 November 2012  

Mmm - we have had Anglican ministers who have denied the resurrection, the Virgin birth and even the divinity of Christ. As a result we have empty Anglican churches throughout the Western World. And yet Andrew McGowan would have us believe that evangelicals that hold a conservative view of women's ministry, which he of course gratuitously applies the label 'fundamentalist', are now testing 'the almost impossible theological sprawl of the Church of England'. Really? I prefer (but do not 100% agree with) NT Wright's take on this issue - http://www.fulcrum-anglican.org.uk/759

Allan Bulman | 26 November 2012  

The English Church seems to find it hard to countenance that leadership, including prophetic leadership, has been going on elsewhere in the Communion for decades. It will not admit that the Americans have led the way on many of the main presenting issues, or that Africans, Australians and others have been streets ahead of England. What I find troubling about the vote on women bishops is that one cannot but see it as part of an increasing insularity within England itself, an isolation that includes isolation from the Communion and commitment to the Communion. The result is, of course, a travesty for those who understand the rudiments of democratic process, something the English pride themselves on inventing. (Various nations make this claim.) I warm to William Countryman’s view that one of the success secrets of Anglicanism is that it somehow bumbles through by trial and error. Next time I am sure the vote on women bishops will be passed, but when will that next time be? Women bishops have been welcomed in dioceses throughout the world for years now, which is why we look across at Dover Beach with dismay. A lot of the English Anglicans must be feeling the same way, the majority in fact. Do we look mainly to England for leadership? Or do as we have for years now, seek prophetic leadership wherever it may be found?

PHILIP HARVEY | 26 November 2012  

A women priest or bishop is as distasteful an idea as a man giving birth to a baby.

zacharymackenzie2@gmail.com | 26 November 2012  

@ZacharyMackenzie: "Giving birth to a book is always an abominable torture for me, because it cannot answer my imperious need for universality and totality." Emile Zola.

Pam | 27 November 2012  

There is already a 'sacred ministry' being performed by billions of women around the world. It's called The Most Sacred Ministry of Motherhood.

monica | 27 November 2012  

@Pam What you are, you are by accident of birth; what I am, I am by myself. There are and will be a thousand princes; there is only one Jesus Christ.

zacharymackenzie2@gmail.com | 27 November 2012  

Monica, the state of motherhood and priesthood are not mutually exclusive; at least the former is one of those splendid accidents of nature. And remember that not all women have the opportunity to breed. I presume that you have borne children and so have I but I don't presume to have undertaken a Most Sacred Ministry

JR | 27 November 2012  

It seems to me that anyone who is unable to comprehend the sacredness of motherhood is also unable to comprehend the sacredness of priesthood, and vice-versa.

monica | 27 November 2012  

In that case, Monica we will have to agree to disagree in a state of mutual misunderstanding

JR | 27 November 2012  

So what is your point Monica? That participation in one should exclude participation in the other?

Ginger Meggs | 27 November 2012  

JR I agree. As we may imagine things that are false, but we can only compehend/understand things that are true, for if the things are false, the apprehension of them is not understanding. And this is my point, Ginger Meggs: I am alluding to the Spirit of Christ in motherhood and priesthood.( 1 Corinthians 2; 14 )

monica | 27 November 2012  

Ginge RCC is surely not mysogynist with its Marian centre piece While erstwhile societies degraded women, the RCC had them as mother generals, superiors, abbesses [indeed one mediaeval abbess in the local square had her foot kissed by local clergy in abject obeisance. Pope benedict xiv appointed a lady professor of mathematics at Ravenna University in 18th century unthinkable in its day.

father john george | 28 November 2012  

The sexual abuse of children - woman priests and women bishops, wearing luxuriously woven robes?The Temple or Theatre of the Grotesque? But Jesus' ministry was clearly defined, and the alternatives to the illusion and temptations of the desert were spelled out. A choice was made -- life abundant, full, and free for all. Make no mistake about it, the day that choice was made, Jesus became suspect. That day in the temple he sealed the fate already prepared for him. How was the world to understand one who rejected an offer of power and control?

