Dr R. Albert Mohler Jr, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, brings a wider perspective to this vexed subject.
The author A. N. Wilson once tried to explain to modern secular readers that there had been a time when bishops of the Church of England were titanic figures of conviction, who were ready to stand against the culture.
‘It needs an act of supreme historical imagination to be able to recapture an atmosphere in which Anglican bishops might be taken seriously’, he wrote. ‘Still more, one in which they might be thought threatening’.
Keep that in mind as you consider that the General Synod of the Church of England voted this July to approve the consecration of women as bishops of the church.
The vote came less than two years after a similar measure failed to gain the necessary two-thirds vote before the same synod. The election of women as bishops had sailed through the bishops and the clergy, but opposition from lay members of the synod had blocked the measure late in 2012.
What few, even in the British media, are now mentioning is the massive pressure brought upon the church by the larger British culture and, more specifically, from the British government.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said the vote was ‘a great day for the church and for equality’. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the vote was a ‘big moment’ and Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labour Party said the vote was ‘wonderful news’.
Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said that the measure would mark ‘the start of a great adventure of seeking mutual flourishing, while still, in some cases, disagreeing. The challenge for us will be for the church to model good disagreement and to continue to demonstrate love for those who disagree on theological grounds’.
That ‘adventure’ will leave conservative evangelicals in the Church of England increasingly out in the cold, despite all the talk of ‘mutual flourishing’. The measure approved by the synod means that women bishops will be bishops in full, with recognition of their episcopal status mandatory by all within the Church of England.
This will leave conservative Anglican ministers under the authority of bishops they do not actually believe to be bishops in fact. It is hard to imagine ‘mutual flourishing’ in that circumstance.
The measure also called for the appointment of one conservative evangelical male bishop in coming months — which means that the church has just committed itself to appoint a bishop who does not believe that at least some of his colleague bishops will meet the biblical requirements.
This is the kind of compromise that pervades mainline liberal Protestantism. It shifts the church decisively to the left and calls for mutual respect. Conservatives are to be kindly shown the door.
Ruth Gledhill, one of the most insightful observers of religion in Great Britain, writing in The Guardian, recognised the plight of the evangelicals, though she celebrated the vote: ‘In the last 69 episcopal appointments, there have been evangelicals but not a single conservative one’ (in this context, ‘conservative’ means more concerned with doctrinal matters and opposed to a change in the church’s teachings on gender and human sexuality).
But, as Gledhill recognised: ‘This wing of the church is where so much of the energy is, giving rise not just to growth, but also that necessary resource, cash’.
Yes, there is another pattern to recognise — evangelicals have the growth and the cash, just not the votes. The talk about mutual flourishing is really an argument to remain in the church and keep paying the bills.
Ruth Gledhill was profoundly right about another aspect of the vote as well. It won’t stop with women bishops. ‘Now the church can move into the 20th century, although perhaps not the 21st, she wrote. ‘A change on gay marriage would be needed to do that’.
Well, stay tuned, as they say! The same church now has bishops living and teaching in open defiance of the church’s law on sexuality as well.
There is a very real sense in which Monday’s vote was inevitable. Once the church had decided to ordain women as priests, the elevation of women to bishop was only a matter of time. Two thousand years of tradition was no match for 20 years of controversy.
And much of that controversy was driven by cultural and political forces. Back in November 2012, when the laity in the General Synod defeated a similar measure, Prime Minister Cameron told Parliament, ‘I think it’s important for the Church of England to be a modern church in touch with society as it is today and this was a key step it needed to take’.
There is the modern secular imperative with its teeth bared: ‘Be a modern church in touch with society as it is today, or look out!’
Then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams responded like a chastened child, stating that, ‘It seems that we are wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that larger society’. There was no mention of obedience to Scripture.
Maria Miller, the British government’s minister for equalities, openly threatened the church: ‘Obviously, it’s for the Church of England to run its own procedures and processes, but I hope that they have heard, loud and clear, the strength of feeling on this, and that it acts quickly’.
Some MPs threatened to disestablish the church and remove its bishops from the House of Lords. There can be no doubt that the refusal to elect women as bishops put the church far out of line with Britain’s secular culture — now one of the most secular societies on the planet.
There are a great many issues of importance in this situation. These include the very idea of a state church (much less, a state church in a hyper-secular society), the definition and role of bishops, the role of women in the church, the importance of doctrinal tradition, and, most of all, the authority of Scripture and the integrity of the Christian faith.
But the public conversation after the vote for women bishops reveals issues of urgency and importance that go far beyond Britain and the Church of England. The Prime Minister’s command that the church ‘get with the programme’ and ‘be a modern church in touch with society as it is today’ is a command that is now addressed in every modern culture to every church.
A. N. Wilson raised a key question: can we even envision a day when Christian leaders might be taken seriously as committed to biblical Christianity? Or, to use his very words, ‘still more, one in which they might be thought threatening?’ If not, Christianity in the West will continue its slide into compromise and eventual surrender.
The Very Rev. William Ralph Inge, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in the early twentieth century, once famously remarked: ‘Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next’. Now, that is a word from an Anglican we all need to hear!
© R. Albert Mohler Jr
This article is edited from