The Church of England has voted not to ordain women as bishops. At least, not yet. The Church's 'parliament' - the General Synod - has just decided to delay a final decision on the matter until November. Why? Because there was a danger that the Synod might sink the whole women bishop's proposal altogether if they didn't.
Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams speaking at Synod
The background to the crisis is this. Traditionally, the episcopacy has been a 'woman-free zone'. However, in 2000 the Synod agreed to the possibility of ordaining women as bishops and in 2005 voted to remove the legal barriers to this happening. The issue for the Synod now is not whether women can become bishops but how and on what terms.
There are a range of options.
The simplest option is for Synod to pass a law simply saying that women can become bishops. But this is quite unacceptable for opponents. They want the right to be protected from having any dealings with female bishops.
In order to accommodate them, the Synod proposed a set of legally-enforceable guidelines in a 'Code of Practice' which directs a woman bishop to delegate her authority to a male bishop where necessary. The vast majority of Anglican churchgoers up and down the country recently agreed to this proposal by democratic vote.
Last May, however, in a highly controversial move, the bishops amended the proposal making it a legislative requirement for women bishops to place anti-women parishes under the care of a stand-in male bishop who shares their convictions.
This has sparked a fierce counter-reaction. The Bishops have been accused of wanting to enshrine discrimination in the legislation itself and Synod has sent them away to think again.
That the Church should be debating whether or not to ordain women as bishops at all is baffling to the vast majority of non-churchgoers. They are incredulous that in a modern democracy committed to sexual equality and human rights that any of its institutions should discriminate against half the human population in this way. They are incensed that such discrimination should be practised by the Church which has a constitutional role in government (26 of its bishops sit in the House of Lords). They are flummoxed that this should be an issue for the Church of England at all when other Anglican Churches (e.g. USA, Canada, and New Zealand) have successfully had women bishops for decades.
But opponents base their case on theological arguments, rather than modern trends. Though the arguments are complex, they tend to take one of two basic forms.
The first is known as the "male headship" argument and is mainly advanced by conservative evangelicals on the basis of the writings of the New Testament. They contend on the basis of their view of biblical authority that women should not be bishops because it is wrong for them to exercise authority over men and that there are strict limits on women exercising authority in the church.
Is it unity at all costs? Or must unity at some point give way to other important values?
The second is the "impossibility" argument which is mainly argued by those from the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church. They maintain that women cannot be bishops because the episcopacy is by definition male. It is because authority to make bishops ultimately derives from the male Christ and his twelve male apostles that woman as a bishop is a theological impossibility. According to this mind-set, if a woman can't be a true bishop then she can't truly ordain priests, and any priests she does supposedly ordain, can't exercise a truly priestly ministry.
The bishops of the Church of England intervened to change the draft law precisely in order to give opponents who think like this a measure of security.
The current battle in Synod is therefore between the shoulds, the should-nots, and the cannots. And what to outsiders may look like ridiculous, out-dated, irrelevant, theological gymnastics, is really an attempt to balance the values of unity and justice within a squabbling, at times dysfunctional, family, and to reflect that balance in law.
The family analogy is perhaps a good one. At what point, it may be asked, is it right for one (or more) members of the family to exclude another for the sake of a higher principle. Is it unity at all costs? Or must unity at some point give way to other important values, arguably central to the nature and mission of the Church?
This may be a matter of supreme indifference to the vast majority of the population.
But the current travails of the Church are an opportunity to develop a good model of how to disagree well in public and reach a satisfactory solution. Failure to face up to and address these internal challenges will make the Church's mission in the real world all-but-impossible.
- Mark Bratton is a Church of England minister and associate fellow in medical ethics and law at Warwick University