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Rejection of women bishops is not terminal

  • 26 November 2012

There 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