COLUMN - A church divided against itself cannot stand

Tue Nov 27, 2012 1:00pm EST

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By John Lloyd

Nov 27 (Reuters) - The Church of England voted not to ordain female bishops last week, a move widely seen as defying the modern world. Much justification was given for this view.

Both the retiring and the incoming archbishops of Canterbury deplored the vote. The former, the scholarly (and "greatly saddened") Rowan Williams, said, "It seems as if we are willfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of  wider society." The incoming Justin Welby took a more upbeat view, one appropriate for a former senior oil executive. "There is a lot to be done," he said, "but I am absolutely confident that at some point I will consecrate a woman bishop." Still, Welby conceded that the vote was "a pretty grim day for the whole church."

British Prime Minister David Cameron, pausing in the midst of his battle to reduce European Union spending, snapped that the church needed to "get with the program" and that his task was, while respecting its autonomy, to give it a "sharp prod." A succession of clergy, men and women, lamented the decision, some crying demonstratively on the street outside the hall where the synod - the church's parliament - met.

The "victors" were a minority who scraped together a little more than the one-third of votes needed under the gathering's constitution to block the change. The bishops and the clergy in the Synod voted overwhelmingly for gender equality, but the conservatives, the evangelicals and the Anglo-Catholics were stronger among the laity and "won."

Immediately afterward, Ben Bradshaw, a former Labor Culture Secretary, said in the House of Commons that since the church "is established and answerable to Parliament," that body should debate the question of whether it could remain exempt from equality legislation, which if applied would render its decision on women bishops illegal.

The problem, especially for the archbishops, is that scripture sides with the minority. The Old Testament is replete with statements, injunctions and anecdotes that confirm the subaltern status of women. Archbishop Williams implicitly recognized this when discussing the "trends and priorities of wider society." Wider society is one thing, narrow biblical authority another. Note the voice of God, thundering angrily in Genesis 3:16 (Eve had just eaten an apple, as expressly forbidden): "thy desire shall be to thy husband and he shall rule over thee." That takes a lot of exegesis to get round.

This leaves the majority in the synod in a kind of purgatory, wandering between scripture and secular liberalism, unable to fully embrace either. Some at least see the biblical narrative as fables that flesh out a discipline that has stood the test of time and whose central figure, Jesus, is thus worthy to follow because he gives a face to morality. Their problem is that they are yoked to a church in which a large number - most, worldwide - believe the Bible is literal truth.

In the Anglican church's growth areas, the church is militant in its fundamentalism. Nicholas Okoh is the Anglican Primate (or presiding bishop) of Nigeria, where the church has up to 19 million active members. (This is second to England's nominal baptized membership of 26 million, but Nigerian Anglicans go to church and the English ones usually don't.) He believes that "the Christian faith is something which is once and for all delivered to us." His church has sponsored the Convocation of Anglicans in North America, a refuge for those in the United States and Canadian churches who cannot stomach the liberal mainstream in both countries.

Primate Okoh operates as a kind of reverse missionary from a continent partially Christianized by Anglicans in the 19th century. Beyond that, he has pointed to the fundamental weakness in the Church of England in its now threadbare but still extant claim to be the leader of 77 million Anglicans globally. The Church of England, he noted, has as its titular head the Queen, and the archbishop is appointed by the prime minister. "The Anglican communion," he said in a speech, "should be separated from the politics of Great Britain." That's more of an anti-colonial position than a conservative one, and it strikes at the heart of the anomalous status of the church, at once independent of and chained to the state.

It is basic management theory that few things are worse for an organization than uncertainty at the top. For decades the church has lived with uncertainty and division, ambiguity and strife, elements that more or less monopolize its coverage in the news media. In religion, certainty - even if obscurantist, prejudiced or murderous- seems to win. Catholicism is neither prejudiced nor murderous, and it has much internal dissent. Yet at its summit it is certain, as the most recent book by Pope Benedict XVI - "Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives" - shows. Benedict says the answer as to whether or not Jesus was born to a virgin must be "an unequivocal yes" (though he concedes that the three wise men, which secularists might think were more possible, could have been a "theological idea" rather than reality). Matthew and Mark, who wrote two of the four canonical gospels, "didn't want to write 'stories' but history, a real history, even if interpreted and understood," said Benedict.

Others are still more certain. Evangelical Protestants are carving out large congregations in Latin America, Africa and South Asia with their charismatic brand of worship and their iron promise of salvation. Islam, itself caught between moderation and militancy, can in the latter guise present a deadly threat to Christians and others. Primate Okoh's immediate concern is not liberal Christianity but the Islamist Boko Haram group, which is responsible for bloody massacres of Christians in northern Nigeria.

It appears that the church is militant or it trembles; the rock on which it has claimed to stand must be granite or it crumbles. The part of the Anglican communion that has most enthusiastically accepted the "trends and priorities ofwider society" is the North American one, with (in its U.S. guise) a history of independence from Britain and a more recent history of proactive promotion of women's equality. But it, too, is declining. Women's ascent to the House of Bishops, which is, as Archbishop Welby indicates, probably a matter of time rather than doctrine, will not save it from further shrinking. Liberal Christians cannot pretend to square the testaments with what they believe are the truths of science and the liberations of social progress. In that honorable dilemma lies the cause of their slow marginalization.

( John Lloyd co-founded the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, where he is Director of Journalism. Lloyd has written several books, including "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics" (2004). He is also a contributing editor at FT and the founder of FT Magazine. )

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