Bernstein | 28 November 2012  

Women priests and bishops in Africa ?- Sure I've heard about them...Often described as queen mother is the first daughter of a patriarchal lineage of a family collective. She holds the right to lead the ceremonies incumbent to the clan: marriages, baptisms and funerals. She is considered the one of the most important members of community. She will lead the women of a village when her family collective is the ruling one. Her dominant role has often been confused or associated to that of a high priestess which she is not. They take part in the organisation and the running of markets and are also responsible for their upkeep, which is vitally important because marketplaces are the focal points for gatherings and social centres in their communities. In the past when the men of the villages would go to war, the Queen Mothers would lead prayer ceremonies in which all the women attended every morning to ensure the safe return of their menfolk.The High priestess is on the other hand, the woman chosen by the oracle to care for the convent.Priestesses like priests receive a calling from an oracle at any moment of their lives. They will then join clan's convent to pursue a spiritual instruction. It is also, an oracle that will designate the future High priest and high priestess among the new recruits establishing an order of succession within the convent. Only blood relatives were allowed in the family convent strangers are forbidden. In modern, days however some of the rules have been changed enabling non family members to enter what is describe as the first circle of worship. Strangers are allowed to worship only the spirits of the standard pantheon. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/West_African_Vodun

zacharymackenzie2@gmail.com | 28 November 2012  

If science ever gets to the bottom of Voodoo in Haiti and Africa, it will be found that some important medical secrets, still unknown to medical science, give it its power, rather than the gestures of ceremony.

Mark | 29 November 2012  

To Mark - I have had some experience in Voodoo culture - and my feeling is that when we as Euro-centred Christian manner pray to God, we do it in a vague whimsical way, not really expecting to get what we wanted because God is so remote and can't really intervene, but Voodoo followers (who are also Catholic) literally expect an outcome - and force a reply from God. A man giving birth to a baby is not at all distasteful, it's just impossible. But a a woman priest is possibly. The reality is that neither men or women are really being priests in this whole conflict of religious politics and one-upmanship. Priests are irrelevant - we've lost the plot.

AURELIUS | 29 November 2012  

The truth on this much debated matter, has been explained by a Doctor of the Church.Even if some Jesuits believe the ordination of women something logical and just in the eyes of God, they are grossly mistaken.

? | 30 November 2012  

If you read the life of one of the Doctors of the Church via Monica Furlong, you will find that that Doctor of the Church wanted to be a priest all of her short life and talked strongly in some of her writings about only priesthood being good enough. Indeed, many believe that that Doctor of the Church would have laid the foundations for debate inside the Catholic Church for women's ordination, if her life had not been cut short. It's all there, if you think that particular Doctor of the Church is worth reading and has something credible to offer. In my view, we will hear alot more from that Doctor of the Church in coming years, now that the myths about her are being cleared away and we read her again as if for the first time.

??!!! | 02 December 2012  

Some women may say they feel that they have a vocation to the priest hood, now realistically a vocation cannot be minimized to a simple attraction, as let's not forget the words of Christ (John 13:16 and Heb 5:4) " You did not chose me no I chose you I commissioned you." Since the priesthood is a particular ministry of which the Church has received the particular charge and the control, authentication by the Church is indispensable here and the Control, and is a constitutive part of the Vocation: Christ Chose "those he wanted"( Mark 3:13). On the other hand there is a universal vocation of all the baptized to the exercise of the royal priesthood by offering their lives to God and by Giving witness for his praise. Another commonly made error of those in favor of the ordination of women is they say, " if the church wants it could ordain women. Well if the church wanted she could do much like any other so called Christian churches and except what we want and hide the rest. Although to correct this error Our holy father in his apostolic letter ( Ordinatio Sacedotal May 22 1994) stated "the church has no authority what so ever to confer priestly ordination on women and this judgment is to be held by all the churches faithful." Note he was speaking to the Faithful are we not faithful?, then if so he was speaking all of us . Thus why should we be like the Pharisees who after understanding Christ's words wanted to stone him. In Conclusion we should do as the apostle asks of us, that is to stand firm and hold fast to the teachings the Traditions which have been given to us (2 Thess 2:14).

? | 03 December 2012  

The desire to be a priest is neither enough to be a priest nor grounds for rejecting infallible teaching on male priesthood. Even Stalin desired to be a priest - desire is merely one element in vocation to be tested and discerned.

father john george | 13 December 2012  

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