Writing about the age of John Milton, the British author A. N. Wilson once tried to explain to modern secular readers that there had once 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 read the news that the General Synod of the Church of England voted yesterday to approve the consecration of women as bishops of the church.
The votes 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, most specifically, from the British government.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said yesterday was "a great day for the Church and for equality." Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said that the vote was a "big moment" and Ed Miliband, leader of the opposition Labor Party said that the vote was "wonderful news."
As for the Archbishop of Canterbury, the church's chief cleric, Archbishop Justin Welby said that the measure adopted Monday 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 mandatory recognition of their episcopal status by all within the Church of England. This will leave conservative 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 of The Guardian [London], one of the most insightful observers of religion in Great Britain, recognized 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 recognized, "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 recognize -- 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 is profoundly right about another aspect of Monday's 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. But the Church of England explicitly claims apostolic succession back to the earliest years of the church, traced through bishops. That is why virtually every major media outlet in Britain acknowledged, at least, that the vote reversed 2,000 years of Christian tradition. They also tended to note that the vote came after 20 years of controversy.
Evidently, 2,000 of 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 laity in the General Synod defeated a similar measure, Britain's head of government pitched a fit. Prime Minister Cameron told Parliament that the Church of England needed "to get with the program." He added, "You have to respect the individual institutions and the way they work, while giving them a sharp prod." A sharp prod, indeed.
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.
Archbishop Rowan Williams, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, responded like a chastened child, acknowledging the Prime Minister's point and stating that "it seems that we are willfully 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. In a rather contradictory statement, she provided a "prod" of her own: "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 members of Parliament threatened to disestablish the church and to 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 about Monday's vote 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 program" 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.
One key question is that raised by A. N. Wilson. 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 London in the early 20th 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.
Ruth Gledhill, "Joy and Relief at Display of Unity for Vote on Ordination of Women Bishops," The Guardian [London], Monday, July 14, 2014. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/14/ordination-of-women-joy-and-relief
Patrick Wintour and Lizzy Davis, "David Cameron: Church of England Should 'Get on with it' on Female Bishops," The Guardian [London], Wednesday, November 21, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/21/david-cameron-church-female-bishops
Aida Edemariam and Lizzy Davis, "Pressure Piles on Church to Vote Again in Female Bishops," The Guardian [London], Friday, November 23, 2012. http://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/nov/23/maria-miller-church-female-bishops