01 December 2012

Holding Anglicanism Together

Some years ago in Brighton I sheltered from a storm in the porch of an enormous Anglican church, locally reputed to have been built to the dimensions of Noah’s Ark. As I marvelled at how the church interior looked indistinguishable from a Catholic church, a lady whispered that girls wouldn’t normally act as servers there.

“We’re an A, B, and C church,” she said, adding, “It means we don’t have women priests, and we stick to the old traditions.” I asked what A, B, and C stood for, and she explained, “Well, it just means that we stick to the old traditions, really. If it’s not broken, why fix it?”

The following day, Anglican friends at a Cambridge theological college explained that ‘A, B, and C’ were resolutions passed by the Church of England’s General Synod in the aftermath of the 1992 decision that women could be ordained to Anglican ministry. The resolutions allowed parochial councils to refuse to have women serve as priests in their parishes and even to request that their pastoral and sacramental care be reserved for a bishop who had never ordained women; parishes whose diocesan bishops had ordained women could seek special ‘flying bishops’ to care for them.

Women clergy
The Church of England’s struggles over women clergy are in a defining phase at the moment, so it seemed apt that the first thing Justin Welby, bishop of Durham, should have posted on Twitter after the Prime Minister’s office announced his selection as the next Archbishop of Canterbury was, “Just heard of protest call to Lambeth at appointment of a woman as ABC. Am spelt Justin, not Justine. No agenda, just a matter of fact.”

That alone signalled that the Eton- and Cambridge-educated erstwhile oil executive would be an archbishop for a soundbite age, possessed of a lightness of touch and a gift for brevity that has often seemed to elude Rowan Williams, whose ruminative and nuanced style has struck many as more suited to academic debate than to ecclesial leadership.

Rowan’s time in office has been marked by divisions over women bishops and gay clergy, such that some have characterised the last decade as a disaster for the Church of England. This seems unfair; Rowan is clearly a brave, intelligent, and genuinely holy man who has made a point of speaking up for Britain’s most vulnerable and engaging seriously with public opponents of Christianity whilst trying to hold together a fractious and disparate Anglican Communion, despite not having any real executive power.

Justin Welby may have more luck, not least because his background makes it difficult to pigeonhole him as a partisan of any particular Anglican faction. An Evangelical by background, Welby worshipped and was a lay leader during the 1980s at Holy Trinity Brompton, mothership of the Alpha Course and totemic headquarters for the most dynamic and youthful movement within the Church of England. His spirituality has broadened since then, however, and nowadays his spiritual director is a Benedictine monk, which should give comfort to those Anglicans of an Anglo-Catholic persuasion.

Welby’s Catholic connections shouldn’t give false hope to those who look forward to a restoration of unity between the Church of England and the Catholic Church any time soon, however. For the last 20 years, ever since Welby was ordained a deacon, the issue of women priests has been an insuperable obstacle to unity, not merely between Canterbury and Rome, but between the Church of England and the various Orthodox Churches.

The debate within the Church of England about women clergy has moved on from whether women can be ordained priests to whether they can be ordained bishops, and though the debate has been acrimonious for some time, Welby has been firm in his support for women bishops. The General Synod, the Church of England’s parliament, votes this week on whether women should be allowed become bishops, and Welby has unambiguously stated that “I will be voting in favour, and join my voice to many others in urging the synod to go forward with this change.”

Although the measure is widely supported within the Church of England, there is no guarantee that this measure shall pass; resolute opponents of the change are not numerous enough to block the proposals in any of three ‘houses’ – bishops, clergy, or laity – of the synod, but it is quite possible that those who believe the bishops’ proposal utterly unacceptable may be have their numbers bolstered by those who believe it hopelessly inadequate.

In July the synod rejected legislation which would have given traditionalist parishes significant exemptions from serving under a woman bishop, similar to the current ‘A,B, and C’ arrangement regarding women priests, notably an allowance for traditionalist parishes to request a male bishop who shared their beliefs about the ordination of women. The proposal would give women bishops more control in selecting ‘flying bishops’ for parishes in their dioceses, and would limit the obligations they would be obliged to respect.

For traditionalists, this goes too far, imposing a vision of the Church upon them which they feel is theologically unsustainable; for liberals, it doesn’t go nearly far enough, enshrining discrimination in the law of the Church. Despite their disagreements, it is all too easy to imagine these groups combining to form the necessary ‘blocking third’ to prevent synod from legislating for this. Should this happen it could be as many as seven years before the issue is voted on again.

Whatever happens, the pragmatic Welby seems prepared for such deep divisions to persist in the Church of England, the Anglican Communion as a whole, and even the general Christian world, saying recently that he did not want Christians to agree with one another, “but to love one another and to demonstrate to the world around us a better way of disagreeing”.

Certainly, Welby seems a man well used to disagreeing in constructive and loving ways. After becoming a canon at Coventry Cathedral in 2002, he became co-director of the International Centre for Reconciliation, helping mediate and build peace in war-torn regions around the world, notably in Africa where he once narrowly avoided being kidnapped. 

Negotiation and conflict resolution skills honed in such dramatic environments could prove invaluable in his new job, and his experience in Africa will give him credibility as he tries to hold the Anglican Communion together.

Henry Kissinger is often said to have asked: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” It might just be that in Justin Welby, the Pope will know exactly who to call if he wants to call the Anglican Communion.

-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 22 November 2012.

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