The front pages of British newspapers have all been discussing the decision of the Church of England’s General Synod last Tuesday not to allow women to become bishops. The decision was hailed worldwide by religious conservatives, who see it as a triumph of tradition and an affirmation of “divine order.” On the other hand, it was seen by liberals as a betrayal of women, and of Christianity.
I’m writing about this decision for two reasons. First, it reminds us of the very difficult struggles involving women’s roles in religions, even in a country like England, which is supposed to be very advanced when it comes to women’s rights. Second, the way the events unfolded in the Church of England reminded me of how we’ve been going through the debates on the reproductive health bill, where the majority opinion can be overturned by a small minority, mainly by invoking “divine order” or “natural law.”
First, some background to this General Synod. The Church of England is the mother church of a global Anglican Communion, which includes the Episcopal Church in the Philippines. The members of the Anglican Communion can make many decisions on their own, including allowing women to become bishops. So far, this has been allowed for member-churches in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. The presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church of the United States is a woman, Katharine Jefferts Schori.
In a 1992 synod, the Church of England decided to allow women to become priests. Since then there have been many debates on whether the next step—allowing women clergy to become bishops—could be taken. Earlier this year, 42 of 44 dioceses approved of the proposal to allow women bishops, but a final decision had to be made at the General Synod.
The proposed “Consecration and Ordination of Women Measure” was a compromise, with a provision that would allow a woman bishop to delegate her authority to a male bishop if the parish so wanted it. The compromise was actually backed by many of those who wanted women bishops, but who did not want to see the Church of England divided, given that they have conservative Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals.
The Church of England has a remarkably democratic synod, which shouldn’t be surprising since England gave the world parliaments and parliamentary processes. In the synods, decisions are made by voting in three houses: bishops, clergy and lay people. For a measure to pass, it has to get two-thirds approval in each of the three houses. For this measure on women bishops, the results in the house of bishops were: 44 approving, three against and two abstentions. In the house of clergy, it was 148 for and 45 against. In those two houses, the overwhelming majority, much more than the required two-thirds, was in favor of the measure. But among the laity, the vote was 132 for and 74 against, six votes short of the required two-thirds majority to pass the measure.
More than 100 speeches for and against the measure were delivered at the synod. The British newspaper Guardian had detailed coverage of the whole process, including Twitter messages that were being posted by synod members. (As the synod progressed, they did impose a ban on “twitting” and asked synod members to turn off their cell phones.)
The media’s coverage of the speeches (and “twitting”) showed why people voted the way they did. Those in favor mainly cited equality of men and women, and how important this was for Christianity. The incoming head of the Church of England, Justin Welby, supported the measure and said he hoped at the end of the synod that the world would look at the Church of England and say, “That looks like Jesus Christ.”
The oppositionists mainly argued that there is a “divine order” of men and women, where men are supposed to lead. Men and women, they argued, are complementary, but not equal. To have women bishops would violate biblical teachings, specifically 1 Corinthians 11:3: “But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” Since there was that passage in the Bible, the opposition argued, the Church of England had no authority to decide to allow women to become bishops. On the compromise clause, the opposition said that even if a woman bishop delegated her authority to a male bishop, this still meant acceptance of her decision, and that this, too, ran counter to the Bible.
No wonder Andrew Brown of the Guardian wrote that the whole proceedings were “a ghastly mixture of tedium and bad faith.”
Which I see as well in our debates on the reproductive health bill. The bill’s proponents have agreed to a number of substantial amendments but as we saw last week in a full-page ad of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines, the amendments have been rejected. The bishops argue there is no need for family planning in the first place and that’s that. For years now we’ve heard as well of “natural law,” that we were put in this world to procreate.
Readers’ comments in British newspapers reflected the division within the Church of England but with an added twist coming from observers who wondered why there were even debates of this kind, in this 21st century, where one presumes an equality of men and women.
Ah, but they should come to the Philippines, where that equality is still questioned, where not just women’s rights but basic women’s health remain neglected. Here, too, we are a long way off from talking about women bishops, since women can’t even become priests and decisions in faith-based institutions aren’t made by synods with lay people, priests and bishops voting.
I’m currently reading four volumes of “History of Vatican II” with detailed accounts and analysis of that historic Roman Catholic synod stretching from 1962 to 1965. I learned that despite the Council’s spirit of openness to change, it was not until the third period (or session) that women were invited to participate, and only as “auditors.” Married women were not invited until the fourth and last period, and all throughout the Council, women religious were not permitted to participate at meetings of the… Commission for Religious.
Fast-forward 60 years and we find little progress, with recent events suggesting a crackdown by the Vatican on dissent around women’s issues. Last June, the Vatican rebuked the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States for being too liberal and outspoken with its views on women’s ordination, contraception and homosexuality.
Last week, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith announced that an American, Fr. Roy Bourgeois, had been laicized, meaning he can no longer exercise the functions of a priest. The laicization came shortly after the Maryknoll Fathers decided to remove him from their order, with the Vatican exerting strong pressure for this decision. The sanctions against Bourgeois began in 2008, when he participated in a women’s ordination ceremony and was immediately threatened with excommunication.